Development & Aid, Economy & Trade, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

URUGUAY: New President Aims for Leap in Development

Diana Cariboni *

MONTEVIDEO, Mar 1 2010 (IPS) - “I’ve been crying (tears of joy) since yesterday. It’s amazing to see how an ordinary person made it so far,” said 44-year-old María del Rosario Corbo, referring to Uruguay’s new President José “Pepe” Mujica, who was sworn in Monday at the head of this South American country’s second leftist administration.

President José Mujica and Vice President Danilo Astori leaving the legislative palace. Credit: Julieta Sokolowicz/IPS

President José Mujica and Vice President Danilo Astori leaving the legislative palace. Credit: Julieta Sokolowicz/IPS

“I work next door to his farm, I’m a catechism teacher at a school. He’s just an ordinary guy: you see him on his bike, his motorcycle, working among his flowers,” she added, wrapped in a flag with the colours of the governing left-wing Broad Front coalition – red, blue and white. “He’s going to strengthen the focus on the poor, giving them a helping hand.”

The press worldwide has made much of Mujica’s past as a former guerrilla fighter who spent over a decade in prison in extremely inhumane conditions during Uruguay’s 1973-1985 military dictatorship and who grows cut flowers on a small farm on the outskirts of the capital with his wife, Senator Lucía Topolansky, another former Tupamaro guerrilla.

Observers also highlight his colourful, blunt-spoken nature and colloquial language. But despite the major contrast of his personality with that of his quiet-spoken, circumspect predecessor, a socialist practicing oncologist Tabaré Vázquez (2005-2010), the 74-year-old Mujica’s policy proposals point to continuity more than anything else.

That was once again reflected in the two speeches he gave Monday, the first in the legislature, when his wife, the president of the Senate, swore him in, and later in the huge Plaza Independencia square, when he received the presidential sash from Vázquez in a ceremony attended by 1,300 international guests as well as a crowd of thousands who lined the streets on the warm, sunny southern hemisphere summer afternoon.

But while this small country of 3.4 million people between South American giants Argentina and Brazil weathered the global economic crisis relatively unscathed, and quickly returned to healthy growth levels, the new Broad Front government has set itself big challenges.

The poverty rate shrank from a record high of 32 percent in 2004 – in the wake of neighbouring Argentina’s 2002 economic collapse and Uruguay’s own unprecedented economic crisis of 2002-2003 – to under 21 percent today, while the proportion of people living in extreme poverty has been slashed to less than two percent.

It should not be a herculean task for this country, described by Mujica as “a small company” or “a large village” with abundant natural wealth, which has always been “the most egalitarian country in the region,” to achieve a high degree of development “with justice for everyone,” said the new president.

But despite the drop in poverty, the significant rise in salaries in sectors like education and the police, and in-depth tax and health reforms, the gap between rich and poor did not actually narrow in the Broad Front’s first five years in office.

Nevertheless, Uruguay is one of the countries in Latin America with the most equal distribution of wealth, according to the World Bank.

The new government’s aim, Mujica said, is to “do away with indigence (extreme poverty), reduce poverty by 50 percent, and expand knowledge and culture to everyone, especially in the neglected and segregated interior,” a reference to rural areas. (In Uruguay, 93 percent of the population is urban.)

Shortcomings in the educational system are among the biggest hurdles standing in the way of that projected leap in development, say authorities and experts in this country with an ageing population, where half of all children are still born into poverty.

“The way to achieve it is negotiable, but not the direction itself,” said Mujica. Earlier, in the legislative palace, he warned political leaders and the country’s influential trade unions that everyone together “will have to decide what we say ‘no’ to in order to say ‘yes’ to education.”

The climate of harmony with visiting leaders from neighbouring countries was felt in the new president’s warm words and the loud applause and cheers from the public.

Presidents Cristina Fernández of Argentina, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil, Evo Morales of Bolivia, Álvaro Uribe of Colombia, Rafael Correa of Ecuador, Fernando Lugo of Paraguay and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, along with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton attended Mujica’s swearing-in ceremonies.

But in outlining his vision, the new president, a former senator and agriculture minister, marked a difference with the path taken by some other leftist governments.

“I haven’t stopped dreaming about a society where what is ‘yours’ and what is ‘mine’ doesn’t separate us,” he said. “But it’s no small thing to have the freedom to dissent, to respect each other, and to expand knowledge and awareness.”

He insisted on the need for a constant influx of new blood in government, and said the keys to his policies will be cooperation and negotiation with the opposition and the various sectors of society.

Mujica also mentioned the economic principles that his vice president, Danilo Astori, embraced as economy minister under Vázquez: sound macroeconomics, the need to generate wealth and draw investment, and guarantees for the private sector.

“Mujica says his government will be more like Lula’s than the administrations of Evo Morales or Chávez. Basically, Mujica himself sees the differences clearly,” said Juan Andrés Moraes, assistant professor in the political science department of the University of the Republic.

“Uruguay is in a different place than the governments of Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua,” Moraes told IPS.

Mujica was explicit: because of changes brought about by globalisation, consumerism and culture, society “has infinite material demands” while financial resources are “finite.”

For that reason, it is “useless to try to even things out from the top down.”

“No one is going to give us prosperity for free, so if we don’t multiply wealth, anything we have said is just blah, blah, blah,” said the new president.

But while one part of society benefits immediately from growing prosperity, “there is another world that, because of marginalisation or cultural lag, could fall by the wayside,” he warned, vindicating the role of the state in combating that phenomenon.

While Mujica said his first priority is “education, education, education,” other pressing issues he mentioned are a reform of the state, whose red tape is seen as a curb on development, and improvements in public safety, which has worsened, at least partly due to a rise in the use of a deadly cheap form of cocaine similar to crack – although Uruguay is still one of the safest countries in the hemisphere.

Partying in the streets

With the colours of the Broad Front painted on her face, and carrying a sign with the photos of Mujica, Astori and Vázquez, María Marichal, a 48-year-old cleaning woman, summed up her enthusiasm in a few short words: “I have faith in Pepe.”

She formed part of the crowd gathered in the midday heat outside the legislative palace to cheer the new president.

The beating sun was no obstacle for architects Valeria, 31, and Álvaro, 30, to bring their two-year-old son Manuel along in his stroller. “Under Mujica, there will be continuity with the government that’s ending, and some aspects will improve, like production,” Valeria told IPS.

“He’ll keep focusing on social aspects, and not just economic development,” Álvaro added.

Matilde, Elisa and Mariana, three social science students between the ages of 18 and 19, were born in democracy and voted for the first time in 2009. Along with other friends wearing white t-shirts bearing the Uruguayan flag and the names “Pepe” and “Danilo”, they formed part of the group of Broad Front volunteers providing security during the inaugural ceremonies.

The Mujica administration will “renew the Broad Front’s commitment to Uruguayan society,” Matilde told IPS.

A moment of sadness amidst the joy came from a demonstration by families of the victims of forced disappearance.

“I’m not very hopeful” that the new government will make progress in investigating the fate of the “disappeared,” Luisa Cuesta, whose only son, Nebio Ariel Melo Cuesta, was kidnapped in 1976 at the age of 31, told IPS.

The Vázquez administration launched a campaign to find the remains of the 26 Uruguayans who were “disappeared” in this country during the de facto regime and presumably buried on the grounds of military installations, out of a total 200 Uruguayans who suffered the same fate, most of them in Argentina during that country’s 1976-1983 dictatorship.

So far the remains of just two victims have been found and identified. Last year, a referendum to repeal an amnesty law for human rights violators approved by voters in 1989 failed to win the necessary number of votes.

But although the amnesty law remains in place, nearly 20 members of the military regime are in prison facing trial. * With additional reporting by Julieta Sokolowicz

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