Uruguay Inaugurates Mujica: Life after Vázquez

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• Mujica to elevate foreign policy as main driver of his presidency
• Big domestic areas have been dealt with by Vázquez and now Mujica

On March 1st, José “Pepe” Mujica, former guerilla and today social democrat and leader of the Frente Amplio (Broad Front-FA) political coalition, was inaugurated as President of Uruguay. The 74-year-old former Agriculture Minister triumphed in last November’s election with 52 % of the vote. The previous president and moderate Tabaré Vázquez of the FA became Uruguay’s first avowedly socialist leader and made a number of progressive changes to help improve the lot of the poorer segments of the population within the small nation. Now, the question is whether or not Mujica will dramatically change or follow the path of the previous administration; so far, Mujica has demonstrated his allegiance to Vázquez’s approach to governance. While Vázquez preeminently concerned himself with domestic affairs, Mujica, up until now, has displayed a distinct flair for foreign policy initiatives.

Though both were active figures within FA, a political alliance that is becoming increasingly progressive in its political make-up, Mujica is not expected to veer too far from his New Deal-like orientation toward his Venezuelan counterpart, Hugo Chávez. Rather, they both have displayed a distinct predilection to emulate President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, as well as tap into the economic clout represented by their Brazilian neighbor. According to Alfredo Garcé of the University of the Republic in Montevideo, Mujica will follow “the model of Lula. To win the elections [in Brazil] he put on an Armani suit and said he wanted a government of the left but moderate to permit a political economy respectful of capitalism.”

Similarly, Mujica hopes to rid his country of much of its extreme poverty, as well as focus on neglected rural areas, along with strengthening the private sector, increase wealth and attract investment to the country. Progressives are hoping that Mujica will continue implementing social and economic projects that are comparable to those of Vázquez, as Mujica has pledged, and that he does not stray too far from his campaign platform.
Mujica will be prone to reach out to other area governments and elected Latin American leaders, as many of them face the same challenges. Like him, they will be meeting these issues with their social ideals derived from their reformist creed. It is no wonder why a number of the regional countries, some of which suffer from one of the worst inequalities in terms of a distorted distribution of wealth, would lean toward more leftist and populist solutions. These parties have attempted to alter the fate of their citizens through increased social spending and a rebalancing of the nation’s public and private sectors.

Tupamaros and Economic and Political History

It is almost a poetic outcome that Mujica was elected president of the country that imprisoned him for 14 years after the successful right-wing military coup of 1973, against which he fought as a member of the Movimiento de Liberación Nacional (the Tupamaros). The guerrilla group had taken up arms in the cause of social justice, achieving their goals by means of political kidnappings, urban bombings and similar acts of coercion. The group worked to promote its ends by pushing for positive social change. Mujica spoke out against the country’s increasingly restrictive government that would soon evolve into a fully realized dictatorship, eventually being responsible for human rights violations and a mounting number of disappearances within Uruguay. It was not until the 2004 presidential election, which Vázquez handily won, that the doors opened for a new bold political direction in this small southern cone country to be found in South America.

During the 1960s, Uruguay had achieved significant growth and rising prosperity. It also experienced an escalated respect for civil liberties and a further strengthening of its welfare state. However, the eventual decline in the nation’s primary exports of wool and beef initiated the deterioration of its state economy and a precipitous increase in its inflation rate, along with devastating unemployment figures. These dismal indicators were accompanied by soaring incidents of corruption among Uruguay’s overblown state bureaucracy (the state employed one in five of all Uruguayans).

The Tupamaros were largely formed in the 1960s by middle-class, well-educated, radical youth who believed in political and social change and came from unions and student groups. The guerrilla group organized in order to alleviate the country’s profound economic and political malaise, as well as to cry out against the highly bureaucratic state machinery. The economy continued to decline throughout the 1960s, and by 1968 Uruguayan authorities declared the country to be in a state of emergency. In the following years, the increasingly authoritarian government struggled with corruption and failed to improve the economy, which later led to the creation of a popular FA coalition, whose ideologies in part coincided with those of the Tupamaros. However, the Tupamaro’s murder of Dan Mitrione, a United States police trainer with alleged CIA connections, who was present in Uruguay at this time, caused a national rejection of the FA party and the Tupamaros by a majority of Uruguayans, who had previously supported the movement.

Then, in 1973, President Juan María Bordaberry declared a state of internal war due to the country’s economic decline. Bordaberry, a right wing, civilian-elected leader who later presided over a military rule, was only recently sentenced to 30 years in prison for violations of the constitution during his dictatorship. While in office he increased the spending on the previously neglected military from 1 % of the national budget to over 26 %. Over the next decade, Uruguayan leftists were severely suppressed through arrests and disappearances and soon were sufficiently decimated and did not represent a formidable political force until the election of Tabaré Vázquez in 2005, at which time the FA was solely a political rather than military force.

One Montevideo resident recently observed that, “A lot of people died and went to jail in the seventies to win what the FA has today.” The civilian-military regime that originated in 1973 managed to profoundly scare the nation with its abuses, repression and human rights violations. After the Bordaberry dictatorship ended in 1984, Uruguayan leaders have since struggled to alleviate the trauma and historical pain resulting from dictatorial rule.

Vázquez: His Presidency and Legacy

Former President Tabaré Vázquez revitalized Uruguay after the economy of the country chronically underperformed and the country’s inflation rate was seldom stable, with an exchange rate of 24.479 Uruguayan pesos to one US dollar in 2005. The nation, just before its 2004 election suffered severely from the Argentine financial crisis of the late 1990s and early 2000s. This was because Uruguay normally is “overly dependent on Argentina in terms of trade, tourism, on-resident bank deposits, and investments in agriculture and real estate.” In 2002, President Jorge Batlle battled the largest economic crisis in Uruguay’s recent history, leading to increased and drastic emigration, which was also evident during the dictatorships of Juan María Bordaberry (1972-1976) and Gregorio Álvarez (1981-1985). During this period, the nation’s youth streamed out of the country in pursuit of career opportunities and improved living standards, which eliminated in effect, a whole generation of Uruguay’s work force. As a result, in the early 1970s, at the beginning of the era of military rule, around 12 % of the total Uruguayan population and 20 % of its economically active workforce was living abroad. Many more followed after the government began oppressing the nation’s academics and its leftist thinkers.

When Vázquez was elected he gave a voice to the people, one that had been denied during the 12 years of dictatorships that had plagued the country last century even though, Presidents Sanguinetti (1985-1990) and Lacalle (1990-1995) had introduced executed major economic reforms that stimulated the nation after more than a decade of dictatorial rule). According to one schoolteacher in the country’s capital of Montevideo, “Now the people will have more opportunities to participate in the government … the FA makes people feel more connected, so more people become involved.”

In a recent conference held at Washington’s Woodrow Wilson Center on April 19th with former President Vázquez, he declared that there must be greater dialogue between the government and Uruguay’s people in regards to the social movements now being manifested in the country, and today’s focus should be the “época de concretar cambios,” (time to realize changes) because to him, the basis of a strong state is built on constructive social changes. Uruguay, along with other Latin American countries, according to Augusto de la Torre, the World Bank Chief Economist for Latin America and the Caribbean, did not suffer from the global economic crisis on the same scale as many other countries. However, in regards to the country, there is a lack of sustainable growth even though unemployment has witnessed decline and wages have remained strong. De la Torre concludes that growth is stagnating: “countries have low expectations because they look too much to the past and are unable to mobilize strong savings or investments.” That is not to say that Uruguay has not seen many improvements, prompted by social reforms, which Vázquez believes are the “núcleo de desarrollo.” Improved institutions and macroeconomic reforms have stimulated growth beyond that of several of Uruguay’s neighbors.

During the Vázquez presidency, there were significant economic accomplishments: the per capita GDP rose from $6,000 per year to $9,000 per year; growth averaged 7 % per year, and unemployment steadily decreased from about 13 % before 2005 to 6.4 % in 2009, the lowest since record keeping began.

Vázquez appointed a balanced cabinet in order to provide the country with a formula that took both the right and the left into account. At the Wilson Center meeting, Vázquez stated that a strong nation, no matter if one is on the left or on the right, needs the confidence of its citizens and the ability to speak out to the population. Showing a willingness to take an alternate path than the one taken by Chávez, Vázquez selected Danilo Astori a former leftist-turned-neo-liberal militant to be his Minister of Economy and Finances. This pleased the right and ensured an orthodox free-market economy with relatively little state interference as well as bolstered international economic ties.

In regards to bi-national relations with Argentina, it is vital for Mujica not only to maintain close ties with Buenos Aires, but also to look to what is described as “the real anchor in the region:” Brazil. Both relationships are crucial to perpetuating the Mercosur trade agreement in good stead. As a cardinal principle, Vázquez also went out of his way to sustain good ties with the United States, along with other left-leaning administrations of Latin America. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been in contact with both Vázquez and Mujica (she was present at the latter’s March 1st inauguration) and is working to strengthen ties with Montevideo. At a time when nuclear issues have resurfaced as a major topic of discussion, due to the recent nuclear summit in Washington and in a region where President Chávez remains an influential economic and political factor, it is important for the United States to maintain close ties to a democratic, leftist-leaning government in Uruguay. Secretary of State Clinton let it be known that:

We hope to build on the strong foundation that President Vázquez has left, because it has demonstrated that Uruguay can make great progress against the odds, given the economic downturn, and can bring the people of the country together to decrease poverty and increase social justice.

At a September 2009 meeting between Vázquez and Clinton, when asked about the nuclear threat in Latin America, Vázquez answered that Uruguay was against the development of such weapons and an arms race in South America, because there are clearly other aspects which regional governments must focus their attention, resources and wealth, especially because the region has some of the worst indexes of distribution of wealth in the world.

However, statistics do show that populist administrations like Venezuela’s have, in fact, registered considerable reduction in extreme poverty as well as in distributions of wealth. For example, based on information compiled by SEDLAC (CEDLAS and the World Bank), from 2003-2006, in populist countries such as Venezuela and Argentina, the annual percentage changes in extreme poverty were -19.2 % and -19.6 % respectively, whereas, in social democratic countries like Uruguay and Brazil, the annual percentages of extreme poverty were -9.8 % and -9.6 %. Both, in conclusion, have been able to alter extensively the inadequate distribution of wealth in their countries as well as aid the many people who live in extreme poverty.

In the aforementioned meeting with Secretary of State Clinton, Vázquez went on to say that the governments of South America should devote more financing to provide better health care, education for children, education to prevent diseases and better housing for the populace. These social reforms represent a significant part of the Vázquez legacy and will aid Mujica and the FA in bringing his fight to the countryside, with the eradication of extreme poverty, as well as lessening the disparities of wealth. Today, in Latin America, there remains in general, an uprising against poverty, aided by a number of social democratic and populist leaders having been elected into office. This is a unique and new trend for the region, which are serving to assist and benefit the majority of a population after it has faced decades of dictatorships, economic downturn and unjust governments.

Mujica Policies and Presidency: What is to come?

Former President Vázquez referred to Mujica as a man who “speaks the language of the people, of the poor, of the needy.” Mujica is from the countryside, where only 7 % of Uruguayans reside. The rural population faces great neglect and much greater hardships beyond those of the urban population, which receives more attention and aid from the government. According to a neighbor of Mujica, “He’s just an ordinary guy … he’s going to strengthen the focus on the poor, giving them a helping hand.”

Furthermore, Vázquez has set a high standard of achievement through delivering social and economic reforms to the growing Uruguayan state, and Mujica can attribute his election to the well-ordered domestic economy prepared for him by the former president. According to Arturo Porzecanski, a distinguished economist-in-residence at American University, “Mujica only had to promise [a sense of] continuity [for the country], and to not “rock the boat.” On that note, Danilo Astori the former finance minister under Tabaré Vázquez, is now Mujica’s new vice president, which shows that Mujica does not seem to be looking to change the successful economic policies of the previous administration. Also appointed to his cabinet are two former jailed guerrillas: Luis Rosadilla as the Minister of Defense, and Eduardo Bonomi as the Minister of the Interior.

One of the first issues passed on to Mujica from the Vázquez administration has been the long-burning dispute over the Botnia pulp mill, located on the Uruguay River, that allegedly has caused environmental damage to Argentina. The April 20th verdict of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague scolded Uruguay for not presenting the information of plan to construct the project to Argentina, but did not call for the mill to be dismantled. While the agreement left many Argentinean activists sorely upset, Argentine President Cristina Kirchner and President Mujica agreed to work together on the issue and, according to National Public Radio, Kirchner had nothing but good things to say about the Uruguayan president. While the mill and river dispute raises greater questions about contamination in the Rio Guayleguachu, Rio Uruguay, Rio Salto and Rio Paysandu ranging from Brazil to Argentina, the relationship between the two countries has not been fatally undermined even though activists and environmentalists on both sides of the border are furious over the court’s recent ruling.

Regardless of the pulp mill issue, it is crucial, as Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer Fulton Armstrong said in an interview with COHA, for a small country like Uruguay to remain close to both of its much larger surrounding counterparts (i.e. Brazil and Argentina). Mujica’s ability to restore strong ties with Argentina was the first step he needed to take as president, and now he can focus on his campaign pledges for Uruguay.

According to an article written by Benjamin Dangl and published at Upside Down World, “Among other campaign platforms, Mujica has promised to focus on the construction of new housing projects for the country’s poor, reactivate the country’s train grid, expand the access and quality of education, and participate actively in regional integration with other South America[n]” countries and attract investment. Following policies previously initiated other by countries such as Chile, Brazil and Venezuela, Mujica is pledged to lessen the gap between rich and poor while reducing the number of those who live on an income of less than $1.25 a day (the poverty line as defined by the World Bank), while maintaining Uruguay’s steady growth. As Mujica sees it, the Vázquez presidency serves as a stepping-stone for where he wants to lead the country, in order to further strengthen the growing economy, while continuing with the social policies that have surged since 2005.