March 1st 2005, marked a huge political change in one of South America’s smallest countries. Uruguay welcomed its new president Tabare Vasquez, leader of the ‘Frente Amplio,’ at the parliament house in Montevideo in front of tens of thousands of supporters. Vasquez is the first left wing president to lead the country which has been governed by ‘neo-liberal’ governments since the early nineties.
The new president’s main aim is to rehabilitate Uruguay, which is still suffering from an economic recession which in 2002 brought the country to its knees. Vasquez’s main priorities are tackling poverty, the ever increasing unemployment rate in the country, human rights, and helping to develop a progressive trade block in Latin America. He has promised to "work tirelessly for the prosperity of the Uruguayan people"
Although Vasquez claims that he is going to do the best for Uruguay, the change in government has left many citizens concerned about how his term will affect the country. Almost 52% of the voters believe it was the right choice while the remaining residents believe it could lead to the country’s most brutal downfall.
Uruguay’s most popular newspaper El Pais states, "The presidency of Dr. Vazquez has created new hope for many, but doubt and suspicion for others. We sincerely hope that the passage of time proves the former right and not the latter".
Many Uruguayans are weary of political parties in their country that have continually let the people down over the years, especially since the ongoing problems associated with the neo-liberal parties of the past.
Danilo Fiori, a computer technician working in Montevideo explains, "I think choosing Vasquez was the best option because for once it is a completely different change in government. It is not repeating what previous governments have done and it is something new for the country. During almost the entire political history of Uruguay the same political parties have been chosen, and this is the first time a non-traditional party has won. I think it is great that the government from the left has won for once".
Ben Dangl, editor of political website ‘Upside Down World’ is also in favour of the choice, "I think Vasquez was the best choice for President. For most of Uruguay’s history since Independence from Spain, right wingers have been in office. Vasquez’s victory is a huge breakthrough for leftists in the country, particularly the ‘Frente Amplio’ political party, which has been fighting tooth and nail for such a victory for decades."
Uruguay’s 2002 economic crisis has shaped the country’s current reality. Almost 10% of the citizens have left the country in the last few years so they could find work elsewhere. By 2003, the effects of the crisis had left around 30% of Uruguay’s population in poverty. The unemployment rate has now risen to 15%, one of the highest in South America and the worst in Uruguay’s history.
Of late, the situation has become much worse in a country that only ten years ago had the highest standard of living on the continent. Danilo states, "Ten years back Uruguay was very well economically, there were much less poor people compared to now. I think in the mid nineties things began to change with the introduction of the neo-liberal government. I think these changes culminated in the crisis we experienced in 2002."
Another problem that seems to have been brought by the neo-liberal governments is the recess in production. Economic activity is rapidly decreasing every year. Since 1990 the Uruguayan economy has shrunk by over 20%. This is a huge problem that needs to be improved urgently as the crisis has left much of the population unsure if it is worth investing in business or not.
Danilo states, "Since the crisis in 2002 the country has been in a mess. At-least now the country is more stable and the Uruguayan people are beginning to invest a little more, they are slowly starting to buy houses again and thinking about their futures. So far there hasn’t been much change since the introduction of the new government but the country is more stable and the people are optimistic that things will get better."
Uruguay’s foreign direct investment stands at only 1%, this being below neighbouring countries Argentina and Brazil with 2.6% and Chile with almost 6%.
President Vasquez hopes to improve the relationship between Uruguay and other countries around the world, especially those in South America. Since his takeover in March he has signed deals with the Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez to exchange Uruguayan food products for oil, something that may benefit the country. He also has reopened trade negotiations with Cuba, and is hoping to open doors with as many other countries as possible, in order to help the Uruguayan economy.
An important strategy of the new government is to work on creating stronger ties between the MERCOSUR trade bloc that includes bordering countries Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.
President Vasquez especially stresses the need to implement new policies in regards to the heavy debt the country has. Uruguay’s total foreign debt is higher than their total gross domestic product. This fact underlies the huge problem the country is facing, and the huge pressure on President Vasquez’s shoulders.
Eduardo Lorier, Senator of the Frente Amplio explains, "We do not expect any miracles regarding our foreign debt, but we are using tactics to stabilise it. In the last couple of months we have signed trade agreements with several nations on the continent, and are hoping to establish greater ties, especially in relation to the exchange of goods and services. We believe in order to tackle our foreign debt the production and exportation of goods is vital".
The leftist government hopes to improve the quality of life of those people living in extreme poverty. This number is estimated at around 100,000 people, but when you look at the size of the population that is just 3.4 million it makes up quite a large proportion. President Vasquez intends to implement a strategy to tackle this problem with a budget of $100,000,000 dollars that will be used in part to improve healthcare and education in the country.
Some hope that new business investments in Uruguay will create more jobs in the country. As is the case in most South American countries the inequality between the rich and the poor are huge, and Vasquez intends to minimize this divide. "It’s not enough to have economic growth," the new president said. "You have to distribute wealth throughout all of society".
In regards to inequalities Eduardo explains, "The problem with the classes is that wealthy Uruguayans are in an ideal situation. In the past it was very common that business owners would hire all the staff they deemed necessary, and would pay them extremely poor wages. This is exactly what we are hoping to crack down on, as all Uruguayans need to be treated fairly, whether they are wealthy or not.
"The biggest problem is that there has not been a set regulation or consistent minimum wage," Eduardo continued. "For the last ten years the government has not adjusted workers wages to match the cost of living, something that has had an enormous effect on most Uruguayans. Former governments have always favoured the wealthy people, but we are trying to change this."
Ben Dangl explains how he thinks inequalities can be improved by the Frente Amplio.
"It can be improved by distributing wealth more evenly and creating equal opportunities for all people through living wages, stronger educational institutions, jobs, and cheap health care, some of the building blocks for a more egalitarian society".
President Vasquez’s coalition includes many former guerrilla leaders, such as the new Minister of Agriculture, Pepe Mujica, who was an active member of the "Tupamaro" leftist group in the 1970s.
When asked if he thinks the new government contains socialist elements Danilo states, "Yes, it is a party that has many socialist characteristics. I am not sure if it will change the structure of Uruguayan politics, but it will definitely help the poor who will have more opportunities to find work. The change in government has given the people some hope".
In reference to the same issue Ben Dangl says, "I think that many of his principles, and that of his party, are based in socialist ideals. This is a good thing. Capitalist policies and the corporate interests of the first world have been pillaging the region for centuries. Anything that moves towards fair trade over free trade and helping the poorest sectors of society over the country’s elite is a step in the right direction".
President Vasquez is also to move ahead in the area of human rights, a part of Uruguayan society, much of the country has been ignoring. In the 1970’s, when Uruguay was governed by a military dictatorshop, many "leftists" were tortured and kidnapped; thousands were never seen again by their families.
Vasquez intends to spearhead investigations into the fate of those that disappeared during the military regime.
Eduardo Lorier explains, "What has been done has been done, the government will not be able to change anything, but the people should have the right to know what was done to their sons, fathers and brothers. For many years former governments hid things and lied to the people, but we are trying to help them find out exactly what happened to their relatives so we can finally put an end to this issue. Our government will help the people find the truth."
It seems that Uruguay’s new ‘leftist’ government is hoping to fulfil all the promises given to the Uruguayan people. Those people in extreme poverty should especially benefit from the new government that has given the Uruguayan people some hope.
Under the direction of the traditional neo-liberal parties, the standard of living in Uruguay has worsened significantly, and it seems to make sense that the people right gave the left Frente Amplio party a chance.
With the implementation of new government’s policies, many citizens are hopeful that the country’s situation will improve. Only time can tell if the new government is successful or not.
Greg Sica is an Australian writer currently working in Uruguay.