Uruguay: Mujica’s first term
by Jack Reynolds
José Mujica began his presidency in a whirlwind of action. Even before his inauguration speech, he had begun to address the significant issues which he believed Uruguayfaced. The combination of reaching an agreement with Argentina over a disputed pulp mill on the Uruguay River and the overspill effect of the national team’s fantastic World Cup success saw him achieving high levels of popularity in the early months of his presidency. Today, however, the picture looks less promising as his support levels drop amid a climate of general disappointment with a lack of noticeable gains.
The biggest problem for Mujica is that he is increasingly characterised as a figure who talks a lot but does very little. Opposition figures deride him for acting like a candidate on the campaign trail, rather than a president who actually does things. In particular, there is a sense of disillusionment with the government’s inability to achieve any significant progress on the three major issues of security, housing, and education.
Security concerns remain the major worry amongst a population fearing that some areas of Montevideo increasingly resemble Brazil’s notorious favelas. Housing shortages have barely been addressed. And the quality of public education remains far below the level that would be expected of a country as developed as Uruguay. The lack of any substantial achievements in these areas is badly impacting on the popularity of the Mujica government.
However, the situation isn’t entirely bleak for the president. On the one hand, as even his most trenchant critics argue, the Uruguayan economy has thrived over the past year with high growth and record low levels of unemployment. And on the other hand, the slow pace at which significant reforms have moved under the government may provide the impetus needed to allow for a long delayed reform of the state. The idea of making the Uruguayan state ‘more efficient and less costly for citizens’ has been spoken of for some time but big reform has proven difficult to achieve. Mujica, in his annual speech to Congress, described this reform of the state as the ‘mother of all reforms’.
For the time being, therefore, it appears too early to reach a definite verdict on Mujica’s presidency. He has made very few mistakes and has achieved a number of notable successes, particularly with regards to the marked improvement in relations with Argentina. At the same time, as he himself admits, there remains an awful lot to be done. It was a first year of caution and promises of more to come. For the most part, this caution enabled Mujica to maintain the successes of his predecessor without achieving anything spectacular. However, the overall message is clear — the time for promises has finished; the time for concrete achievements has arrived.