Uruguay Political Reviews
After 12 years of left-wing reigns, Uruguay is a social political role model in Latin America. However, economic stagnation and unresolved challenges can create problems for further progress.
Tabaré Vazquez took over the presidency of José Mujica in March 2015, thus continuing Frente Amplio’s ten-year reign in Uruguay. The party has stood out by being the only left-wing government in Latin America that has combined a liberal social policy with a market-friendly economic policy. They have done this without neglecting one of the region’s most well-developed welfare states. This combination has given Frente Amplio a good reputation both regionally and internationally.
José Mujica’s reign (2010-2015) has made Uruguay known internationally, and the country is now known to more than just football and meat lovers. Mujica’s fascinating personal history. From a young political activist to a soldier in the Tupamaros guerrilla, to a parliamentarian and finally president. An unconventional politician in every way, with a direct and honest language, combined with an image like a man who prefers simple life. He donated almost his entire salary to charity and rejected all special treatment offered by politicians. Throughout the presidential term, he continued to live in his simple house outside the capital, leaving the presidential car in favor of his old Volkswagen bubble. The popularity became international after the speech he gave at the UN General Assembly on September 24, 2013.
Despite Mujica’s discourse, it is obvious that a social and moral revolution did not take place in Uruguay during his reign: Real politics is much more contradictory than speeches. He did not always reach agreement in society, and sometimes not in his own party. This affected his ability to make an impact on his political agenda. Some of the plans he put forward did not achieve the desired success, such as in housing or education policy.
Nor did Mujica succeed in his work with civil society organizations and human rights. At the end of the period there were several major confrontations between some of these organizations and Defense Minister Eleuteiro Huidobro, who is also a former member of the Tupamaros guerrilla. The reason for this is accusations that the government has not done enough to resolve the immunity situation for those involved in state terrorism and the search for those injured from the military regime’s time. In addition, there are still major problems in the prison system and care institutions for minors.
This wear and tear does not appear to have affected the preferences of Uruguayan voters, who on October 26, 2014 gave Frente Amplios Vázquez close to 50 percent of the vote in the presidential election. Thus, Vázquez and Luis Lacalle Pou of Partido Nacional met in a second round of elections. The opposition’s main electoral arguments were the need for renewal and young blood, the negative of having a parliament with a majority from Frente Amplio, the waste of public funds as a result of poor public governance and an inadequate focus on environmental and social issues. This discourse from the opposition to the right and left of Frente Amplio was unsuccessful and on November 30, Vázquez was elected president with more than 53 percent of the vote. This gave Frente Amplio his third straight presidential term.
Social rights on the agenda
Uruguay has recently approved legislation that provides citizens with extended social rights, on the initiative of Frente Amplio. They have tried both in and outside government to improve obvious deficiencies in the system, which they have succeeded relatively well. Since the establishment of the Ministry of Social Development (MIDES) during the first presidential term of Vázquez, social policy institutions have received an important boost and become professional. This has provided continuous improvement of the socio-economic indicators. For example, the proportion of poor households has gone from 24.2 percent in 2006 to 6.4 percent in 2014.
It is not only the policy put forward by MIDES that has affected this result. The distribution of resources has increased in several channels. The health care system was reformed in 2007, which meant that thousands of people who were not previously insured now receive coverage through the public. Important investments and changes remain in infrastructure, among other things. In areas such as mental health, lack of treatment and outdated practice results in violations of patients’ rights. Furthermore, a law on parental benefits for employees in the private sector was passed unanimously in 2013.
In 2015, the government is busy implementing a national nursing care system. The system should include the elderly over 65 years, children between 0 and 3 years and the disabled. The project was initiated to improve the services of those in need of care by offering a holistic health service and making society more responsible for the care of people who cannot take care of themselves. The idea is to make it possible to combine family and work, regulate already existing public and private services, decentralize services to better suit local needs, and provide better education to carers. An increase in the number of nursing homes combined with fewer women staying at home is one of the reasons for the increased need for a national care system.
Equality and same-sex marriage
After several unsuccessful attempts, a new abortion law was passed in 2012-2013. The right to same-sex marriage was passed in April 2013, a law that recognized a requirement for safety and visibility for a marginalized group. Progress has also been made in a number of other and less controversial areas, including the Act on Assisted Fertilization, the Extension of Parental Leave for Mother and Father, and the Regulations on Active Euthanasia. Frente Amplio has succeeded in getting through a new generation of rights that have historically been associated with the liberal left.
The project on the right to same-sex marriage was met with resistance, but this was primarily concentrated among a minority in the opposition and in Partido Nacional. As with the Abortion Act, the goal of the political system was not only to give rights to a large group of people with a specific sexual orientation, but also to solve the legal challenges thousands of same-sex couples have. Unlike abortion legislation, this law had greater support both among politicians and the people.
In the case of gender equality, a law was introduced in the elections in 2009 and 2012 aimed at increasing women’s participation in the legislative assembly. The law came on the recommendation of the UN. The result was insufficient, as most political parties chose to put as few women as possible on the lists. In addition, there were also several cases where the first candidate was a woman, and agreements were made that she would resign the seat in favor of a male candidate. The result did not live up to expectations, and several sectors are asking for the law to be introduced for another period. Currently, there are 9 female and 21 male representatives in the Senate, while the lower house has 17 female and 82 male representatives.
Regulation of the cannabis market
The laws governing the cannabis market in Uruguay are also of great importance. A public campaign driven by several user groups and civil rights organizations prompted the government to move into one of the most controversial areas of public policy: the regulation of the use, production and sale of cannabis for medical and personal consumption.
It is relatively common to smoke marijuana in public spaces in Uruguay, especially in Montevideo and in the suburbs. According to Countryaah, this is primarily done at outdoor events such as concerts and football matches. It has also never been illegal to consume cannabis, only production and sales have been banned. Former President Mujica himself went public and explained the benefit of the law, which met with opposition both within Frente Amplio and among the opposition.
The consensus around the project is the result of three main arguments. The first is that the previous policy in the fight against illicit drug trafficking has not worked. Prohibiting the use of a substance with widespread use in itself creates a black market. In the market, criminal groups are establishing themselves, accumulating power and fighting for control over the production and sale of drugs. Their economic and military power is increasing as their ability to bribe officials at every level of the state. Users, in turn, must contact these criminal organizations to purchase, despite the obvious fact that they would have avoided this if they had had the opportunity to choose. A policy change was needed to prevent the illegal market from growing and to destroy their monopoly.
The second argument is the criminalization of users and the social stigma that this brings. When the “fight against drugs” is presented as a fight between the good and the bad, or against the “disintegration of society”, the rights of citizens are quickly violated. For decades, police and judges have abused their power. The stigma of use is also evident in the educational system, in the religious discourse and in other social arenas, where the user does not speak.
The third argument is the lost opportunity: You cannot benefit from cannabis’s known medical benefits. The possibilities for researching the substances are complicated and they are delayed. Sociological research is full of problems that invalidate the results as a consequence of questionable responses and observations of a use that must be kept secret. The same thing happens with medical research, which could have helped to provide better answers to users with addiction problems.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that the formalization of the market can bring economic benefits, including increased tax revenue.
As a result of a new majority in parliament, the bill was passed in December 2013. Parts of the law have been implemented: It is now allowed to grow cannabis for its own use and to create cannabis clubs. In addition, it is permitted to use and research marijuana for medical purposes. A system for sale to the public is still under development. The law states that residents over the age of 18 can buy up to 10 grams per week from authorized pharmacies, after registering in advance. It is also allowed to grow marijuana for scientific and medical purposes. Scientists and doctors are now being trained to promote research and proper use of the drugs. The Act established the Institute for the Regulation and Control of Cannabis (IRCCA).