Uruguay’s Jose Mujica, the “world’s poorest president,” passed the presidential torch this weekend, leaving the executive office in the hands of successor – and predecessor – Tabaré Vázquez. Vázquez has a strong track record of economic growth and poverty reduction, and will continue Uruguay’s leftist policies, but he has diverged from some of the bold proposals that cemented Mujica’s legacy as one of the region’s most progressive presidents.
Mujica, 79, garnered international fame for his humble lifestyle: He donated 90 percent of his annual salary, eschewed the formalities of a suit and tie – as he did even through Vázquez’s presidential inauguration – drove a 1987 blue Volkswagen Beetle, and lived in a small country house with his wife and three-legged dog. But he also supported a slate of laws – legalization of abortion, same-sex marriage and, most notably, the world’s first state-run marijuana program – that made Uruguay a beacon of progressivism in Latin America.
Vázquez, a 75-year-old former oncologist and former mayor of the capital, Montevideo, was president from 2005 to 2010, ushering in the first years of leftist governance in Uruguay's post-dictatorship era, under the Broad Front political coalition. In his second term, he’s expected to address educational reform and security improvements, two of the country’s biggest priorities, in addition to mending strained relations with neighboring Argentina and rolling out Mujica’s legalized marijuana program.
He left his first presidential term on a high note: Poverty rates fell sharply while he was in office, and he famously launched the One Laptop Per Child program, which to date has distributed more than 1 million free laptops to children and teachers around the country. When he passed the presidential sash to Mujica in 2010, Vázquez still had a 60 percent approval rating, only a few points away from the 65 percent approval rating Mujica held at the end of his term.
However, he has opposed Mujica on some of the major social issues that defined Mujica’s legacy. Vázquez pledged to continue with Mujica’s plans for a state-run marijuana market, under which pharmacies are scheduled to begin selling marijuana to registered consumers as early as this month. But he’s decidedly less enthusiastic about the plan, emphasizing that it is “experimental.”
“We will analyze [the plan] with much care,” he said, according to Uruguay’s Búsqueda magazine. “And if at any moment we see that it isn’t working, we won’t hesitate to make the necessary corrections.” While the marijuana law has been one of Mujica’s most famous hallmarks, about two-thirds of Uruguayans oppose it, according to a July survey by polling firm Cifra.
Vázquez also vetoed a law to legalize abortion during his first term, something that Mujica passed when he took up the presidency. And while Vázquez backed Mujica’s decision to open Uruguay’s doors to six former Guantanamo detainees, he hasn’t yet confirmed that he would allow a new group of Syrian refugees to enter the country. Under Mujica, Uruguay accepted 42 Syrian refugees in October and was expecting a new group in February. But Vázquez said he would analyze the issue, emphasizing there was “no established compromise” on it yet, according to news website Infobae.
Meanwhile, Vázquez announced Sunday that he would launch “very strong” initiatives to combat alcohol consumption, in a follow-up to the offensive he launched against tobacco during his first term.
Vázquez’s personality and management style are considered the polar opposite of Mujica’s – temperate and evenhanded, as opposed to Mujica’s boldness and off-the-cuff remarks. (Mujica once famously referred to Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner as an “old hag” after a press conference, not realizing his microphone was still live.)
Mujica has said he will continue being active in politics. But he will perhaps continue to be Uruguay’s most famous president, having amplified its reputation as one of the most progressive countries in the region through his humble lifestyle and social legislation. On Sunday, he left his presidency the same way he entered it – driving his '87 Beetle.