On March 1, Uruguayan President Tabaré Vázquez took office, marking 30 years of democracy in the country and his second round as president. In a speech on national broadcast channels, the president highlighted focus areas for his government, including education and the economy. However, his own agenda will have to run alongside leftover issues from José Mujica’s administration, such as implementing the final stages of the new marijuana law, and Uruguay’s acceptance of Guantanamo detainees.
The creation of a National Integrated System of Care (SNIC) has been the flagship of Vazquez’s agenda from the start of his campaign. The program creates a framework meant to provide additional support—from monetary to special services—for the disabled, the elderly, children up to three years old, and unpaid caregivers. The SNIC would also promote the expansion of child care centers. Though the government has not specified the amount that would go to each program, funds will come from public and private partnerships. The SNIC is expected to cost $45 million the first year, and eventually $240 million a year by 2020.
Vázquez’s election campaign had called for expanding the education budget from 4.5 percent of GDP to 6 percent. Now, the president aims to meet several goals through a coordinated educational system available to all. By 2020, his administration seeks to have 100 percent school enrollment of youth up to 17 years old, and at least 75 percent of students graduating from high school. Additionally, Vázquez wants to place a primary school tax on landowners with more than 740 acres (300 hectares) of land.
While Uruguay’s economy saw steady growth over the past 10 years, it is losing momentum; in 2013, GDP growth reached 4.4 percent, while 2014 growth is expected to be 3.3 percent.
Inflation is one economic marker the country has been fighting. Currently standing at about 8 percent, Vázquez aims to bring inflation within the 3 percent to 7 percent target range in the next 18 months. If the government continues to implement a tight fiscal policy, an International Monetary Fund report says the drop in global oil prices could help the country combat inflation and address a deficit that has reached 3.3 percent of GDP.
In 2013, Uruguay became the first country to legalize and regulate the sale of marijuana. Now, Vázquez is left to implement the last leg of the law: the state-controlled sale of marijuana via pharmacies. Once the president selects five pharmaceutical companies to grant licenses to, registered customers can purchase up to 40 grams a month. Sales are expected to begin by the middle of 2015 and producers are expecting to make a 30 percent profit margin per year.
A doctor specialized in oncology, Vázquez expressed support for legalization during his election campaign, though not without reservations. “There’s going to be a strict and close evaluation of the effect on society of this law,” he said. If the “experiment” does not work, Vázquez says it can be repealed. Some pharmacy owners argue that the law risks their businesses’ physical security by generating competition with black market dealers. However, the government is setting the price at $1 per gram in order to rule out such competitors, who sell for around the same price.
Former President Mujica left another contentious legacy for Vázquez to deal with: the acceptance of foreign prisoners and refugees of war. In March 2014, Mujica agreed to accept five U.S. prisoners detained in Guantanamo Bay. Then in October, he allowed five Syrian refugee families, totaling 42 people, to enter the country. Another 72 people were set to arrive from Syria; however, Vázquez has not yet decided whether to accept more refugees. Instead, Vázquez called for an “in-depth analysis” of the effects the ex-prisoners and refugees have had thus far on Uruguayan society. An October Cifra poll showed that 58 percent of Uruguayans were against accepting Guantanamo detainees, while 24 percent were in agreement. Meanwhile, Cifra also found 69 percent approval among Uruguayans for the acceptance of Syrian refuges, and only 17 percent disapproval.