New Uruguay leader takes over from pot-friendly farmer

March 1, 2015
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MONTEVIDEOUruguay — Tabaré Vázquez was sworn in as president of Uruguay Sunday, returning to office a decade after first leading the left to power and drawing a curtain on folksy farmer José Mujica’s colorful rule.

Mujica, a former guerrilla fighter known for legalizing marijuana, gay marriage and abortion, handed power back to his Broad Front, FA, party colleague, in a country that bars presidents from serving consecutive terms.

Vázquez, a cancer doctor with a more buttoned-down style, won 53.6 percent of the vote in a November 30 presidential run-off, reclaiming the office he previously held from 2005 to 2010.

After taking the oath of office before the National Assembly, he called for dialogue on issues facing the country, at a moment when the parties that long dominated Uruguayan politics, the Blancos (Whites) and Colorados (Reds), are reeling from a string of FA victories.

“We can and we must analyze and dialogue respectfully together on the different paths to achieve the best public education for our people, to have quality health care for all, dignified housing,” he said.

Pablo Bielli/AFP
Former Uruguayan President José "Pepe" Mujica is seen inside his 1987 Volkswagen on his way to Plaza Independencia to attend new President Tabare Vázquez's inauguration on March 1, 2015 in Montevideo. Known for his push to legalize cannabis, spartan lifestyle and devotion to his three-legged dog, Mujica stepped down Sunday, more popular than ever. Pablo Bielli/AFP

Vázquez, 75, cuts a more sober figure than the outspoken Mujica, and has criticized some of his reforms — including the still-unimplemented plan to sell marijuana at pharmacies, a key element of the new cannabis law.

Known for his spartan lifestyle, his salty commentary and his devotion to his three-legged dog, Mujica steps down more popular than ever, with an approval rating over 60 percent.

But after five years at the helm of this South American nation, the 79-year-old farmer leaves something of a mixed legacy for Vázquez.

“There’s still so much to do and I hope that the next government will be better than mine and will have greater success,” Mujica said in an interview with a local newspaper Thursday.

“I became president filled with idealism, but then reality hit.”

The colorful rabble-rouser attracted international attention as much for his lifestyle as his policies.

Eschewing the trappings of power, Mujica insisted on living on his modest farm and driving around in an aging Volkswagen Beetle.

He was more likely to be seen in a beret with scruffy clothes, having just gotten down from his tractor, than wearing a suit. He also gave most of his salary to charity.

Mujica would sometimes unexpectedly speak with journalists about the rate of inflation or diplomatic relations. Or he’d tell them what he was preparing to feed his canine companion Manuela.

The dog lost one foot when Mujica accidentally rolled over it with his tractor. She now goes everywhere with him.

Under Mujica, Uruguay became the first country in the world to fully legalize marijuana all the way from the cannabis field to the joint, setting up a regulated market for cultivation, sales and use.

Mario Goldman/AFP
Former Uruguayan President José "Pepe" Mujica leaves the Plaza Independencia in his 1987 Volkswagen. Mario Goldman/AFP

A sometimes overly-candid politician

The leader was also known for his candid — and sometimes less-than-diplomatic — remarks.

A live microphone once caught him saying: “This old hag is worse than the one-eyed guy.” It was a reference to Argentine President Cristina Kirchner and her late husband and former President Néstor Kirchner, who had a lazy eye.

Critics point to Mujica’s shortcomings, including his failure to implement education reform, even as the country’s academic achievements fell.

Vázquez inherits a country facing a tougher economic climate than when he first took office in 2005.

Uruguay has enjoyed 12 years of unbroken growth and record-low unemployment, but is now struggling to deal with the end of the global commodities boom.

Inflation is now more than one point above the official target range of three to seven percent, and Uruguay’s giant neighbors Argentina and Brazil are both experiencing economic downturns.

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