On Monday night, Uruguayan Minister of Foreign Affairs Rodolfo Nin Novoa announced that Uruguay will no longer offer asylum to additional Guantanamo prisoners, amid reports that one of the ex-prisoners currently living in Montevideo is threating to go on a hunger strike.
Novoa said in a press conference that the decision by Uruguayan President Tabaré Vázquez’ administration to not receive any more ex-prisoners from Guantánamo Prison was “definitive.” The minister also added that Uruguay would postpone the arrival of refugees from Syria until the end of the year due to “cultural and infrastructural shortcomings” and a need to better plan “these kinds of operations.” Forty-two Syrian refugees arrived in Uruguay last October after the government admitted them on humanitarian grounds.
Minister Novoa’s announcement marks a departure from the foreign policy agenda of former Uruguayan President Jose Mujica, who received a total of six released prisoners from Guantánamo on December 7, 2014, making Uruguay the second country, after El Salvador in 2012, to receive detainees from the U.S. prison in Cuba. This February, prior to his departure from office, Mujica visited five of the six former prisoners in their home and encouraged them to learn Spanish as quickly as possible so they can go back to work and restart their lives. Four of the former prisoners are from Syria, one is Palestinian, and another is Tunisian.
Former prisoner Jihad Ahmed Mustafa Dhiab, 43, reportedly said that he would begin a hunger strike and chain himself outside the walls of the U.S. embassy in Montevideo in order to demand that the U.S. offer compensation for the years of torture and imprisonment he has suffered. However, Dhiab’s lawyer told the press in Uruguay that Dhiab has no such plans.
Only two countries in Latin America—Costa Rica and Uruguay—can be considered “full democracies,” according to an Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) study commissioned by BBC for Democracy Day on January 20. The report says that a majority of Latin American countries hold “free and fair” elections and are better ranked than their counterparts in the Middle East, Africa and Eastern Europe, but democracy in the region has stagnated. The governments of Cuba and Haiti are the lowest-ranked in Latin America and are classified as authoritarian regimes.
The study assesses a total of six factors, including access to the polls, electoral process and pluralism, civil liberties, functionality of the government, political participation and political culture. Each country is evaluated on a scale of 0 to 10 and classified into one of four categories: full democracy, imperfect democracy, hybrid and authoritarian regime.
Nine countries (Chile, Brazil, Panama, Argentina, Mexico, Colombia, Peru, El Salvador, and Paraguay) are considered imperfect democracies, while six are classified as hybrids (Ecuador, Honduras, Guatemala, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Venezuela). Imperfect democracies are characterized by weaknesses in governability, low levels of political participation and an undeveloped political culture. The division between “imperfect” and “hybrid” regimes isn’t clear, says London School of Economics professor Francisco Panizza, but hybrids are generally described as having substantial irregularities in elections, oppression of opposition parties and greater weakness in governance.
For the third election in a row, Uruguayan voters flooded into the streets Sunday night to celebrate the win of the Frente Amplio (Broad Front—FA) party, a leftist coalition that has now extended its control of Uruguay’s parliament and presidential office to 15 years.
But as President-elect Tabaré Vázquez delivered his victory speech on a stage in downtown Montevideo before thousands of supporters holding giant flags, supporter Isabella Antonaccio had to admit that this was the smallest victory party that she’d seen in the past three elections.
“Ten years ago, the Frente Amplio’s win was a huge achievement,” she said Sunday night, celebrating despite being eight months pregnant. “It was so emotional, many people were crying.”
For a younger generation of Uruguayans, the Frente Amplio has dominated politics for as long as they could vote. The leftist party’s mix of financial and social policies strengthened the economy, reduced poverty, and won international applause with schemes like the world’s first-ever legal marijuana market.
But cracks are emerging. Vázquez, 74, and outgoing President José Mujica, age 79, are both unlikely to run again, meaning the party must groom a new leader over the next five years while also addressing education scores that are falling, petty crimes that are rising, and an economy that is slowing from 4.5 percent growth last year to 3.5 percent growth this year and on course for 2.5 percent in 2015, according to Gabriel Oddone of accounting and consultancy services firm CPA Ferrere. Scotiabank, in its November outlook, forecasts GDP growth of 3.1 percent this year followed by 2.9 percent in 2015.
It seems everyone in Montevideo has a personal story of crossing paths with Uruguay’s folksy sandal-wearing president, José “Pepe” Mujica.
Romina Tortorella recalled the time she looked out her Montevideo house window to see Mujica’s light-blue 1987 Volkswagen Beetle, which he recently refused to sell for $1 million to a wealthy sheik. Mujica was eating at a corner deli, so Tortorella, not wanting to disturb the presidential lunch, wrote him a small invitation to see her husband’s home construction work.
Soon the 79-year-old was standing in her parlor and saying he knew her father, who was also a former member of the left-wing urban guerrilla group, the Tupamaros.
“He has six bullets in his body,” Tortorella said of Mujica, who was shot six times while resisting arrest by Uruguay’s old military government, which would imprison him for 13 years. “He has no reason to fear. He is close to the people.”
Even the homeless now have tales of meeting Uruguay’s president. Just this week, during a television interview, Mujica was confronted by a panhandler. When Mujica gave the man a 100 peso bill ($4.25), the panhandler yelled: “I want you to be president forever!”
Mujica is constitutionally barred from seeking a second consecutive term in Uruguay’s presidential runoff election on Sunday (November 30). As Uruguayans go to the polls to elect a new leader, there’s already a sense of nostalgia for this portly flower-farmer who has become a global symbol of modesty and tolerance—even if he is criticized at home for failing to reform a flagging education system, reverse the rise of petty crime, or invest in much-needed infrastructure projects such as harbors and roads.
On November 13, as Uruguay’s national soccer team, La Celeste (The Sky Blue), ran onto the pitch at Montevideo’s Estadio Centenario, the biggest cheer came for the most scandalous of soccer heroes.
Luis Suárez, who has earned the enmity of players, fans, and at least one prime minister for his race-tinged language and taste for opponents’ flesh—gave a wave and a big, toothy grin as tens of thousands of fans applauded his first match at home since being suspended from competitive international soccer for biting an Italian opponent at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
I was in the bleachers for the Nov. 13 match against Costa Rica, which Suárez could join because it was a non-competitive “friendly,” and I was taken aback by the popularity of the No. 9 jersey and the unwavering conviction of Uruguayans to stand by their man—even after his bizarre behavior crippled the national team’s quest for the Cup. Without its star scorer, La Celeste was subsequently knocked out of World Cup play, and now its ability to defend the Copa América championship title next year has also been compromised.
Surely Suárez had bitten off more than he could chew on stage at the world’s largest sporting event, but in Uruguay, Suárez is loved more than ever.
“His popularity increased after the World Cup,” Ignacio Zuasnabar, the Director of Public Opinion at the Montevideo-based consulting firm Equipos Mori, told me in his office not too far from Estadio Centenario itself. “Suárez made goals against England and Italy; it was impressive. When he came back, all the people were waiting for him the airport. He was a national hero.”
In a presidential contest that may have seemed like déjà vu, Uruguay’s elections on Sunday produced some unexpected headlines: former President Tabaré Vázquez earned nearly 48 percent of the vote—a full 17 points ahead of challenger Luis Lacalle Pou; Vázquez’ center-left Frente Amplio coalition (Broad Front–FA) has retained its parliamentary majority; and a plebiscite to lower the age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 16— referred to during the campaign as la baja—was convincingly defeated.
Aside from the accurate prediction that no candidate would earn more than 50 percent of the vote—resulting in a November 30 runoff—these were not the results expected by Uruguayan pollsters, who have begun a period of self-criticism after pollster Ignacio Zuasnabar from Equipos Mori admitted that the old polling methods need to be refreshed using Facebook and cell phones. Nearing October 26, pollsters believed Lacalle Pou was closing the gap on Vázquez, and some even said that right-wing Partido Colorado (Red Party–PC) candidate Pedro Bordaberry would achieve about 17 percent of the vote. In the end, Bordaberry did not even earn 13 percent.
Meanwhile, Vázquez, who has already run for president three times, and Lacalle Pou of the center-right Partido Nacional (National Party–PN), the son of former president Luis Alberto Lacalle, will return to the trenches for the final phase of their campaigns. Third-place candidate Bordaberry, the son of former president Juan María Bordaberry—whose government ushered in Uruguay’s 1973-1985 military dictatorship—has already voiced his support for Lacalle Pou.
This week’s likely top stories: Juan Carlos Varela will be Panama’s next president; talks between Haiti and the Dominican Republic are postponed; marijuana legalization goes into effect in Uruguay; a Colombian mine collapse kills at least 12 people; a Brazilian soccer fan is killed in Recife.
Juan Carlos Varela Wins Panamanian Election: Juan Carlos Varela of the Partido Panameñista won a highly anticipated election on Sunday as Panamanian voters elected their next president. With 80 percent of votes counted, Varela had gained a 7 percent lead over his closest rival, José Domingo Arias of the ruling Cambio Democrático (Democratic Change), with Partido Revolucionario Democrático (Democratic Revolution Party—PRD) candidate Juan Carlos Navarro in third. Both Arias and Navarro conceded victory to Varela on Sunday night, although the election results are not yet official. Varela will take office on July 1 with Isabel Sain Malo, who will become vice president.
Talks Between Haiti and the Dominican Republic Postponed Again: A third round of talks between the Haitian and Dominican government have been postponed a fourth time after Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elías Jaua, who is mediating between the two countries, asked to reschedule. Haitian and Dominican leaders were expected to discuss trade, health, tourism and migration on May 6—and to address last year’s Dominican Constitutional Court decision that has left hundreds of thousands of descendants of Haitian immigrants born in the Dominican Republic without citizenship. A first round of talks between the two countries took place on January 7, and a second round took place on February 3. The third round was originally scheduled for March 12, and is now expected to take place on May 8.
Uruguayan Marijuana Law Comes into Force: Uruguay’s marijuana legalization law will go into effect on Tuesday, permitting Uruguayan adults to grow up to six cannabis plants and to purchase up to 40 grams of the drug each month. All Uruguayan pharmacies that choose to sell cannabis must register with the national government, as do all individuals who wish to purchase marijuana from pharmacies. Diego Cánepa, head of the country’s drugs board, said that the sale of cannabis is not expected to begin until late 2014, but that the licensing process for companies to grow the plant will be rolled out within the next 15 days. Uruguayan President José Mujica, who will visit the White House on May 12, has criticized pot laws in the United States, saying that Uruguay’s policies will be more restrictive.
Death Toll Rises in Colombian Mine Collapse: At least 12 people were killed when an illegal gold mine in Colombia’s Cauca department collapsed last Wednesday night. After three victims were identified last week, rescue workers recovered more victims this weekend, and say that at least four other people who are still missing may have perished. The mine collapse was the second in less than a week in Colombia, after four miners in Antioquia department died after inhaling toxic fumes in an illegal mine.
Brazilian Soccer Fan Killed in Recife: A 26-year-old Brazilian soccer fan was killed outside the Estadio do Arruda in Recife on Friday, when unidentified fans ripped toilet bowls out of the stadium bathroom and threw them from the top deck in a match between Santa Cruz and Paraná. Brazilian authorities will bar fans from the stadium for the next two matches and said that Santa Cruz fans will be banned from all stadiums until those responsible for the death are identified. The Arruda stadium will not host any World Cup matches, which start next month.
Uruguayan opposition lawmakers denounced what they called threats to ousted Venezuelan Congresswoman María Corina Machado’s “liberty and security” on Monday. Machado, an opposition lawmaker representing Miranda, Venezuela was stripped of her seat in the National Assembly as well as her parliamentary immunity for testifying before the Organization of American States (OAS) about the unrest in Venezuela as a guest of Panama.
In a letter released yesterday, Uruguayan senators and congressmen called Machado’s expulsion a violation of “fundamental legal guarantees” accusing Venezuelan authorities of ignoring “basic democratic and republican rules.” The Uruguayan lawmakers pledged to support Machado and ensure her safety and freedom. Influential signers included former president and current Senator Luis Alberto Lacalle.
Machado has been accused of violating the Venezuelan constitution by addressing the OAS as well as “acting as a Panamanian ambassador” and inciting violence by National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello. The majority Socialist Party legislators have requested that the state prosecutor investigate Machado for treason and inciting a civil war for her role in the nearly two-month-long street protests.
Last Tuesday, Uruguayan’s Senate approved a bill in which the State will regulate the production and sale of marijuana and allow citizens to grow the plant at home.
The legislation was approved in a historic Senate vote of 16 to 13, and will allow pharmacies to sell up to 40 grams of cannabis a month to a list of registered consumers over 18 years old. According with the legislation, Uruguayan residents will be permitted to cultivate up to six plants of marijuana in their homes and up to 99 plants through government-authorized cannabis cultivation clubs.
A new state-run agency called the Instituto de Regulación y Control del Cannabis (The Institute for Regulation and Control of Cannabis—IRCCA) will be in charge of issuing licenses to consumers and controlling the production, distribution and trade of marijuana.
Uruguayan President José Mujica has defended the bill as a way to fight against violent drug-related crimes. "Someone has to start in South America," Mujica said in a 2012 interview with Brazil’s O Globo newspaper. "Somebody has to be first, because we are losing the battle against drugs and crime on the continent.”
International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) condemned Uruguay’s vote to legalize the production, sale and consumption of marijuana for those over the age of 18 yesterday. According to INCB President Raymond Yans, Uruguay has "knowingly decided to break the universally-agreed and internationally-endorsed treaty" with a decision that would endanger Uruguayan youth and "contribute to the earlier onset of addiction." Uruguay is a party to the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which requires states to use marijuana only for medical and scientific purposes.
The reaction from the United Nations-affiliated INCB comes one day after the Uruguayan Senate passed a historic legalization bill. While The Netherlands, Canada, Israel, and the states of Colorado and Washington allow for legal medical or recreational use of marijuana, Uruguay will be the first country to also allow for the growth and trade of the substance.
President José Mujica, a former guerilla whose liberal-leaning government also approved bills to legalize abortions and same-sex marriage, has asserted that the legalization of marijuana will help to eradicate drug trafficking throughout the country and the violence associated with it. The country will set up a drug control board to regulate the marijuana industry in 120 days.
However, the legalization of marijuana is not without its restrictions. Under the new legislation, Uruguayan citizens who are 18 years or older will be permitted to keep up to six plants and produce no more than 480 grams of marijuana a year. Producers, vendors, and consumers will also be required to officially register with the government, who will monitor their usage. Tourists to Uruguay will not be permitted to produce or consume the substance.
Both domestic as well as external opinion is divided on the bill, but several Latin American leaders, including Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina, former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso and former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo have supported the legalization and regulation of marijuana.