Uruguay faces key economic challenges

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay, Feb. 12 (UPI) -- Uruguay's newly elected President Jose Mujica faces serious economic challenges of job creation and poverty reduction as he begins an international campaign for enticing investors to the country.

The former guerrilla leader received applause when he addressed Argentine business leaders as part of the campaign for economic reforms, one of his key pre-election pledges.


Mujica takes office in March and is only the second democratic leader to assume power in Uruguay after outgoing socialist President Tabare Vazquez, a physician whose 2005 victory ended 150 years of rule by right-wing parties and the military. Vazquez's coalition chose Mujica to run for the single-term presidency.

Mujica has been careful to steer public opinion from his guerrilla past and focus attention on his promises of good governance, low taxes, incentives for investors and exporters and higher standard of living for all Uruguayans.

The country is dominated by Uruguayans of European -- mainly Italian and Spanish -- origin, raising questions about equal opportunities for the approximately 12 percent of the population, including Asians and Africans, on the fringes of the society.

Although credited with popular labels such as "Switzerland of South America" because of its relative affluence and a small population of about 3.3 million, Uruguay still has to deal with low income, underemployment and unemployment among the indigenous Mestizo, about 6 percent of the population.


Mujica said Uruguay needed more investment to create a greater number of better jobs and his government would ensure the right conditions are created for investors to be drawn to the Uruguayan economy.

Mujica said he realized the economy could not be improved only with legislation and that investors needed to have faith in Uruguay's economic future.

"We are inviting you to invest in the country, a reliable country, a stable country that honors contracts and commitments and understands that investors contribute and must be encouraged and looked after," Mujica said.

Mujica's election raised many eyebrows, and critics feared his guerrilla past would discourage the business community. But the new government sent out assurances that it intends to maintain an "adequate equilibrium" between continuing conditions that contributed to confidence under Vazquez and changes in priorities with more emphasis on infrastructural development and more equitable wealth distribution.

Although Uruguay's economy is largely dependent on agriculture, it is the processing of farm-based produce -- from wool to cotton to herbal ingredients and raw materials -- that brings in most of the revenue. In the past, the economy has been jolted by currency fluctuations in neighboring countries, especially Brazil, and the financial backlash from problems in Argentina.


Even before Mujica's election victory, the government had put emphasis on increased exports within Latin America, North America and the European Union.

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