Uruguay (part 2)

16 June 2013

“What do you know of Moldovan citizens, or of Mauritanian culture?” Shamefully, very little. This is how Mateo introduced the topic of Uruguayan foreign policy; Moldova, Mauritania and Uruguay all have similar populations and statuses in global politics. They're fairly small, they're surrounded by bigger and more powerful neighbours, and they all have approximately 3 million inhabitants.

But there's one aspect of Uruguayan politics that sets it apart from many, if not all, other countries. Their president, José Mujica. Labelled by many as the world's poorest president, he lives on a little farm, and works on the farm alongside his presidential duties. His evident lack of interest in material goods is a shining (and reassuring) sign to citizens that their head of state is clearly not stealing from the state! His background is also fairly impressive, (and provides a stark contrast between heads of state in other countries – can you imagine Cameron or Merkel standing up next to him?) ; he used to be a guerrilla fighter, who spent 14 years in prison and was shot a total of 6 times, and underwent torture, isolation, and other horrifically inhumane treatment. Now, aged 77, he grows chrysanthemums on a farm owned by his wife, while being President of Uruguay.

His example, and that of other politicians not seeing themselves as anything 'above' normal citizens, means that it is perfectly normal to bump into them in regular spots in Montevideo. Unfortunately, we didn't see any! But this normality, meaning that paparazzi have an incredibly easy job of getting photos and even sitting down with the president himself, has resulted in a distinct, and wonderful, lack of celebrity-fawning.

Though the President is very left-leaning, Uruguay's foreign policy, as I learned, is distinctly middle of the road. I don't mean to make it sound like they have been sitting on the fence, or simply remaining undecided; rather, taking the 'middle ground' is a distinct policy choice. It's important to remember their geographical situation, as they are very much surrounded by 'big brothers' Argentina and Brazil, and their fairly tiny population; at 3 million people, their entire country is a quarter of the size of Sao Paulo, and approximately the same number as Berlin. Pretty tiny!

But they've taken this middle of the road policy, and applied it amazingly successfully; they've recognised Palestine as a country, while remaining on good diplomatic terms with Israel, and they enjoy good relations with both Cuba and the US.

Similarly in terms of society, the 'middle-road' policy can be seen; I heard about how the vast majority of the population would rather identify themselves as middle class, rather than aspiring to be upper class. Moderation, in both politics and society, seems to be the word of the day, and, happily, it seems to be working admirably.

One recent project implemented under Mujica in particular fascinated me; the successful implementation of the One Laptop per Child programme means that every child in Uruguay now is the owner of a laptop. The potential here is truly immense. With kids learning from a young age how to program and write code, who knows what they might come up with in a few years?

Unfortunately, as I heard, the problem now is that many children are far ahead of their teachers in using the technology; there appears to be a big need for training either teachers to work with children, or to go directly to the children and provide more technical assistance, and make sure that these kids and laptops live up to their full potential.

I have complete faith though, that with passionate and intelligent activists like Mariana, Daniel and Fabrizio working on transparency and open data in Montevideo with their organisation DATA, this potential will be fulfilled, and fun will be had at the same time! I'm looking forward to returning to Montevideo in a few days time for Latin America's first Open Data unconference, AbreLATAM. For now, though, Chile awaits!


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