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Uruguay: Country of the Year, but Not Perfect Yet

Unlike Canada, which becomes a Winter Wonderland during the holidays, the South is blessed with sunshine and temperatures above 30 degrees Celsius.

Much has been written about Uruguay in the past few months, but none from a little beach on the Atlantic coast of this beautiful South American country where I’m sitting now.

International media has bombarded the world with images of Uruguay. The country recently became the first country to legalize marijuana, and has also passed other laws that legalized abortion and same-sex marriage.

President José Mujica has been receiving worldwide attention for his distinctiveness and direct rhetoric. He lives in a modest house and donates most of his salary to charity.
The Economist recently chose Uruguay as country of the year for 2013, and also published an article listing the many reasons why you should move there this year. However, not all is golden and perfect in this country.

There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the success of the legalization of marijuana. Some people feel that the law is an experiment, and even the President agreed to make it illegal again if the law doesn’t work.

There is also a growing concern about the quality of education being delivered in the country. In the region, Uruguay was a pioneer with introducing a laptop for every primary school student. The public education system has historically been characterized as one of the best in the region as well. However, society as a whole is worried about the increasing rate of structural unemployment as a result of the mismatch between an outdated education system and the actual demand for labour.

In terms of economics, a recent scandal involving the country’s economy minister saw the dissolution of the national airline PLUNA, scratching thousands of jobs. Economy minister Fernando Lorenzo, was forced to quit by a Parliament hearing because he was involved in approving the company that was to buy the PLUNA airline. The company was a fraud, and there is currently an internal investigation taking place to uncover the people responsible for the national airline’s termination. With national elections coming up at the end of the year, political campaigning has started and the usual political spitfire has commenced. The PLUNA issue has been used by the opposition to win some political ground.

Public security is another ground that’s up for political contestation. Many Uruguayans express fear about walking on the street in certain parts of the country at certain hours. Furthermore, there has been an increase in robberies and street violence. Many argue that the sentiment of fear experienced by many people is a result of sensationalist media coverage; however, there is plenty of evidence that suggests that crime has increased, and that a solution must quickly be envisioned.

Another important issue that’s been neglected is the new plans for iron exploration and extraction. Many Uruguayans feel that not enough debate has taken place and that the environmental costs associated with the activity will be devastating. However, the government affirms that it will create much-needed jobs, given the current structural unemployment. It is unlikely that Uruguayans have the skills for such an activity, though, and labour would have to be imported.

These issues are just some examples of the problems that the country currently faces. As with any nation, there are aspects that can be improved. A critical view of Uruguay will look at both the groundbreaking legislation being passed, as well as the economic and educational problems the country currently faces.

As a Uruguayan, I am bound to recognize our excellent football (soccer) team and internationally known meat, which is exported around the world. Stereotypes aside, I recognize my country as one with great potential and opportunities. The key is to change our mentality so we can look for innovative solutions to current problems. Uruguay has historically been called the Switzerland of America due to its stability and progressive reforms. The possibility of Switzerland becoming known as the Uruguay of Europe depends only upon the ability of Uruguay to set aside old-fashioned and out-dated tactics, and focus instead on creative and new ways to cope with the contemporary challenges it faces.

Uruguay may be Country of the Year according to The Economist, but I argue that it still has a long way left to go.

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