TBY talks to José Mujica, President of Uruguay, on the economic and political ties between Colombia and Uruguay.

HE José Mujica
José Mujica was born in 1935 and is a flower farmer by profession. He is a former guerrilla fighter and a member of the Broad Front coalition of left-wing parties. From 2005 to 2008 he was the Minister of Livestock, Agriculture, and Fisheries, and won the 2009 presidential election as a candidate of the Broad Front. He has been labeled the world’s “poorest” president, donating much of his monthly wage to charity organizations.

Between January and November 2011, Colombian exports to Uruguay registered an 18% increase in year-on-year terms. How do you assess the economic relations between both countries?

Colombia and Uruguay must deepen their economic relations, which have been historically reduced. For example, Uruguay doesn't buy oil or coffee from Colombia, and Colombia doesn't buy meat from Uruguay, and we are in a very specific moment for the expansion of world trade. The emergence of the Asian giants and the financial economic crisis that has affected industrialized nations created a handful of opportunities for our countries, which have seen sustained growth in the price of commodities. We must make the most of the juncture to diversify our exports not only in terms of markets, but also in terms of products. We can't repeat the same mistakes from the past and limit ourselves to being providers of raw materials. We must incorporate the labor of our people into what we export. For that to happen, we need to encourage commercial exchange between countries in the region.

What areas of bilateral trade have the most potential for growth?

MERCOSUR and the Andean countries signed an agreement at the Asociación Latinoamericana de Integración (ALADI) congress in 2004. That agreement can and must be deepened by Colombia and Uruguay in terms of bilateral relations. Any agreement that we subscribe to should cover not only the exchange of material goods, but also services and investments. The two countries can complement each other in several areas. Uruguay has received a great deal of FDI over the last few years, quintupling in the last seven years and going from levels close to $330 million to over $2 billion. This process has been accentuated in the last few years, among others, through the attractive regime of investment promotion that Uruguay has, and the installation of some foreign investments of great importance.

What are Uruguay's priorities in the region?

The countries in the region need more than ever to join in and share a common voice in the world today, overcoming the natural weakness of our small states. The world of today is based on the interaction of big blocs and the region must act as such. We live on a continent that probably has the most natural reserves, especially in terms of food, but at the same time, it is still the most unjust place to live. Latin American countries must join together to enforce fairness and equality. We also need to join our efforts to protect these reserves, which are coveted outside the region. These are Uruguay's priorities: economic development hand-in-hand with equality, the integration of the underprivileged into social life, a secured international voice, the protection of our rights and natural resources, access to advanced technology, and the development of markets for production. We insist that we must deepen the integration between our countries.

“The world of today is based on the interaction of big blocs and the region must act as such."

Uruguay has the presidency of MERCOSUR for the first half of 2013. What have been the benefits of being a permanent member, and why do you believe MERCOSUR should merge with Unasur?

Unasur is a response from South American countries to the needs of integration. It was born from the urgent need to tend to topics that should not be postponed and that can't be resolved by countries in isolation. At the same time, it has played a key role in the resolution of political crises inside some countries and problems raised between them. In the case of Venezuela and Colombia, the role played by the then Secretary of Unasur, Néstor Kirchner, was very important. Unasur emerged also from the convergence of the deepest integrated processes that maintain their validity: the Andean Pact and MERCOSUR. Unasur encompasses of the 12 countries South America. It is a political arena and more ambitious in the long term, but it is also less deep in terms of economic integration. Unasur emerged clearly from the necessity to develop maximum unity, respecting the diversity in all of its member states. The different processes of cooperation between our countries sometimes overlap. I understand that their existence responds to realities that must be taken into account.