Low-cost Uruguay says no thanks to presidential jet

Tabaré Vázquez wants one to help raise the country’s global relevance, but many view it as a luxury

For the last two years, Uruguay’s President Tabaré Vázquez has been talking up the need for an Air Force One for official trips. Until now, leaders of the South American nation have traveled abroad on regular flights.

Uruguay President Tabaré Vázquez.
Uruguay President Tabaré Vázquez.Óscar Corral (EFE)
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Uruguay no quiere avión presidencial

Uruguay’s tradition of austerity is further delaying Vázquez’s plans. This week, the president ran into a new hurdle: the Audit Court has rejected the purchase process because only one company submitted a bid.

Before that, the same legal body had objected to the president’s earlier plans to buy the aircraft without a prior tender. The plane in question, a 1979 Hawker 700, comes in at a little over  $1 million, a price tag criticized by some as excessive.

Vázquez and his government are now shopping around for an aircraft that can seat eight passengers and provide amenities such as a kitchen, toilet, satellite telephone and room for two stretchers and medical equipment.

Uruguay does not need an airplane and it’s good that it should stay that way

Former president José Mújica

But to many Uruguayans, this sounds like an outlandish luxury.

Parliament debated the issue in August and the opposition fiercely criticized the project, which comes in a year marked by an economic slowdown and budgetary adjustments.

Former president José Mujica, who was known worldwide for his personal austerity – he used to drive around in an old Volkswagen Beetle – also distanced himself from the initiative.

Former president José Mujica was famous for traveling in his old VW Beetle.
Former president José Mujica was famous for traveling in his old VW Beetle.AP

“Uruguay does not need an airplane and it’s good that it should stay that way. Historically, it was always so. I always figured out ways to deal with it. I don’t share the feeling that we need to buy a plane,” said the 81-year-old senator.

During his 2010-2015 tenure, Mujica kept up an intense international agenda yet always traveled on inexpensive airlines, making endless stopovers despite his advanced age.

The late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez sent for him on several occasions in his own airplanes. The former leaders Dilma Rousseff of Brazil and Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner did the same.

But Tabaré Vázquez has a very different, more independent style, and much of his agenda is focused on raising Uruguay’s international profile.

The president has toured Asia and Europe, opening up new horizons for Uruguay in parts of the world where leaders do not share their personal aircraft.

Vázquez says that the airplane will belong to the state and the armed forces, not to the president.

But so far, everything suggests that the president will keep taking regular flights.

English version by Susana Urra.

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