MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay – Uruguayans used to call their country the Switzerland of Latin America, but its faded grey capital seems a bit more like Amsterdam now that its congress has legalized abortion and is drawing up plans to sell government-grown marijuana.
Both measures would be unthinkable in many other countries. Cuba is the only other nation in the region that makes first-trimester abortions accessible to all women, and no country in the world produces and sells pot for drug users to enjoy.
But President Jose “Pepe” Mujica, a flower-farming former leftist guerrilla, vowed to sign whatever bill congress could settle on that can minimize the 30,000 illegal abortions his government says Uruguayan women suffer annually.
And while lawmakers have yet to debate pot sales, Mujica’s ruling Broad Front coalition staked its ground in August by openly declaring that the drug war has failed. Smoking pot — if not growing and selling it — is already legal in Uruguay, and supplying the weed is a $30 million business, the government said.
This is democracy “a la Uruguaya” — the Uruguayan way — a phrase that reflects both the pride and the unmet promises of a society where finding common ground is a highly shared value, in stark contrast to many other countries where voters are divided by us-and-them politics.
Such outsized respect for the democratic process has enabled the country of 3.4 million people wedged between Argentina and Brazil to reach consensus on many issues that have stymied bigger and richer nations, from reforming health care to providing free university educations, to setting ambitious renewable energy goals. By embracing compromises, Uruguay has managed to hold onto its middle class through repeated economic crises, and pass laws that have consistently improved its citizens’ quality of life.
But Uruguayans are increasingly concluding that Mujica has been too conciliatory — too aloof — and what they need now is more hands-on management. They love his crotchedy homespun humor and his man-of-the-people image, but they say Uruguay could benefit from a bit more decisiveness, historian Gerardo Caetano said.
Mujica, who entered politics after spending 14 years in prison during Uruguay’s dictatorship, is an unusual leader by any standard.
He gives away 90 percent of his salary, doesn’t have a bank account, drives a 41-year-old Volkswagen and never wears a tie. Now 77 and nearing the end of his five-year term, he has been talking a lot lately about stepping back and finding the joy in simple things, reflecting a personal style that goes to extremes of austerity.
“Mujica is a very strange, singular figure and yet he expresses this singular desire that Uruguayans in general have,” Caetano said during an interview in his Montevideo apartment, where thousands of books spilled off the shelves. “Uruguayans like having unusual politicians, but they don’t like authoritarians. They don’t want leaders who are remote or confrontational.”
“In Argentina, government is whatever the president says it is. Here, no president defines his performance without negotiation, and especially not Mujica. He really doesn’t like to give orders. He doesn’t want to be the chief,” Caetano said. “In Uruguay, imposing things just doesn’t work.”
Creating a police state to take on drug traffickers would be anathema to Uruguayans, who have long been among the most secular, socially liberal and highly educated people in Latin America.
Instead, the government hopes to drive traffickers out of business by providing a better service to drug users.
And in another reflection of Uruguay’s national character, both the abortion and marijuana initiatives are intended to exclude foreigners. Only Uruguayans will benefit from these moves.
Still, many Uruguayans aren’t exactly happy about either measure.
The activists who won the abortion battle last week applauded just briefly and then left the senate gallery complaining about the concessions they made.
“This is a solution very much ‘a la Uruguaya,'” said Romina Napilote, a 27-year-old sociologist with the Pro-Derechos group who worries that the 10 pages of fine print added to win over a few reluctant lawmakers will end up forcing more women into risky clandestine abortions.
“We are very conciliating, always addressing what the conservatives want and trying for the middle ground,” she said. “It’s an issue in our political culture … Living in a society with so much tolerance for the opinions of others also holds us back.”
For filmmaker Pablo Stoll, whose movies have captured the essence of everyday life in Montevideo, “the Uruguayan way” satisfies no one.
“It means getting halfway there and not taking responsibility for the other 50 percent,” he said while sipping coffee in La Florida, a corner bar full of stalwarts from the local communist party chapter.
“I grew up with the conviction that there would be utopias, and we haven’t gotten there yet,” he said, dismissing both the marijuana and abortion measures as likely to fail or be overturned. “At some point you have to take a stand — you can’t always be with one foot on each side of the line.”
That feeling is reflected in Mujica’s polling numbers. He enjoyed 66 percent popularity ratings when he was elected with 51 percent of the vote in 2009, but his numbers have plunged, to 43 percent last month. And when asked about his performance, Uruguayans are even more critical: only 36 percent approve, compared to 42 percent disapprove. The CIFRA tracking poll of 802 voters had an error margin of 3.4 percent.
But Mujica is very much a product of his society, one where a series of reforms in the early 1900s established Montevideo as a socially liberal bastion in a region where the Roman Catholic Church still has huge influence. The reforms separated Church and State, removed religion from public schools and legalized divorce long before other countries did.
They were so committed to the idea of the collective good that they banned colorful paint on the facades of buildings, all of which had to remain the same color as their original materials. This is why so many of Montevideo’s concrete buildings remain grey even today, Caetano said.
“No one more than anyone else” was a common lecture to immigrants arriving in the port of Montevideo in those days, reflecting a disdain for people who tried to stand above or apart from the rest.
“Mujica loves this phrase — he repeats it all the time,” Caetano said. “It means the rich are less rich and the poor are less poor. It also means avoiding conflicts, trying to soften clashes with your opponents and looking to make deals instead.”
He bought the sky-blue Beetle, his only declared asset, before becoming president in 2010, replacing a Vespa scooter that he and his wife, Sen. Lucia Topolansky, used to ride together to Congress from their farm in the working-class “Rincon del Cerro,” or “corner of the hill” neighborhood in Montevideo’s gritty outskirts.
“They say I’m the world’s poorest president. Let me tell you that I’m not poor! Poor are those who need too much,” he said Thursday while getting an honorary degree at Argentina’s Universidad de La Plata, the day after the final abortion vote.
“I discovered the keys to this in the jail cells, when I couldn’t read. If I hadn’t spent those years there, I wouldn’t be who I am, because one learns more from pain than from bounty,” he said.
“That’s why, the night when I had a mattress, I felt happy. How is it possible, therefore, that we spend our lives poisoned with desperation to buy a new car every two years? If I could, I would live much more simply.”