I love Uruguay (and you should, too!) (Daniel)

7 Jan

Simon Romero’s recent article in the NYT on Uruguayan President José “Pepe” Mujica reminded me why I love Uruguay, a tiny, too often forgotten South American country. Few people realize that Uruguay has long served as a bastion of social progressivism. Fewer still recognize that this country of 3.5 million people has far more World Cup titles per capita than any other country in the world. And, Pepe Mujica’s austere lifestyle, captured masterfully in Romero’s piece, typifies the modesty, generosity, and balance that characterize the Uruguayan people. These characteristics have endowed Uruguay with one of the most robust democracies in Latin America, a region better known for political volatility than well-functioning governance. Dwarfed by Argentina and Brazil, its jumbo-sized neighbors in the Southern Cone, Uruguay receives scant attention from scholars of global, and even Latin American, political economy. However, its experience holds beneficial lessons for countries throughout the region and beyond.

The roots of Uruguayan social progressivism lie with the transformational presidency of Jorge Batlle y Ordoñez, who governed Uruguay intermittently, for eight years, during the early twentieth century. A champion of gender equality, Batlle y Ordoñez pushed vigorously for female suffrage. As a result of these efforts, Uruguayan women secured unconditional voting rights in 1932, earlier than their counterparts anywhere else in Latin America. Batlle y Ordoñez also passed a law allowing women to divorce their husbands, something that ran afoul of the heavy machismo bent that coloured social policy in the region at that time (and, in many places, extends to the present). An agnostic, the president laid the foundation for a groundbreaking 1916 reform that separated the functions of church and state, establishing Uruguay as an early (and lonely) defender of toothy secularism in otherwise fiercely Catholic Latin America. Battle y Ordoñez also abolished capital punishment, established the eight-hour work day, expanded pension coverage, and made strides toward the universalization of public primary education. Clearly ahead of his time, this progressive pioneer bequeathed a legacy of acceptance and social welfare that has marked Uruguayan politics for more a century.

Battle y Ordonez’s legacy has reproduced itself in the government of current President Pepe Mujica. Mujica served as a leader of the urban Tupamaro guerrillas that fought Uruguay’s brutal military dictatorship in the 1970s-80s. As Romero chronicles, guerrilla activity landed the president in jail for several years, during which he found his greatest companionship with the rats with which he used to share a cell and his meager food rations. Pepe hails from the centre-left Frente Amplio, or Broad Front, political coalition. Since taking office in 2010, he has maintained the market-led economic policy of his Frente predecessor, Tabaré Vazquez, who occupied the presidency from 2005-10, while reserving a role for the state in certain strategic industries, particularly public utilities.

On the social front, however, Mujica has charted a path that mirrors the unabashed progressivism of the Batlle y Ordoñez era. In October 2012, Uruguay decriminalized first trimester abortions, making it Latin America’s only country to have done so. Last November, Uruguay became the first country in the world to legalize marijuana production and consumption. In December, Uruguay’s lower house endorsed same-sex marriage. The Senate is expected to approve the legislation in April, which would make Uruguay the second Latin American country, and only the twelfth in the world, to enshrine marriage-equality in federal law. Mujica has deepened Batlle y Ordoñez’s progressive legacy, and, in doing so, preserved Uruguay commitment to a broad and effective social welfare state. Tellingly, at 8.4% and 1.4%, Uruguay has Latin America’s lowest levels of poverty and indigence, and, with a Gini coefficient of 45.3 as of 2010, one of its lowest levels of economic inequality. Despite – or, perhaps, in some ways because of – the massive atrocities committed by the country’s military regime in the 1970s-80s, there seems to exist a spirit in this charmed country that leaves citizens inextricably linked to, and concerned with, the wellbeing of their fellow citizen. What an endearing quality that is!

As seriously as Uruguayans take their social policy, they are even more intense when it comes to soccer, or futbol, or football – let’s just go with football. Uruguay won the first World Cup, which it hosted in 1930. No European countries competed, snoodily boycotting, as they did, the tournament over frustrations about having to trek to South America. But, Uruguay won the Cup again, in 1950, when most major football-playing countries competed. Even if one strips away the country’s 1930 title, it still has one World Cup title per 3.3 million residents, far better than its closest competitor, Italy, which has one title for every 20 million residents (3 championships; 60 million people). And, if you think that Uruguay’s World Cup success represents some relic of a bygone era, when global soccer wasn’t as competitive as it is today, you would be wrong. In the most recent Cup, in South Arica in 2010, tiny Uruguay finished fourth, narrowly dropping its semifinal match to The Netherlands, which, in turn, narrowly lost to Spain in the championship. That is, Uruguay, with less than three and a half million people, went toe-to-toe with the world’s most dominant football-playing countries, far from its native fields, and almost came out on top. We hear a lot about Brazil’s and Argentina’s prowess on the pitch. To the person, they ain’t got shit on Uruguay, just another little nugget that draws me to this wonderful place!

Finally, we must return to the austerity of President Mujica. The archetypical president wears expensive suits, has several vehicles and bodyguards, lives in a brilliant home, travels with a massive posse, and commands attention wherever she or he goes. Think of the opposite, and you’ve toned it down to somewhere still several notches above Mujica on the “flash” dial. This guy donates 90% of his salary to charity, drives a Volkswagen Bug, and forewent the official presidential residence to maintain his and his wife’s humble home on the outskirts of the capital, Montevideo, where they grow chrysanthemums. He doesn’t wear ties, and he doesn’t care about polls. He’s trying to do what he considers right for his country.

But, importantly, Pepe’s also keen to compromise, not on his principles, but to grease the wheels of effective policymaking. Mujica shuns demagoguery and loathes intransigence. Economic policy represents a good illustration of this dynamic. The former leader of a communist guerrilla group, Mujica’s instinctual economic tendencies lean socialist. However, he has seen the important benefits that capitalism and a market-led economic approach have produced for his country, both in terms of growth and of rising living standards. He has therefore continued to ease the climate for doing business, courted foreign investment, and allowed his technocratic vice president and former finance minister Danilo Astori to steward economic management for the government. This is not to say that Mujica fails to insert his views in economic policy discussions. It does, however, offer insight into the president’s commitment to allowing a broad range of views to receive airing, and recognition that one person does not have all the answers, no matter how deeply held her or his positions. Mujica’s humility reflects in many ways the selflessness and generosity of the Uruguayan people, characteristics that have created in this tiny country a spirit of compromise, acceptance, and concern for other that distinguish it from its counterparts not only in Latin America, but across much of the world.

Look, there’s a lot more to love about Uruguay than what I’ve mentioned above. Chivito, Grappamiel, and Punta del Este spring immediately to mind. But, at a time of policy paralysis in Washington, unending bleakness in Europe, uncertainty in China, and broad, often remarkably violent, social upheaval in the Middle East and elsewhere, these three qualities alone – to wit, strong social policy, football prowess, and commitment to simplicity and the other – makes Uruguay a place to which scholars would prove well-served if they devoted a bit more attention, and from whose experience and lessons other countries stand to benefit. ¡Garra Charrúa!


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