Trends in the last decade show that Latin Americans, disenchanted with rightist governments, have given a chance to leftist politicians to rule. This is the case in Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador. With their incendiary rhetoric and aggressive epithets they are not much different from those populist leaders of 20th century Latin America.
Overshadowed by the political show of his counterparts, one man stands with a radically different agenda: Jose Mujica, president of Uruguay. His avant-garde attitudes and policies are risky and politically unheard of – probing untouched grounds. A former Tupamaro guerrilla member, he is mostly known today as ‘the poorest president in the world.’ He donates 90% of his US$ 12,000 salary to NGOs, lives in a farm owned by his wife and uses a Chevrolet Corsa as his presidential vehicle. His only personal possession is a Volkswagen Beetle, and he periodically makes it to the news for helping other citizens, e.g. once breaking his nose as he helped a neighbor fix his roof after a storm.
The president of the ‘Switzerland of South America’, who appears to have few material pretentions, has one of the most politically radical agendas. First, he proposed to legalize marijuana growth, distribution and consumption; which would make Uruguay the first country in Latin America to adopt such a posture. The Uruguayan model proposes that the state takes charge of the first two steps. The idea is to limit consumption to 30 personal grams monthly and place controls to prevent its resale. Even if the law does already not penalize the consumption, this policy seeks to undermine the power of the mafias who use marihuana as a gateway to attract people to consume stronger drugs such as heroin and cocaine. The money earned by the state would be used for education, prevention, and rehabilitation purposes.
Voices against the legalization of marijuana were raised almost immediately both nationally and regionally as it challenges many conceptions of the Latin America`scurrent efforts to fight drugs. The war on drugs led by the United States and Mexico has been bloody and protracted, and apparently unwinnable. Venezuela said that the Uruguayan government was “cheating”, Colombia proclaimed that this legalization would generate “distortions in the region”, and even the UN warned Uruguay that it went against international laws. International opposition has not stopped the president from following through with this project.
His second initiative, to de-penalize abortion, was approved last October; making Uruguay the second country in Latin America to adopt this position after Cuba. The expected effect is the reduction of clandestine abortions, though Mujica’s goal is to reduce them overall, since governmental approval would reduce the stigma on them while offering a solid support network for prospective mothers facing the dilemma. Abortions are now allowed up unitl the twelfth week, and in the case of danger to the mother`s life at any time. Moreover, they are free. The conditions that must be met are that the abortion is takes place in an authorized clinic after an evaluation by a selected authority.
The president knew he was stepping on sensitive ground because the Catholic Church still has a firm hold in much of Latin America. Tabare Vasquez, Mujica’s predecessor, argued against the initiative (the approval of which he vetoed in 2008) saying that “abortion is a social evil that must be avoided” and based himself on (very debatable) scientific evidence of life existing since gestation. After heated debate in which even members of Mujica’s cabinet expressed their disapproval, Mujica won his first battle.
As for other initiatives, they are still in pampers waiting to successfully surf the tides of bureaucracy into an approval that will most surely take time. Still it is important to account for the generational transition of the political class, and the changing conceptions of the masses. What Mujica is doing is anticipating this tide, which in the near future may be debated in many other Latin American countries. It is possible that Mujica will drown in his initiatives sincethe polls already reflect a loss of popularity that show an approbation of 39% from a peak of 66% in his first month in office. But as he said: “somebody had to be the first”.
Mujica continues to push in his direction without dictatorial pretentions, i.e. he will not pass the measure unless 60% of the population supports it. Being one of the oldest presidents in the region, he ironically promotes the most liberal and practical agenda, as he recognizes the war on drugs is futile. An alternative is needed. With his radical policies on marijuana and abortion, not only does Mujica wish to challenge the status quo, but more importantly he aims to save lives while encouraging a universal right: the freedom of choice.
– Camilo Ucrós