- Associated Press - Monday, November 5, 2012

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay — Uruguayans used to call their country the Switzerland of Latin America, but its faded gray 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 government in the world produces and sells pot for drug users to enjoy.

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 go through annually.

While lawmakers have yet to debate pot sales, Mr. 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 in which finding common ground is a highly shared value.

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.

Uruguayans, however, are increasingly concluding that Mr. Mujica has been too conciliatory and too aloof. They are demanding more hands-on management. They love his crotchety homespun humor and his man-of-the-people image, but they say Uruguay could benefit from a bit more decisiveness, historian Gerardo Caetano said.

Extremes of austerity

Mr. 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,” Mr. 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,” he added. “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.

In another reflection of Uruguay’s national character, both the abortion measure and the marijuana legislation, are written specifically to exclude foreigners. Only Uruguayans will benefit from these moves.

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