Still, many Uruguayans are not exactly happy about either initiative.
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.
She is worried 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 Mr. 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. When asked about his performance, Uruguayans are even more critical. Only 36 percent approve, compared to 42 percent disapprove in the latest tracking poll of 802 voters that had an error margin of 3.4 percent.
Mr. 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.
The reforms 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 gray even today, Mr. 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,” Mr. 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 VW Beetle, his only declared asset, before becoming president in 2010. The car replaced 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.