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Uruguayan way: legal abortion and marijuana sales

Sunday - 10/21/2012, 9:35pm  ET

Associated Press

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay (AP) - 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.

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