Where Uruguay leads, the rest struggle to keep up | Emma Graham-Harrison

South America’s second smallest country seems to be reinventing itself as a beacon of innovation and progress

As the world’s most powerful nations squabbled in Paris over the cost of small cuts to their fossil fuel use, Uruguay grabbed international headlines by announcing that 95% of its electricity already came from renewable energy resources. It had taken less than a decade to make the shift, and prices had fallen in real terms, said the head of climate change policy – a job that doesn’t even exist in many countries.

This announcement came on top of a string of other transformations. In 2012 a landmark abortion law made it only the second country in Latin America, after Cuba, to give women access to safe abortions. The following year, gay marriage was approved, and then-president José Mujica shepherded a bill to legalise marijuana through parliament, insisting it was the only way to limit the influence of drug cartels.

What’s more, the country cracked down so strongly on cigarette advertising, in a successful bid to cut smoking rates, that it is now being sued by tobacco giant Philip Morris.

Mujica himself became internationally famous for refusing to enjoy the trappings of presidential power – staying in his tiny house rather than moving into the official mansion – and giving away 90% of his salary.

To those who have never taken much interest in South America’s second smallest country, Uruguay seems to be quietly reinventing itself as a beacon of innovation and progress. In fact, the changes fit into a long progressive tradition, stretching back over a century and a half, celebrated by Peruvian literary giant Mario Vargas Llosa in a recent tribute to Mujica’s initiatives on gay marriage and marijuana.

In the 1870s, Uruguay pioneered universal, free, secular education, the first Latin American country to make it compulsory for every child to attend school. That focus on education has its echoes in a modern-day policy to give every student a laptop.

It was also one of the first countries in the region to give women the right to vote, and legalised divorce in 1907. That was decades ahead of other South American countries, and nearly a century ahead of nearby Chile, which only passed a similar law in 2004.

“We must remember that Uruguay, in contrast with most Latin American countries, has a long and solid democratic tradition, to the extent that when it was a young nation it was known as ‘the Switzerland of America’ for the strength of its civil society, deep-rooted rule of law, and for armed forces which are respectful of the constitutional government,” said Vargas Llosa.

He traced many of those traditions back to the rule of early-20th-century president José Batlle y Ordóñez, who fought for workers’ rights and universal suffrage, abolished the death penalty and laid the foundations of the welfare state. The country’s level of education, cultural life and civic mindedness had made it “the envy of all the continent”, he added.

Not all of Batlle’s successors were interested in his progressive legacy. The country came under the rule of a military dictatorship from 1973 to 1985, when generals jailed huge numbers of political prisoners and earned Uruguay the nickname “the torture chamber of Latin America”. But this century it has been returning to its political roots, to become a model not just for the region, but for the world.

Emma Graham-Harrison is international affairs editor

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Emma Graham-Harrison

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