Uruguay’s Quiet Democratic Miracle

“Because here nobody is better than anybody else.” The phrase, one of this small South American country’s most cherished sayings, dates back to the 19th century and is often repeated by its thinkers, presidents and everyday citizens. As a simple expression of the democratic spirit, it sums up how Uruguayans feel about their homeland.

With only 3.3 million inhabitants, Uruguay is the smallest nation by population in Latin America. Its giant neighbor Brazil, by contrast, has a population of more than 200 million. But what it lacks in numbers, Uruguay makes up for by ranking as the least corrupt and most democratic country in Latin America — as well as only one of two, along with Chile, rated as a “high income” country by the United Nations.

Uruguay used to be known as the “Switzerland of South America,” in part because of its banking secrecy regulations. But the phrase also speaks to a deep respect for the rule of law.

In a region where democracy is increasingly tested by economic mismanagement, political corruption, drug cartels and environmental crises, Uruguay is the only Latin American country ranked among the world’s 20 “full democracies,” according to The Economist’s 2015 democracy index — ahead even, by one place, of the United States.

Uruguay’s Quiet Democratic MiracleThe passionate nationalism prevalent elsewhere, often whipped up by populist leaders intent on clinging to power beyond their allotted presidential terms, is refreshingly absent in Uruguay. It is a preference some of Uruguay’s neighbors would do well to emulate.

“ ‘Nation’ is not a word we often use,” says the Uruguayan historian Gerardo Caetano. “We prefer republic.”

Perhaps because of this, Uruguay scores perfect 10s on the indexes of civil liberties and electoral process, a feat equaled only by Norway and New Zealand. Argentina and Brazil, on the other hand, are far below, at 50th and 51st — among the world’s “flawed democracies,” a sorry indictment for the two proud but unruly economic powerhouses.

There is a flaw in Uruguay’s record, one that has left a historic mark. During the colonial period, the port of the capital, Montevideo, was a hub for the slave trade in South America. Today, the country has a large Afro-Uruguayan community — about 10 percent of the population is descended from slaves.

Fernando Nuñez, a percussionist, lives in the same house that his forebears, freed African slaves, moved into way back in 1837. He loves to talk about playing with the Berlin Philharmonic or with his drum orchestra come carnival time. But his passion is also aroused by the racism he still sees here. Even though he is a well-known artist in Montevideo, Mr. Nuñez says he notices white Uruguayans crossing to the other side sometimes when he walks down the street.

That blemish aside, “we are an extremely liberal society,” says Fernando Cabrera, one of Uruguay’s leading artists. “It’s our inheritance. During the first half of the 20th century, Uruguay was a unique marvel, even more progressive than it is today.”

He refers to the liberal reform program led by President José Batlle y Ordóñez, who helped create a uniquely egalitarian society on a continent where a steep contrast between the haves and have-nots is the norm. His Uruguay powered through social advances unthinkable elsewhere at the time, including, in 1913, a divorce law that granted a couple a divorce at the sole request of the woman.

To say other countries in the region lagged behind would be an understatement. Chile legalized divorce only 12 years ago.

This legacy shaped modern-day Uruguay. In 2012, in a landmark move, it became only the second country in Latin America (besides Cuba) to legalize abortion. Three years ago, Uruguay became the first country in the world to legalize the sale of marijuana.

This utopia is possible only because of what Professor Caetano calls the “social contract” that sets Uruguay apart. Uruguayans seem to have a tacit agreement to resolve differences at the voting booth, instead of by packing masses of people into city squares to test the weight of opposing factions, as happens in Argentina.

“In Uruguay, the political parties are more important than the social movements,” he says. Uruguayans have a healthy mistrust of charismatic, messianic leaders, which preserves them from the bane of presidents dubiously extending their term limits, as we have seen in Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia in recent years.

“We don’t have that sense of epic politics, we just have a boring democracy,” says the professor.

The same temperance is evident also in Uruguay’s relationship with religion. Ask anyone here what distinguishes their country from the rest of South America, and their answer is almost invariably “our laicism.”

Despite forming part of the world’s most populous Catholic continent, Uruguay takes a different view of religious holidays: Christmas is known officially as “Family Day,” Easter Week is referred to by almost everyone as “Tourism Week,” and the holiday of Dec. 8, celebrated elsewhere as the feast day of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, is “Beach Day,” by virtue of the 1919 Constitution and a law passed that year to sever colonial-era ties between state and religion. Even the wave of enthusiasm that greeted the election of a South American pope, when Argentina’s former cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis three years ago, did not alter Uruguay’s secular instincts.

“I didn’t go to Pope Francis’ inauguration,” José Mujica, Uruguay’s former president, told me in an interview in 2014, when he was still in office. “Why should I? Uruguay is a lay country. I respect Francis as a person and religious leader, I visited him privately afterward. But I had no official business there.”

As I drove by the port at Montevideo, endless stacks of wind turbines awaiting assembly caught my eye. In less than a decade, Uruguay has become a continental leader in renewable energy — last year producing 95 percent of its electricity from renewable sources and sharply reducing its reliance on foreign oil, which once made up 27 percent of imports.

It is a concrete illustration of how tiny Uruguay, pulling itself up by its bootstraps, has morphed into one of the most progressive nations on earth. Its neighbor, Argentina, whose windswept Patagonia region cries out for wind farms, is plowing ahead instead with hydraulic fracturing and new nuclear power plants.

Latin America has a lot to learn from little Uruguay.

Uki Goñi is the author of The Real Odessa: Smuggling the Nazis to Perón’s Argentina and a contributing opinion writer.

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