Pubdate: Wed, 02 Oct 2013
Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Copyright: 2013 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Author: Nicholas Casey


President Is Close to Legalizing Pot Use After Doing the Same for 
Abortion, Gay Marriage; Critics Say Social Services Worsening

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay-This South American nation of just 3.3 million 
people has become the site of a socially liberal experiment of sorts.

In the past year, Uruguay's center-left government has taken on a 
raft of issues long seen as taboo in conservative Latin America. 
Abortion was legalized last year, and in August gay couples began to 
marry under new legislation. In the coming weeks, the Senate is 
expected to approve a bill that would give Uruguay the world's most 
liberal marijuana laws.

"Uruguay is the perfect laboratory to see if these ideas work or 
not," said Diego Canepa, the chief of staff of the country's 
President Jose Mujica, whose left-wing coalition controls the 
government and has been behind the flurry of legislation.

The backers of Uruguay's social overhauls-a coalition called the 
Broad Front that includes leftists of all stripes-say they are trying 
to reclaim the reformist mantle that Uruguay lost during two decades 
of military dictatorship starting in the 1970s.

A century ago, Uruguay was sometimes called the "Switzerland of South 
America" for its stability, middle class and social agenda, which set 
an eight-hour workday and gave women the vote before the U.S.

Uruguay has passed more than 40 laws expanding workers' rights since 
2008, including new protections to domestic workers and rural 
peasants, said Monica Xavier, a senator and Broad Front president. 
She noted another change: Strict restrictions on the tobacco 
industry, which have stripped cigarette ads from Montevideo's boulevards.

The measures aren't just putting Uruguay on the map, but Mr. Mujica 
himself, the 78-year-old former guerrilla who rose to the presidency 
three years ago. Mr. Mujica's figure has been hard to miss in 
regional politics: He is known for arriving to work in an old 
Volkswagen and for rejecting the president's palace for the small 
farm where he still lives and tends to flowers. He donates most of 
his salary, and has been dubbed "the world's poorest president."

At the same time, Mr. Mujica has also shifted his leftist coalition 
away from the kind of politics that focused on class conflict and was 
typified by Venezuela's late firebrand president, Hugo Chavez, and 
neighboring Argentina's leader, Cristina Kirchner.

"The agenda isn't the traditional Latin American left, it's much more 
like what you have in the U.S. or Europe," said Gerardo Caetano, a 
political scientist.

Still, many sectors of Uruguay remain staunchly conservative and have 
their doubts about the direction the country has headed. "We've 
departed from being a country of values," said Gerardo Amarilla, a 
congressman from the country's National Party, who voted against the 
laws presented by the Broad Front. Mr. Amarilla said he feared the 
marijuana law would increase the number of drug users in Uruguay and 
was being promoted by legalization advocates to set a precedent for 
other nations.

Others worry that Mr. Mujica's focus on civil rights has taken 
attention off the country's social services. While country's health 
and education systems still remain among the best in the region, many 
wealthy Uruguayans now opt for private schools and hospitals amid a 
deterioration of public services.

"The basics of what the state in Uruguay provides are in trouble," 
said Claudio Paolillo, editor of the weekly newspaper Busqueda. 
"These reforms in some way are covering up larger social problems in 
Uruguay." Mr. Paolillo feels the country's infrastructure has been 
neglected by Mr. Mujica, whose vows to connect the country's interior 
to its port through Chinese-built railroads haven't progressed.

Mr. Canepa, the chief of staff, said he felt Uruguayans valued the 
government's performance and said the country's institutions still 
were far ahead of neighbors.

Of the recent legislation, it was perhaps the abortion laws that 
encountered the most turbulence in Uruguay. A similar bill several 
years before, which passed congress but was vetoed by then President 
Tabare Vazquez, who cited his concerns as a physician. After taking 
the presidency Mr. Mujica expressed interest in passing the bill and 
signed it last October. Still opponents fired back with a vote to 
call a referendum in June, but that failed by a large margin.

The gay marriage law, signed in May with less popular backing, came 
into being after a coalition of gay-rights activists pressured 
politicians on both sides of the aisle. "It wasn't a topic the 
Uruguayan population understood easily," said Federico Grana, who 
heads the gay-rights group Black Sheep. Argentina had passed a 
similar law in 2010, a measure that set a precedent for its neighbor.

The marijuana law, which legalizes as much as 40 grams for personal 
use each month, is probably most controversial of the current 
legislation. Originally proposed in 2012, the proposal was shelved by 
Mr. Mujica early this year when polling showed that nearly two-thirds 
of Uruguayans opposed legalizing the drug.

The government pushed an earlier argument that legalizing marijuana 
would weaken crime groups by putting profits from marijuana in the 
hands of the government rather than drug traffickers. In the spring, 
the Broad Front-with the help of several drug rights NGOs-began an 
advertising blitz to explain the security rationale. On July 31, 
after more than 13 hours of heated debate, Uruguay's lower house 
passed the law. The Senate is expected to do the same.

The U.S. government, which has pushed efforts to eradicate drug 
trafficking rather than legalize substances, declined to comment on 
Uruguay's measures. But the country doesn't lie on a drug trafficking 
route north, so legalization laws in that country are unlikely to 
affect the U.S.

Mr. Canepa, the president's chief of staff, said he expected the law 
to be passed in coming weeks after the Senate makes revisions. "In 
Uruguay we have the conditions to take a new tack, so why not take 
it?" he said.

- -Ken Parks contributed to this article.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom