Pubdate: Sun, 26 Oct 2014
Source: Observer, The (UK)
Copyright: 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited
Author: Uki Goni
Page: 27


The Country Votes Today for a Successor to Jose Mujica, and 
Candidates Have Doubts About His Headline-Grabbing Reform

Juan Palese, 25, stands outside the door of his Urugrow shop, sharing 
a red-tipped marijuana joint with a group of young friends. The 
sweet, pungent aroma of cannabis permeates the street as chattering 
students from Montevideo's nearby school of social sciences walk 
heedlessly by. Photograph by Uki Goni Juan Palese sells fertilisers 
and compost for growing cannabis at home from his shop in Montevideo.

"Two policemen live here, right next door," Palese says with a 
mischievous look, leaning into the entrance of an old house next to 
his "grow shop", where he sells fertilisers and compost for growing 
cannabis at home. Business is good, and a steady trickle of customers 
arrive throughout the afternoon.

The scene could easily present an idyllic testament as to how quickly 
and painlessly Uruguay, the tiny South American nation ( population 
3.4 million) that became the first in the world to legalise the sale 
of marijuana last year, has adapted to its new status as a haven for 
weed smokers. Except that today presidential elections are being held 
here in which the survival of the country's historic marijuana law is at stake.

Overnight, the passage of the law turned Uruguay's president, Jose 
Mujica, into an international progressive superstar. During his 
five-year presidency, Mujica, 79, revitalised Uruguay's economy, 
slashed poverty from almost 21% to 11.5% and legalised abortion, 
making his country the first and only one in South America so far to 
do so. (Elsewhere in Latin America, abortion is available only in 
Cuba and in Mexico City).

But those gains could be challenged by his successor, who will be 
decided among front-runner Tabare Vazquez, a 74-year-old oncologist 
from Mujica's own Frente Amplio ( Broad Front) party; Luis Lacalle 
Pou, 41, an energetic conservative from the Partido Nacional 
(National party); and Pedro Bordaberry, 54, who is likely to throw 
his votes behind Pou in what opinion polls suggest will be a tightly 
fought second round between him and Vazquez on 30 November.

The two front-runners have already said that they will tinker with 
the marijuana law if elected, while Bordaberry, who the pollsters 
predict will take 18% of the vote, makes it clear that he has no time for it.

"We may be few people here in Uruguay, but we're not guinea pigs," he 
said in an interview on Thursday at the headquarters of his Colorado 
party overlooking Pocitos beach in Montevideo, reflecting the widely 
held view that the US and Europe are using the country as a testing 
ground for drug legalisation.

In particular, Bordaberry questions Mujica's proposal to sell 
governmentcontrolled marijuana through pharmacies to registered 
consumers. "Pharmacies might as well be asked to sell whisky," he 
said. "By the same token, we should legalise the sale of cocaine and 
heroin." Behind the counter at Yuyo Brothers, another shop selling 
cannabis pipes and herb grinders in a shopping mall in central 
Montevideo, Juan Tubino agrees, ironically. "Bordbaberry is right, 
all drugs should be legalised. And, of course, pharmacies should not 
sell marijuana, it should be sold by shops like mine."

The fact is that government-controlled marijuana is not for sale yet 
in Uruguay, due to disagreement over the exact implementation of the 
new law. "If you want to buy marijuana today, you still have to 
resort to drug dealers," says Tubino, shrugging his shoulders.

One of Uruguay'say's foremost artists,ts, singer-songwriter Fernando 
Cabrera, a, 57, has his own reservations sg regarding legal marijuana.

"It's got a lot of different angles," s," he says in an interview 
rview shortly before playing a sold-out one-man acoustic set in the 
basement of the fashionable restaurant Paullier y Guana, a striking 
old house that has become the favourite haunt for the Montevideo 
artistic community. "I think taking the drug business out of the 
hands of the mafias is a good idea. But corrections will be needed 
after a trial period."

Cabrera seems a little puzzled by the international attention 
attracted by the marijuana law. Like many other Uruguayans, he 
considers it a natural extension of the country's surprisingly 
liberal tradition.

He points to liberal reforms in the early 20th century, such as 
divorce (which included being granted at the sole request of the 
wife), a strict separation of church and state, the legalisation of 
abortion for a brief period in the 1930s and the legal c consumption 
of all drugs, which wasw never prohibited here. Suc Such freedoms, 
together with its slow-paced and evenkeeled kee democracy, have made 
UruguayUr a unique oasis of ca calm in the turbulent world ofo Latin 
American politics.

"We have a strongly developedde sense of consensus sus through 
dialogue," says Cabrera.Cabrer "Even if it takes years, we go sectors 
by sector seeking agreement,agreeme it's just a natural part of 
UruguayanUrug political culture."

Cabrera is more concerned about whether a new eight-hour limit set by 
Mujica on work days for farm labourers will be respected, a much more 
burning issue than legal marijuana in a country that is almost 
totally dependent on agricultural exports.

"I think the marijuana law is positive but not completely perfect as 
it stands today," says the artist. "I don't think people will accept 
signing a list with your thumbprint to obtain legal marijuana. The 
shadow of our last dictatorship still lingers in Uruguay's collective 
mind too strongly."

Uruguay's 1973-85 dictatorship has left deep social scars here. Even 
though only 186 people were murdered by the military, compared with 
more than 20,000 during the 1976-83 dictatorship in neighbouring 
Argentina, a large number of government opponents were imprisoned for 
lengthy periods.

Mujica himself spent 13 years in captivity, including several in 
solitary confinement, because of his membership of the leftwing 
Tupamaros urban guerrilla group in the 1960s and 1970s.

"I'm not going to register [to vote]," says Pato Teo, a 28-year-old 
waitress with Rastafarian dreadlocks who works in the riverside 
Parque Rodo neighbourhood of Montevideo. Despite her apparently 
carefree attitude, dark shadows loom in her past.

Teo was born in Sweden to political exiles of the military regime. 
She was eight years old before she came to Uruguay, bearing a Swedish 
passport and feeling confused about her identity. "I went to a school 
in Malmoe, where most of the other kids were also the children of 
exiles," she says.

All four of her grandparents had been imprisoned by the regime, two 
of them for 13 years each. Their family home, a beautiful old 
property on a tree-lined street sloping down to the River Plate, was 
confiscated by the military. The state still holds it today, more 
than three decades later. Her family's efforts to reclaim their 
property through the courts have proved fruitless even under Mujica's 

When asked how she feels about the marijuana law, she seems 
frightened. "Our family had to go into exile for its political 
beliefs," she says breathlessly. "I would never put my name or stamp 
my thumbprint on an official list of marijuana consumers; imagine how 
that could be used if things changed."

The new law has definitely liberalised attitudes towards marijuana in 
Uruguay and today weed is smoked openly on the streets of Montevideo. 
But full implementation of the law remains distant.

Questions remain, including whether the substance will be sold at 
pharmacies, as originally planned. Or will the new government that 
comes into office next year propose a different marketing system? No 
one seems to know yet.

"We're in limbo right now," says Palense, blowing cannabis smoke as 
we stand on the pavement outside his shop. "We're on the fifth ring of Saturn."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom