On a continent where there’s often a strong correlation between wealth and political power, Uruguayan president José (Pepe) Mujica is a conspicuous exception. His Southern Cone counterparts, Sebastián Piñera of Chile and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina, made fortunes from credit cards and real estate, respectively, and appear to enjoy the perks of office (though Piñera has put his assets into a blind trust). Mujica, though, even eschews the presidential palace to live on a small flower farm outside Montevideo (as shown in the BBC report below). According to his obligatory statement of wealth, his only tangible asset is an aging VW bug, and he donates most of his salary to charity.
All this suggests that Mujica is a political maverick, but we could say the same of Uruguay as a whole. On a continent where the Catholic Church has often held disproportionate influence in public life – Chile legalized divorce just eight years ago – Uruguay is a secular state in which not even Christmas and Easter, for example, are official holidays. Rather, December 25 is Día de la Familia (Family Day), and Semana Santa (Holy Week) is the Semana de Turismo (Tourism Week). If the believers wish to observe differently, they are free to do so.
More recently, Uruguay’s unconventionality has extended to other issues. In October, the Congress decriminalized abortion by a narrow vote, despite opposition from the Church, and last week the Cámara de Diputados, the lower house of the bicameral Congress (depicted below), voted to legalize gay marriage by an overwhelming vote of 81 to six (In 2008, Uruguay was the first Latin American country to acknowledge civil unions for both heterosexual and homosexual couples). It remains for the Senate to consider the issue, but passage appears probable and the president will likely sign on to it.
On another controversial topic, the legalization of marijuana, Uruguay has been considering legislation since August, but it’s not the freewheeling sort of measure that might bring an invasion of stoners from around the continent and the world. Rather, it would permit private cultivation and usage by Uruguayan citizens only, under government regulation and supervision. Some cynics, of course, have suggested that President Mujica himself might use that flower farm outside Montevideo for his own stash.