Should Uruguay Be the Alternative to 21st Century Socialism?

President José Mujica. Image: U.S. Embassy Uruguay. On 29 January 2014, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto awarded Uruguayan President José Mujica the “Eagle Knight” medal at the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) Summit in Havana. Peña Nieto called Mujica “a great friend of Mexico.” As he was receiving the gilded necklace-shaped award, Mujica quipped: “You’re going to excuse me, but I don’t even wear a tie. I feel a bit shy.”

Mujica’s minimalistic lifestyle and his support for liberal policies have put Uruguay in the global spotlight. In the words of Peña Nieto, Uruguay has become “a reference in Latin American society.” Uruguay, South America’s second smallest nation with a population of three million, has sent shockwaves across the Western Hemisphere for being the first nation to legalize marijuana growth, sale, and consumption in an attempt to stem drug cartels.

Uruguay’s legalization model, enacted in December 2013, is close to the dream of many drug policy advocates. Once the government seizes control of the marijuana market, it will spoil profitability for drug kingpins. Marijuana users must be registered with the government, and if they claim to use cannabis for medical purposes, they must show a doctor’s prescription, and can only purchase cannabis in licensed pharmacies. The model seeks to encourage legislative changes to ease draconian drug policies in other countries and international institutions. In fact, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime recently announced it would ease restrictions on drug consumption to reduce the number of drug-related incarcerations across the globe.

Uruguay’s innovative drug policies, along with other revolutionary legislations, led The Economist to choose Uruguay as the “country of the year” in 2013. That year, Uruguay became the third country to legalize gay marriage after Argentina and Canada. The law even allows foreign gay couples to be married. Uruguay has also updated divorce laws and decriminalized abortion.

Moreover, Mujica has led the way to “spread of wealth” in the country. Formerly a tupamaro (guerrilla member) in the 1970s, Mujica is the world’s poorest president. Instead of living in Montevideo’s presidential palace, he opted to reside in his ramshackle flower farm in a less privileged neighborhood at the outskirts of Uruguay’s capital. He donates 90 percent of his monthly salary (USD 12,000) to charities that help the poor and small entrepreneurs.

Ever since former President Tabaré Vazquez and Mujica clinched the presidency consecutively on behalf of their left-leaning party Broad Front, Uruguay has joined the ranks of the Leftist movement in Latin America, which includes Venezuela, Chile, Brazil, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Cuba. With the rise of some of these countries’ leaders, a term coined by political analyst Heinz Dieterich has gained popularity: “21st Century Socialism.” According to Dieterich, 21st Century Socialism’s goals include the creation of nonviolent sociopolitical processes as well as the elimination of poverty, hunger, exploitation, economic oppression, sexism, and the destruction of natural resources. This ideological current also challenges U.S. influence in the region by integrating Latin America through economic and trade blocks such as the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), and Mercosur.

However, countries like Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia cannot truly represent this version of socialism. Rather than ensuring democracy and economic development, the excessive use of populism has trumped progress and failed to meet the above-mentioned tenets of 21st Century Socialism. In Ecuador, Venezuela, and Bolivia, overdependence on natural resources to sustain the economy threatens the environment. One of Ecuador’s most controversial moves recently was a commission to produce oil in the Yasuni National Park, home to uncontacted indigenous tribes and a diverse biosphere. In Venezuela, over-exploitation of oil has sustainedmisiones, or social programs, but scarcity and a spiraling unrest continue to besiege the country. Venezuela has become more and more politically polarized, and fundamental rights such as freedom of press and even redressing grievances in public squares have been clenched by authoritarianism.

In contrast, although Uruguay has enacted some of the most liberal policies to date in the Western Hemisphere, it has also also facilitated freedom for business and investors that encourages internal competition. It is now the biggest exporter of software in Latin America and is becoming one of the region’s most important technology hubs. Uruguay has been considered the “Switzerland of South America” because of its strong banking services, and the public sector plays a vital role in Uruguay’s economy. In this sense, Uruguay has violated the Marxian labor theory of value tenet of 21st Century Socialism. However, under Mujica’s leadership, the Broad Front party has also sought to redistribute wealth among Uruguayans while implementing social programs to improve the country’s well being.

Although other economic areas in Uruguay still need improvement, Uruguay has demonstrated that it can pursue revolutionary policies without using staunch populism or Venezuela’s version of 21st Century Socialism, which has yet to produce positive outcomes. Venezuela touts that, thanks to its socialist model, the poverty line dropped to as low as 18 percent, but Uruguay has achieved the same results without strictly following the theoretical tenets of the 21st Century Socialism. As The Economist pointed out, the emulation of Uruguay’s bold policies do not “merely improve a single nation but, if emulated, might benefit the world.” Perhaps the other so-called 21st Century Socialist countries should take note and evaluate if their formula really works. Finally, if their leaders claim to advocate equality and wealth distribution, they might consider changing some of their extravagant lifestyles by following Mujica’s example.