The Uruguayan Example

by Mario Vargas Llosa, member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy

Originally printed in Spanish on Dec. 29, 2013 in El País: Article link

Translation by Jorge Herrera

Liberty has its risks, and those who believe in it must be willing to run them. This is how the government of José Mujica has understood it when it decided to legalize marijuana and gay marriage, something which should be applauded.

The Economist has done well in declaring Uruguay the country of the year and in describing as remarkable the two most liberal reforms made in 2013 by the government of President José Mujica: legalizing gay marriage and regulating the production, sale and consumption of marijuana.

It is extraordinary that both measures, inspired by the culture of liberty, have been taken by the government of a movement that originally did not believe in democracy but in the Marxist-Leninist revolution and the Cuban model of vertical authoritarianism and the single-party rule system. Since President José Mujica took office, who in his youth was a Tupamaros guerrilla member that robbed banks and spent many years in prison, where he was tortured during the military dictatorship; he has scrupulously respected the democratic institutions –freedom of press, independency powers, coexistence of political parties and free elections—as well as the market economy, private property, and encouraged foreign investment. This elder and friendly statesman that talks with an unusual sincerity, even if that means screwing some things from time to time, lives very modestly on his small farm on the outskirts of Montevideo and always travels in second class, and has given a stable, modern, free and secure image to Uruguay, which has allowed it to grow economically and to advance in social justice while it is extending the benefits of freedom in all fields, overcoming the pressures of a recalcitrant minority alliance.

It is important to remember that Uruguay, unlike most Latin American countries, has a long and strong democratic tradition, to the point where, when I was a child, it was named the “Switzerland of the Americas” because of the force of its civil society, the roots of legality and friendly armed forces that were respectful of the constitutional governments. In addition, especially after the reforms implemented by Jose Battle, which reinforced secularism and developed a powerful middle class, Uruguayan society had a first-level education, a very rich cultural life and a balanced and harmonious citizenship that was the envy of the continent.

I remember the impression I had when I went to meet Uruguay during the mid-sixties. It did not seem to be one of our countries, because the economic and social differences were much less stark and extreme than in the rest of Latin America and in which the quality of the press and radio, theaters, bookshops, high level political debates, college life, artists and writers –especially the handful of critics and their influence on the tasted of the overall public– and the unrestricted freedom that could be felt everywhere, brought it so much closer to the most advanced European countries than to its neighbors. There is where I discovered the weekly Marcha, one of the best magazines I have ever met, and that became for me since then a required reading in order to be aware of what was happening in Latin America.

Nevertheless, already at that time it had begun to deteriorate that society that gave the impression to every foreigner of going far away from the third world, and getting closer to the first. Because, despite all the good things that happen there, many young – and some not so young – people, succumbed to the fascination of the revolutionary utopia and initiated, according to the Cuban model, violent actions that would destroy the “bourgeois democracy”, not to replace it for a socialist paradise, but by a right-wing military dictatorship that filled the jails with political prisoners, practiced torture and forced into exile to many thousands of Uruguayans. The drain of talent and best professionals, artists and intellectuals that Uruguay suffered in those years was proportionally one of the most critical ever lived in the history of a Latin American country. However, the democratic tradition and the culture of legality and freedom were not completely eclipsed during those years of terror, and at the fall of dictatorship and the restoration of democratic life, they flourished again more vigorously and, it seems, with an accumulated experience that has certainly raised both the right and the left against the violent illusions of the past.

Otherwise it would not have been possible for the radical left, which along with the Frente Amplio and the Tupamaros came to power, gave signs, from the outset, of a pragmatism and realistic spirit that has allowed the coexistence in diversity and deepened the democracy in Uruguay instead of perverting it. This democratic and liberal profile explains the courage with which the government of President José Mujica has authorized the marriage between same-sex couples and made that Uruguay could become the first country in the world to radically change its policy against the drug problem, which is a crucial issue all around the globe, but particularly acute in Latin America. Both are very deep and far-reaching reforms that, according to The Economist, “can benefit the whole world”.

Same-sex marriage, already approved in several countries, tends to combat a stupid prejudice, and to repair an injustice by which millions of people have suffered (and still suffer today) from arbitrary and systematic discrimination, from the inquisition to prison, harassment, social marginalization and all kind of abuses. Inspired by the absurd belief that there is only one “normal” sexual identity –the heterosexual—and that whoever departs from it is a mentally ill or a delinquent, gays and lesbians still face bans, abuse and intolerance which preclude them to have a free and open life, although, fortunately, in this field, at least in the West, the prejudice and homophobic taboos have been crumbling, and has been replaced by the rational conviction that sexual orientation should be as open and diverse as religion or politics, and that homosexual couples are as “normal” as heterosexuals. (In an act of pure barbarism, Uganda’s parliament recently passed a law establishing life imprisonment for all homosexuals).

Regarding drugs, the idea that repression is the best way to address the drug problem still prevails in the world, although experience has exhaustively demonstrated that despite the huge amount of resources and efforts that have been invested in repressing them, manufacture and consumption continue to rise everywhere, fattening mafias and drug-related crime. This is today the main factor of corruption that threatens the new and old democracies and that has been covering Latin American cities of gunmen and corpses.

Will the Uruguayan bold experiment to legalize the production and consumption of marijuana be successful? It would be undoubtedly much more successful, if the measure did not stay confined to a single country and it would comprise an international agreement involving both producing and consuming countries. But even so, the measure will hit the traffickers and therefore the crime derived of illegal consumption, and it will eventually show that legalization does not noticeably increase consumption in the long-run, but in the short one, because once the taboo that usually give prestige to the drug in face of the young people is gone, consumption tends to reduce. The most important thing is that legalization must be accompanied by educational campaigns – such as those against tobacco consumption or that explain the harmful effects of alcohol – and rehabilitation, so that those who smoke marijuana do so with full awareness of what they do, as it happens today with those who smoke tobacco or drink alcohol.

Liberty has its risks, and those who believe in it must be willing to run them in all fields, not only in the cultural, religious and political field. This is how the Uruguayan government has understood it, something to be applauded. I hope others will learn this lesson and follow suit.