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Latin America Report

Why Uruguay Is Latin America's Marijuana Reform Laboratory

La Mano (The Hand), a modernist sculpture at Punta del Este, is one of Uruguay's best known landmarks.

This article was originally published in October and has been updated.

Uruguayans love it when you tell them what a resort paradise Punta del Este is. Or how tasty the country’s Tannat wine is. Or what a stable democracy their small nation (pop. 3.5 million) has turned out to be.

What they don’t like is to hear Uruguay called, as many do label it today, “the Switzerland of South America.” Not that Uruguayans dislike Switzerland. But many if not most of them think the comparison is cliché, exaggerated, inaccurate, condescending.

But they’ll just have to live with it. Last week, on Dec. 23, Uruguay officially became the first nation to legalize the government-regulated production and sale of marijuana. (Consumption is already legal there.) It recently legalized gay marriage and abortion, rare moves in morally conservative Latin America. Its poverty level is low and foreign investment is pouring in to its mixed capitalist-socialist economy.

RELATED: Marijuana Legalization: Why U.S. Latinos Are Not Latin Americans

So even if it is a little hackneyed, people are bound to look at a progressive record like that and call Uruguay the Switzerland of South America. A lot of pot smokers in Colorado and Washington state certainly think it is: Uruguay’s weed legalization campaign helped inspire their own successful referendum efforts last year.

People are bound to look at a progressive record like that and call Uruguay the Switzerland of South America. A lot of pot smokers in Colorado and Washington state certainly think it is: Uruguay’s weed legalization campaign helped inspire their own successful referendum efforts last year.

Uruguayans themselves aren’t even all that liberal. Recent polls suggest, in fact, that most of them don’t back the marijuana measure.

Even so, the question is why such a tiny country came to have such a large influence not just in South America but in this hemisphere. So I asked Uruguayan ex-pats here in Miami to help us understand the zen of their motherland. What’s in the water of its numerous rivers that makes its conservative personality and its liberal agenda so compatible?

And why are there no Kardashians there? (Read on.)

Guntram Habsburg (a lot of Europeans have emigrated to Uruguay the past couple centuries) is the country’s tourism ministry representative in Miami. With the exception of a 12-year-long military dictatorship in the 1970s and 80s – just about every South American country had one at that time – Habsburg believes his nation has, like Costa Rica, always been one of those rare democratic models in a region better known for caudillos.

“If you look at the typical things of democracy today,” Habsburg says, “like women voting, that was implemented in Uruguay at a very early stage. It’s always been a country that implemented things that in other nations [were] more difficult. It’s also because of our size and the transparency of our government. We had our dark moments during dictatorship. But even that wasn’t as bad as in other countries.”

And don’t ever forget, Habsburg makes a point of reminding me, that little Uruguay is an international soccer powerhouse, too.

Role Of Education

Like a lot of Uruguayans in Miami, you can often find Zelmira Crespi at the Medialunas Calentitas café on Brickell. Crespi, who works in communications, believes Uruguay so often punches above its weight because it’s more grounded than other Latin American countries.

“For starters,” she tells me, “Uruguay has always had a very strong educational system. We’re like the turtle and the hare story: The Uruguayan is a very low-key type of person who doesn’t want to show off but does things very well. We don’t want to be rich and famous, but we do want to be stable. That’s why we have all our social [measures]. I mean, a Kardashian model in Uruguay would just bomb. Completely.”

Ignacio Pedronzo says you have to go back to the early 20th Century to understand why Uruguay is an apt laboratory for measures like today’s marijuana bill. Pedronzo runs the Sammer art gallery in Wynwood, where he shows me its collection of paintings by Uruguay’s modernist master, Joaquín Torres García, who counted Picasso among his amigos.

RELATED: Why Florida Is Out Of Step With The Rest Of The Hemisphere On Marijuana

Torres García “was the father of modern art not only in Uruguay but in all of [the Americas],” Pedronzo argues. More than that, the artist helped galvanize a cultural, social and even economic boom in Uruguay in the 1940s and 50s that laid the groundwork for its contemporary character.

“Right now it seems like all people [are] looking to Uruguay,” says Pedronzo. “I think it’s kind of a good country to make like a kind of experiment, a great way to prove this new policy they want to implement about marijuana.”

Uruguayan President José Mujica – who fought the dictatorship as a leftist guerrilla – pushed for the marijuana measure as a way to move the drug out of the black market and deprive violent narco-mafias a chunk of their revenue. It’s the kind of drug war reform that many Latin American governments wish the U.S. would more seriously consider.

But if you’re planning to travel to Uruguay and light up a legal joint – don’t. Foreigners will not be allowed to buy the regulated pot. Try instead, says Habsburg, a nice bottle of Tannat.

Weed and wine. And no Kardashians! Maybe sometimes smaller is better. Maybe Switzerland should be called the Uruguay of Europe.

The Latin America Report is sponsored by Espírito Santo Bank.



Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.