OK, just who is this guy? He drives a beat-up 1980s Volkswagen to work, owns a three-legged dog, grows flowers on a small farm on the city outskirts, and donates 90% of his salary to charity. Oh, and he once spent two years imprisoned at the bottom of a well.
He’s the president of Uruguay.
A guerilla fighter during Uruguay’s military dictatorship, Jose Mujica was elected to his country's top office in 2009. Now he's making headlines around the world for his efforts to stop the war on women – and for a brave new approach towards ending the war on drugs.
Ending the war on women
Following a landmark vote last week, Uruguay looks set to be only the second country in Latin America (after Cuba) to legalise abortion.
Despite a ban in most Latin American countries, abortion rates are higher than in western Europe or the US – in part because lack of education means contraceptive use is low. Wealthy women turn to a black market of private physicians to perform abortions, while the poor are forced to use dangerous backstreet methods. As a result, some 5,000 women die from abortions each year in Latin America.
Opinion polls in recent years have consistently shown a narrow but firm majority in Uruguay in favour of legalising abortion. In 2008, parliament voted to allow it, but the measure was vetoed by the then President Tabare Vazquez.
Now the idea's back, and a new bill that allows abortion with certain restrictions during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy has passed the lower house of the Uruguayan parliament, thanks to the backing of the president’s Popular Front coalition.
The bill comes with conditions – a bureaucratic procedure requiring an interview by a panel of three and a five-day "reflection" period – but overall, it’s a big step forward for women’s rights.
More importantly, thanks to Mujica’s personal support, the bill is actually expected to become law this time round. The upper house is due to approve the law, having voted on a similar (but more expansive) measure earlier this year.
So for the first time in Uruguay's history, women will have access to safe and legal abortions. It's a shining example of progress that should force reactionary law makers in many other Latin American countries - for example Peru, Honduras, and Costa Rica – to sit up and take notice.
Ending the war on drugs
If that wasn't enough, Uruguay has also attracted headlines this year with a proposal to legalise the sale and distribution of marijuana, and to establish a government marijuana monopoly.
Mujica’s move is part of a broader shift in Latin America, where citizens are fed up with the disastrous effects of the US-led "war on drugs" – not to mention its abject failure to actually stop the drug trade. In Mexico, over 60,000 people have died in drug-related violence during the outgoing President Felipe Calderon’s six-year fight to reduce the flow of drugs into the US.
Calderon himself acknowledged the failure of Mexico’s approach just last week at the UN general assembly. Together with the presidents of Colombia and Guatemala (the latter a right-wing former general), Calderon called for a global debate on a new approach to the drug trade.
Uruguay’s role in the international drug trade is small – and it is predominantly cocaine that drives the Latin American trade, not marijuana. But in proposing a government monopoly – enforced by selling at prices that criminal gangs cannot compete with – Mujica has put Uruguay's model at the front of the debate.
As in a growing number of countries worldwide, possession of small quantities of marijuana for personal use has already been decriminalised in Uruguay. But users are forced to buy from dealers with links to large drug cartels. By removing the cartels from the market, Uruguay’s approach might just work in reducing drug-related crime – and provide a badly needed government revenue stream to help address the health problems of drug addiction.
As a stable country of just 3 million people, it’s a country well placed to experiment – and it's a test other Latin American leaders are certain to watch with interest. “Someone has to be first,” says Mujica.
So thanks to the president in a Volkswagen, Uruguayan women will soon have access to safe abortions and Uruguayan drug gangs may soon be on the back foot, making the country safer for everyone.
Now that's leadership.
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Sources: Business Week, Digital Journal, Global Research, Fox News Latino, New York Times, BBC, Telegraph, AFP, NPR, Avaaz, Reproductive Rights, Wikipedia, Wall Street Journal, Reuters, New York Times, Washington Office on Latin America