Why is Uruguay different?
Over the last few years Uruguay and it’s president Pepe Mujica has gotten a lot of press. The country’s legalized marijuana, gay marriage, abortion while expanding free education for all, laptops for school children, internet free in every home. All this while on track to have over 90% of energy production being renewable and maintaining strong economic growth. The economist magazine invented a new award in 2013, Country of the Year, just so they could give it to Uruguay.
Mujica is somebody who believes in leading by example, he donates almost all of his income to charity, lives and talks like average Uruguayans. As a president he’s not been very ‘presidential’ but he has been very effective. He’s managed to balance interests and pass legislation. He’s about getting stuff done vs talking about it.
So why can’t there be more leaders like Mujica. Well it’s complicated. He’s a reflection of the politics and country which elected him. Many people say Uruguay’s unique, it used to be called the Switzerland of South America. But since the 60’s it’s been pretty average. Muddling along through dictatorships and economic crises like the rest of the region.
To explain why Mujica got elected, how he was able to govern and reshape Uruguay we need a tiny bit of a history lesson. Uruguay exists because the British created in to negotiate an end to a war between Argentina and Brazil. It’s a kind of buffer state, which the British used to get in to South America in the early 1800’s. Around 1900 the country’s leadership decided to switch from a hybrid british / spanish model to try and restructure the state based on a model of French social democracy. Basically the idea of strong unions, strong government, civic participation, high taxes, and universal education.
Uruguayans came to identify themselves as a little country who did things better. This national self image is best embodied by winning the world cup twice in 1930 and 1950. The first half of the 20th century was known as the time of the fat cow. An export driven economy based on cattle and off shore banking funded ‘first world’ levels of wealth. The second half of the 20th century lead to marxist rebellions (partially lead by Mujica), dictatorships, economic crises, and generally the county became much poorer. Finally in 2002 an economic crisis lead to a moment where an insurgent political party, Frente Ampilo was able to take power.
Because of the history with social democracy, Uruguay has a constitution and voting system which is quite open and balanced. This system uses a kind of proportional representation, direct election of presidents, and referendum. It also has some reasonable separation of powers between branches of the government. This is similar to the electoral systems of northern europe. Despite a fair proportional system of voting, Uruguay used to have two political parties, not unlike the democrats and republicans. The colorados (think democrats) had their power based in the cities, and blancos (republicans) had their power base in the country side.
When democracy was restored in 1984, Uruguayan leftists decided to unify under a broad front, Frente Amplio. The Frente worked hard with local organizing, opening offices in every neighborhood, building strong connections with a broad range of institutions. Over the course of 20 years they went from a marginal force to replacing the two traditional parties as the major political force of the country. The marxists guerrillas like Mujica gave up armed struggle and joined Frente Amplio.
During the time before Frente Amplio took power in 2005, they fought over a number of smaller political struggles. They won elections to run the Montevideo city government and they proposed and contested a number of referendums. Uruguay has a system, similar to some states in the US, where with signatures you can write or overturn laws. From 1985 to 2005 Frente used these referendums to prevent privatization and protect the social democratic welfare state.
Mujica was an effective organizer and leader within his faction of Frente Amplio, the MPP, which was formed by the former marxist guerrillas the Tupamaro. The first Frente Amplio president of Uruguay, Tabare Vázquez, a medical doctor was a moderate choice who focused on inclusion and good government rather than radical change. After Tabare’s first term, Mujica organized an insurgent campaign for the nomination and then won the general election.
Mujica’s platform was of continuity with the previous Frente Amplio government, a center left coalition modeled off of PT (the workers party) in brazil instead of the radical populism of Kirchner in Argentina and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.
He took power with a simple majority in both houses of parliament and a majority of the department (provincial / state) governments. What’s more, Uruguayan political parties are actually coalitions where each sub party gets their own seats and has their own power. This means that the way to shift your coalition’s power is by your sub party getting more votes and therefore more seats. This is very different from how it works in the US where fights between mainstream republicans and the tea party is messy, confusing, and full of back room deals.
When Mujica won, his MPP party also became the largest faction within Frente Amplio. He had to work with everybody to get stuff done, but his faction had real power to push things through. The political system in Uruguay creates situations where leaders both have the power to enact Legislation and real incentive to build consensus. The system of three major stable coalitions of political parties with full elections to decide power balances has a huge effect. By Latin American standards, the power of the president and ‘caudillo’ strongmen only have weak control over the system.
This is different from other systems. In many latin american countries, the president can decree things. In the US there’s two parties who have minimal policy differences but who hate each other. In Uruguay you win by winning elections, not by controlling the candidates or electoral tricks. You make policy by building consensus amongst political parties and powerful organizations within the country.
Mujica was able to be effective because he has tremendous credibility with the left. He was an armed revolutionary who spend 14 years in military prison for his efforts. He never renounced his revolutionary tactics or ideology. Then he reached out the centrist parts of Frente Amplio and opposition parties and negotiated reforms. He refused to engage in the blame game and worked hard not to alienate the traditional parties. This is the opposite of what’s happened across the river in Argentina, where all politics has become us vs them.
Mujica also embraced the idea that the personal is political. That politicians should live like and reflect the people they represent. His house is like the vast majority of uruguayans. He’s got the same stuff, as most uruguayans. He eats, drinks, sleeps, drives like his people. Most uruguayans live in small houses with bad heating. If they have a car, it’s old and clunky. Uruguayans make value choices which focus on family, on vacation, on quality of life and not material wealth.
So how do you get a Mujica in your country?
Well start 100 years ago, create a culture of social democratic inclusion. Build an electoral and constitutional system which is fair and decides power struggles in public instead of back room deals. Create a culture of resolving problems with consensus. Build a strong bottom up institutional structure for social and political movements. Make sure there are strong checks on the power of individuals gaining too much political or economic power.
Develop a political culture which allows politicians to be full people. Allow politicians to have a past and not be perfect. Just imagine how in the US Obama was criticized because he’d had dinner with people who’d been marxist urban guerrillas in the 1970’s. Mujica had BEEN one of those guerrillas.
Mujica’s unique. But other countries can fight to have politicians who are true reflections of their society. Elected leaders who do not think they are better than everybody else. Who lead by following the will of their people. The structure and institutions of Uruguayan society are what allowed Mujica to come to power. We don’t see more Mujica’s in the world of politics because most countries don’t have democracies which work as well as Uruguay’s.