On Monday, President Obama will host Uruguayan President José (“Pepe”) Mujica at the White House. The visuals of the meeting will themselves be a story in contrasts: Mujica, a former member of his country’s Tupamaro guerrillas, never wears a tie. He has refused to live in the presidential mansion and instead resides in a modest farm house with his wife (also a former guerrilla) and a three-legged dog, surrounded by a garden of chrysanthemums. Mujica has donated most of his salary to charity and counts a 1987 Volkswagen Beetle as his principal financial asset.
The colorful aspects of Mujica’s personality aside, the meeting touches on important interests for both the United States and Uruguay. For the United States, it offers an opportunity to work constructively with a government of the democratic left in Latin America. Respect for the hemisphere’s ideological pluralism has been a hallmark of Obama policy since his first term. But some relationships — notably with leaders of the populist left in Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia — have crashed and burned. And Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, angered by the National Security Agency spying scandal that targeted her and her government, rebuffed the United States by cancelling what was to have been a state visit last October. Mujica’s arrival, followed by that of Chilean President Michelle Bachelet next month, signals an embrace of left governments with a strong commitment to representative democracy, the market economy and social inclusion. That message appears at least partially aimed at many in Latin America who feel that the United States has ignored the region given other foreign policy priorities.
Uruguay itself is especially deserving of U.S. attention. One of the tiniest countries in Latin America — its population of 3.4 million is less than the city of Los Angeles — it ranks at or near the top of most indicators of democratic governance and social well-being in Latin America. Following a period of brutal military rule between 1973 and 1985, and indeed over much of the last century, it has reinforced a tradition of stable institutions, low corruption, robust press freedom and low levels of crime. According to the World Bank, it has less poverty and inequality than any other country in Latin America. Its health care system is world-class in terms of the affordability and quality of care. Uruguay faces ongoing challenges in improving secondary school drop-out rates, but it occupies an enviable Number Two position on regional measures of educational achievement. Uruguay recently became the first country in the world to legalize and regulate the production, distribution and consumption of marijuana, a bold, if controversial experiment that is undoubtedly of interest to states in the U.S. that have passed or are contemplating the decriminalization of marijuana possession for personal use.
The United States has taken recent steps to increase U.S. imports of Uruguayan agricultural products, from citrus to beef. In 2013, Uruguay was only 18th among U.S. trading partners in Latin America, but the 27 percent increase in trade from the previous year was the largest of any country in the hemisphere. The implicit message has been to give Uruguay options outside of the increasingly dysfunctional Mercosur trading bloc, dominated by Brazil and Argentina, Uruguay’s largest export markets.
Mujica has responded by seeking warm relations with the United States even while pursuing an independent foreign policy. His government voted with the majority in the Organization of American States in refusing to condemn the ongoing political violence in Venezuela even while, through the Union of South American Nations, supporting the effort to foster a government-opposition dialogue. More enthusiastically than other governments in the region, Mujica has embraced ideological allies in the Cuban government. At the same time, Uruguay is among a handful of countries that have publicly offered to accept U.S. prisoners held on terrorism charges and now being released from Guantánamo. It appears that there is ongoing disagreement over whether those released will be permitted to travel outside Uruguay. But the gesture itself is significant, particularly from a country that, during the dictatorship, had one of the highest ratios of political prisoners to overall population in the world. Mujica himself spent years in solitary confinement.