In a region riddled with corruption, Uruguay leads in transparency

Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, which in 2013 became the second Latin American country to legalize gay marriage. (Credit: Jimmy Baikovicius/Flickr)

While Brazil, Guatemala and other countries across Latin America continue the struggle to end political corruption and spur economic progress, Uruguay has been quietly setting a precedent for what it is to have a transparent government.

With only 3.3 million inhabitants, Uruguay is the least populated nation in Latin America. According to The Economist’s 2015 democracy index, it is also the single Latin American country to be ranked among the world’s 20 “full democracies,” as well as the least corrupt and most democratic country in Latin America last year.

Earlier this year, an op-ed for the New York Times noted Uruguayan culture’s “deep respect for the rule of law,” as well as a “refreshing” lack of nationalism. This combination has, perhaps, led to the progress Uruguay has seen in recent years as one of the few countries of the world with perfect scores on the indexes of civil liberties and electoral process.

Although transparency does not inherently lead to progress, it has forced Uruguay’s government to more closely follow its promises. In 2012, a landmark abortion law made Uruguay the second country in Latin America (after Cuba) to allow women access to legal and safe abortions.

In 2013, then-president José Mujica led the country in legalizing gay marriage as well as marijuana, with the argument that decriminalizing the drug would finally curb the power of drug cartels.

In an effort to cut smoking rates, the country has also cracked down so strongly on cigarette advertising that it is now being sued by tobacco giant Philip Morris.

“We must remember that Uruguay, in contrast with most Latin American countries, has a long and solid democratic tradition, to the extent that when it was a young nation it was known as ‘the Switzerland of America’ for the strength of its civil society, deep-rooted rule of law, and for armed forces which are respectful of the constitutional government,” said famed Peruvian writer and politician Mario Vargas Llosa, in a recent tribute to former President Mujica’s initiatives on gay marriage and marijuana.

One of the most recent milestones reached by the developing nation is in the shift toward renewable energies. In the last decade, Uruguay went from having virtually no wind generation to receiving the largest share of clean energy investment as a percentage of GDP in 2013, and in 2014, installed the most wind per capita of any country.

Last year, Uruguay grabbed international headlines in announcing that 95 percent of its electricity now comes from renewable energy resources.

In the near future, Uruguay will be grappling with some new challenges. Although the growth and sale of marijuana has already been legalized, there are still political and logistical obstacles to overcome before the country begins commercialization of the drug. And despite legal advances for gay rights movement, the LGBT+ community still faces the social stigmas that exist on the rest of the continent, with Uruguay’s LGBT+ population likely overrepresented in the bottom 40 percent, making this group vulnerable to falling into poverty.

It is, nonetheless, clear that over the last decade, Uruguay has set a precedent in government transparency, social and environmental progress.  As other countries of the region now work to mold their own progressive legacies, some experts have begun pointing to Uruguay – the country that leads by example.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com