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A lesson in humility from Uruguay

By Kethi D Kilonzo | January 19th 2014 at 00:00:00 GMT +0300

By Kethi D Kilonzo
[email protected]

Uruguay was named by The Economist as the Country of the Year in 2013. Uruguay was not picked by The Economist because it had the best economic performance. Oddly, South Sudan did with a 30 per cent growth of GDP in 2013. It was not chosen because of the impact of its leadership. The Economist felt that President Bashar Assad of Syria deserved that dubious distinction because of the extent of the misery he had levied on his people as a result of which millions of Syrians are now refugees.

Uruguay was chosen because of the path breaking reforms that it had made. In 2013 it passed a law to legalise and regulate the production, sale and consumption of marijuana. It is the only country in the world to do so. The President referred to the new law as an experiment! Uruguay also legalised gay marriage.

According to The Economist, these reforms not only improved the nation, but if copied would benefit the world. Producing marijuana legally to supply domestic recreational demand could be Uruguay’s first step to becoming a marijuana exporter and a Research and Development Centre brimming with foreign investment.

The law and the country is focused on ensuring Uruguay’s estimated 20,000 regular pot smokers can get their fix legally. One of the purposes of the law was to separate the market, users from traffickers, marijuana from other drugs. A new state institute is expected to hand out production licences to farmers in the coming months. It might not have been an objective of the law, but Uruguay could become a hub for biotechnology as a result. Whether these laws offend our morals or not, by blazing the trail Uruguay has made its mark on the global arena.

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To succeed and flourish, states and nations need an attractive idea of what they are. The idea of nationhood should be attractive enough to keep the distinct parts or the citizens together. All countries are artificial entities. They consist of an imagined community of people. The citizens of a country are bound not by face-to-face interaction but a communal sense of project and purpose maintained by institutions.

The question why nations fall apart and fail is not an economic one. It is much more delicate. It can’t be answered in empirical terms or through statistics. It is not economic growth or poverty that tears the seams of a country apart. Libya, Egypt and Tunisia are among the wealthiest nations in Africa. Nations fall apart when citizens feel disconnected amongst themselves, and with their leadership. The legitimacy of authority does not lie in the law or force.

To get to the pinnacle Uruguay, like any other country, has had its ups and downs. Between 1973 and 1985 it was under military rule. The Supreme Court ruled in October 2009 that amnesty laws protecting members of the military dictatorship from prosecution for human rights violations under the military were unconstitutional. Days later, former military ruler Gregorio Alvarez was sentenced to 25 years in prison for the murder of 37 people and human rights violations, and in February 2010 former President Juan Maria Bordaberry was also sentenced to 30 years for murder and his role in the 1973 military coup.

On May 9, 2013, General Miguel Dalmao became the first active general convicted for human rights violations during Uruguay’s 1970s dictatorship. Dalmao was convicted and sentenced to serve 28 years in prison over the death of a communist professor in 1974. Dalmao was a 23-year-old lieutenant at the time of the professor’s death.

Uruguay is the only country with a President, José Mujica, who lives in a humble cottage, drives himself to work in a Volkswagen Beetle and flies in economy class.


Uruguay The Economist
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