MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay—This South American nation of just 3.3 million people has become the site of a socially liberal experiment of sorts.
In the past year, Uruguay’s center-left government has taken on a raft of issues long seen as taboo in conservative Latin America. Abortion was legalized last year, and in August gay couples began to marry under new legislation. In the coming weeks, the Senate is expected to approve a bill that would give Uruguay the world’s most liberal marijuana laws.
“Uruguay is the perfect laboratory to see if these ideas work or not,” said Diego Cánepa, the chief of staff of the country’s President José Mujica, whose left-wing coalition controls the government and has been behind the flurry of legislation.
A century ago, Uruguay was sometimes called the “Switzerland of South America” for its stability, middle class and social agenda, which set an eight-hour workday and gave women the vote before the U.S.
Uruguay has passed more than 40 laws expanding workers’ rights since 2008, including new protections to domestic workers and rural peasants, said Monica Xavier, a senator and Broad Front president. She noted another change: Strict restrictions on the tobacco industry, which have stripped cigarette ads from Montevideo’s boulevards.
The measures aren’t just putting Uruguay on the map, but Mr. Mujica himself, the 78-year-old former guerrilla who rose to the presidency three years ago. Mr. Mujica’s figure has been hard to miss in regional politics: He is known for arriving to work in an old Volkswagen and for rejecting the president’s palace for the small farm where he still lives and tends to flowers. He donates most of his salary, and has been dubbed “the world’s poorest president.”
At the same time, Mr. Mujica has also shifted his leftist coalition away from the kind of politics that focused on class conflict and was typified by Venezuela’s late firebrand president, Hugo Chávez, and neighboring Argentina’s leader, Cristina Kirchner.
“The agenda isn’t the traditional Latin American left, it’s much more like what you have in the U.S. or Europe,” said Gerardo Caetano, a political scientist.
Still, many sectors of Uruguay remain staunchly conservative and have their doubts about the direction the country has headed. “We’ve departed from being a country of values,” said Gerardo Amarilla, a congressman from the country’s National Party, who voted against the laws presented by the Broad Front. Mr. Amarilla said he feared the marijuana law would increase the number of drug users in Uruguay and was being promoted by legalization advocates to set a precedent for other nations.
Others worry that Mr. Mujica’s focus on civil rights has taken attention off the country’s social services. While country’s health and education systems still remain among the best in the region, many wealthy Uruguayans now opt for private schools and hospitals amid a deterioration of public services.
“The basics of what the state in Uruguay provides are in trouble,” said Claudio Paolillo, editor of the weekly newspaper Búsqueda. “These reforms in some way are covering up larger social problems in Uruguay.” Mr. Paolillo feels the country’s infrastructure has been neglected by Mr. Mujica, whose vows to connect the country’s interior to its port through Chinese-built railroads haven’t progressed.
Mr. Cánepa, the chief of staff, said he felt Uruguayans valued the government’s performance and said the country’s institutions still were far ahead of neighbors.
Of the recent legislation, it was perhaps the abortion laws that encountered the most turbulence in Uruguay. A similar bill several years before, which passed congress but was vetoed by then President Tabaré Vázquez, who cited his concerns as a physician. After taking the presidency Mr. Mujica expressed interest in passing the bill and signed it last October. Still opponents fired back with a vote to call a referendum in June, but that failed by a large margin.
The gay marriage law, signed in May with less popular backing, came into being after a coalition of gay-rights activists pressured politicians on both sides of the aisle. “It wasn’t a topic the Uruguayan population understood easily,” said Federico Graña, who heads the gay-rights group Black Sheep. Argentina had passed a similar law in 2010, a measure that set a precedent for its neighbor.
The marijuana law, which legalizes as much as 40 grams for personal use each month, is probably most controversial of the current legislation. Originally proposed in 2012, the proposal was shelved by Mr. Mujica early this year when polling showed that nearly two-thirds of Uruguayans opposed legalizing the drug.
The government pushed an earlier argument that legalizing marijuana would weaken crime groups by putting profits from marijuana in the hands of the government rather than drug traffickers. In the spring, the Broad Front—with the help of several drug rights NGOs—began an advertising blitz to explain the security rationale. On July 31, after more than 13 hours of heated debate, Uruguay’s lower house passed the law. The Senate is expected to do the same.
The U.S. government, which has pushed efforts to eradicate drug trafficking rather than legalize substances, declined to comment on Uruguay’s measures. But the country doesn’t lie on a drug trafficking route north, so legalization laws in that country are unlikely to affect the U.S.
Mr. Cánepa, the president’s chief of staff, said he expected the law to be passed in coming weeks after the Senate makes revisions. “In Uruguay we have the conditions to take a new tack, so why not take it?” he said.