Is Uruguay the Key to Improving US-Latin American Relations?

President Barack Obama often received criticism during his first term in office for neglecting Latin America. Between his attempts to draw down American military involvement in the Middle East and the domestic fight for the Affordable Care Act, many analysts believed that Obama failed to adequately address the myriad of issues that face U.S.-Latin American relations and therefore lost an opportunity to restart strong diplomatic relations with the region.

Toward the end of Obama’s first term, however, a shift in this engagement began to emerge. The United States increased trade with the region by 6 percent from 2011 to 2012 and Obama more directly engaged with heads of state in the region, visiting Mexico and hosting world leaders from Peru, Colombia, and Chile.

As of this week, Uruguay’s President José Mujica can be added to this list. For a small nation with approximately 3.4 million citizens, the visit marked a momentous event for the country. No Uruguayan president has visited the White House since
Tabaré Vásquez in 2006.

Uruguay recently received a relatively large degree of worldwide attention for instituting policies such as legalizing the sale and distribution of marijuana, laws that went into effect last week, as well as same-sex marriage and abortion. Mujica’s visit to the U.S., though, stemmed from the country’s decision to accept former Guantanamo prisoners into the country.

The negotiations over these agreements haven’t been easy. The U.S. wanted to impose restrictions on the former prisoners, but Mujica, a former political prisoner himself during the nation’s military dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s, stressed that “he would not be their jailer,” and any former detainees that come will be “refugees and there will be a place for them in Uruguay if they want to bring their families.”

The most recent reports suggest that Uruguay will accept between 8-12 former detainees.

Mujica, known for shunning the trappings of the presidency in which he never wears a tie, was seen in December sporting sandals at a major government conference. Even when heading to the White House to meet President Obama, Mujica changed his appearance by donning a nice pair of shoes, but the ties were still left at home. In many ways, Mujica was just being himself, but his refusal to adjust his own dress code in the face of U.S. power and formality set a tone for how Mujica intended to address a range of discussions with the United States as well.

While Obama praised the country’s commitment to democracy and human rights, Mujica focused on technological and student exchanges, bilingual education, and the dangers of smoking. The last is of particular concern since Philip Morris is suing the small nation for $2 billion, according to Mujica — a huge percentage of the nation’s $50 billion GDP.

Philip Morris says the amount is only $25 million, but the Mujica insists it is the higher amount.

Uruguay currently has one of the strictest anti-tobacco laws in the world, where warnings about the dangers of cigarettes must cover at least 80 percent of each cigarette pack. Philip Morris argues that this law, which passed in 2009, violates its intellectual property rights.

Mujica capitalized on his high profile audience in the Oval Office to stress the dangers of smoking to Obama, a former smoker himself. Mujica explained that with 8 million people dying a year from smoking, the world was engaged in an arduous fight against “very strong interests,” which was why Uruguay found itself in the midst of a litigation battle.

These discussions of social issues, however, did not occur at the expense of economic negotiations. This relationship is particularly important for Uruguay since the United States recently increased its investment in Uruguayan products, such as citrus and beef. In absolute volume in 2013, Uruguay was only 18th among U.S. trading partners in Latin America, but the ranking denotes a 27 percent increase in trade from the previous year, which was the largest percentage increase of any country in the Western Hemisphere.

Uruguay though holds particular diplomatic importance for the U.S. as well. Mujica is part of Uruguay’s Frente Amplio, the country’s leftist coalition. He is the second consecutive president elected from this party, and the Frente Amplio has a good chance of continuing its stay in power after the October elections.

Obama’s policies to engage other leftist governments in the region, such as Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia, have not fared particularly well. Strengthening a relationship with Uruguay’s leftist government, therefore, recovers some of Obama’s goals of working with the more leftist governments in the region. Mujica’s particularly strong relationship with these governments might also provide an opportunity for Obama’s administration to recover this original objective.

Uruguay, which was The Economist’s country of year in 2013, is clearly still garnering international attention. Particularly for the United States, Obama’s engagement with Uruguay perhaps indicates a shift in how he will engage diplomatically with the region in his last two years in office. Obama has work to do, highlighted by Dilma Rousseff’s canceled White House visit earlier this year after NSA wiretapping revelations. Uruguay perhaps stands as a model for not only its new progressive laws and social policies, but also the evolving state of relations with the United States in the region.

Photo Credit: AP Photo