This year, the small nation of Uruguay (population just over 3 million) became the first place in the world where you can walk into a pharmacy and buy marijuana legally over the counter: one of several surprising facts I discovered about a country of which I knew little before spending a day in its capital, Montevideo.
Uruguay was to be the seventh and final country we would travel to in South America, and while I hadn’t read much about it, I thought I knew what to expect. While each of the first six countries we visited on the continent – Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil – had its own very distinct identity and culture, there were some common threads weaving them together. Beautiful cities, stunning scenery and friendly people, but lots of crime, lots of corruption and lots of inequality. Also – and perhaps tellingly – lots of religion.
Uruguay, however, was different (well, except for the friendly people bit). In contrast to the Andean and Amazonian landscapes of the other countries we’d visited, it did not have quite as much to offer visually, and when compared to the likes of Rio de Janeiro, La Paz and Valparaiso, Montevideo came across as a rather bland concrete jungle.
But contrarily, and most strikingly, Uruguay also has a very different story to tell when it comes to the more negative characteristics that shackle many of the nearby nations.
According to the Corruption Perceptions Index, Uruguay is by far the least corrupt country in the Americas. It also has much less violent crime than other countries in the southern continent, one of several factors reflected in its moniker “the Switzerland of Latin America”. While Montevideo isn’t without its problems, like any big city, we certainly felt safer there than most we’d visited thus far.
Overall, with the lowest levels of poverty and income inequality in South America, Uruguay has the highest quality of life in the region.
Coupled with this, Uruguay is also at the vanguard of liberation and equality in Latin America. The legalisation of the production, distribution and sale of marijuana this year is just the latest in a string of many progressive reforms. It has a public healthcare system that is free to people with low incomes. Every schoolchild is guaranteed a free laptop and wireless internet access. It was the first country on the continent to allow civil unions for same-sex couples, and not long after it became one of the first in the world to legalise gay marriage. And it is one of only two countries in South America to give free abortions without restriction (the other being Guyana) – a conspicuous trend against strict anti-abortion laws across much of the region.
It didn’t take long to find a likely explanation for all of this. In a chamber underneath Plaza Independencia in Montevideo’s historic centre, there is a mausoleum containing the ashes of José Gervasio Artigas, a key figure in Uruguay’s establishment as a nation. This struck me as slightly peculiar: while the tradition of upholding and celebrating national heroes is rife in South America, cremations are not.
Nearly a century ago, a law was passed in Uruguay to separate church from state in its 1918 Constitution, and today religion has very little influence on how the country is run (Christmas is even officially known as ‘Family Day’). This is, once again, in stark contrast to the rest of the continent – in most countries the church has a direct influence, and in others that are nominally secular, such as Brazil, it still wields a huge amount of power. Unsurprising, then, that Uruguay has the highest proportion of atheists and agnostics in the region by some distance.
While the facts and nuances would require a lot more studying than I have done in this short article, Uruguay’s status as a secular outpost surely cannot be separated from the progress the country has made with its economy, living standards and human rights. The link is consistent with the findings of the World Happiness Index, which consistently shows a correlation between happiness and non-religiousness around the world.
Uruguay might not have such a vibrant tradition for art, culture and flamboyant architecture as neighbouring Brazil and Argentina, making it more of a nice-place-to-pass-through than a major tourist destination, but it would be my top choice to live in should I move to South America.
I guess the moral of my brief Uruguayan story is what I have always suspected but increasingly experienced: religion is the foundation for much amazing culture and art, but the problems it breeds cannot be denied.