MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay -- Uruguayans used to call their country the Switzerland of Latin America, but its faded gray capital seems a bit more like Amsterdam, now that its congress has legalized abortion and is drawing up plans to sell government-grown marijuana.
Both measures would be unthinkable in many other countries. Cuba is the only other nation in the region that makes first-trimester abortions accessible to all women, and no country in the world produces and sells pot for drug users to enjoy.
But President José "Pepe" Mujica, a flower-farming former leftist guerrilla, vowed to sign whatever bill congress could settle on that can minimize the 30,000 illegal abortions his government says Uruguayan women suffer annually.
As for pot sales, Mujica's ruling Broad Front coalition has openly declared that the drug war has failed. Smoking pot, if not growing and selling it, is already legal, and supplying the weed is a $30 million business, the government said.
This is democracy "a la Uruguaya."
Such outsized respect for the democratic process has enabled the country of 3.4 million to reach consensus on issues that have stymied bigger and richer nations, from reforming health care to providing free university educations, to setting ambitious renewable-energy goals.
Uruguayans love Mujica's homespun humor and his man-of-the-people image, but they say Uruguay could benefit from a bit more decisiveness, historian Gerardo Caetano said.
Mujica, who entered politics after 14 years in prison during Uruguay's dictatorship, is an unusual leader. He gives away 90 percent of his salary, doesn't have a bank account, drives a 41-year-old Volkswagen and never wears a tie. Now 77 and nearing the end of his five-year term, he has been talking lately about stepping back and finding the joy in simple things, reflecting a personal style that goes to extremes of austerity.-- AP