The President of Uruguay, José Mujica Cordano, in São Paulo, Brazil. Demotix/William Volcov. All rights reserved.
A small country in a region generally ignored by the Anglo-Saxon world is undergoing a remarkable transformation. Eight years ago, for the first time in its history, the people of Uruguay elected a socialist government and a left-wing president, Tabaré Vásquez. They came to power with an idealistic mission not just to raise the general standard of living of the people but to institute a series of social and economic reforms that would both strengthen their democracy and fundamentally improve their quality of life.
At the heart of this mission - which to outsiders may well have seemed naively ambitious - was a plan to ensure that Uruguayan children had access to the same educational and informational resources as the most privileged children of the so-called First World. With this in mind, Vásquez announced at the end of 2006 his Plan Ceibal - to give a free laptop equipped for internet access to every child between the ages of 6 and 12 ..."so that each of them is not only equal in law but equal in opportunity". Just under three years later, as Uruguayans were preparing to elect his successor, President Vásquez completed the task by personally handing a laptop to the 6-year-old who stood last in line. Every school child in Uruguay now owns a reader's ticket to the vast library of human knowledge and learning offered by the Word Wide Web.
Don José Mujica Cordano - Uruguay's current president - belongs to the same left-wing coalition as Vásquez - the Frente Amplio - and he has made the same commitment as his predecessor to education, social welfare and justice. All of us in the Anglo-Saxon world have heard politicians voice similar intentions, and we are familiar, too, with their subsequent failure to carry them out. What makes Uruguay different, is that these apparently utopian dreams are being implemented - not in half-measures but fully, openly and with the participation of the people.
Mujica has a remarkable and colourful history. He is a former member of the Tupamaro movement - an armed revolutionary group formed in the 1960s. Apprehended several times, he spent nearly fifteen years in jail - where, in addition to being tortured, he was confined for two years at the bottom of a well. He was finally released after the restoration of democracy following the military dictatorship of 1973 - 1985. In appearance Mujica could could scarcely look less like a guerrilla fighter or even a national leader. He never wears a tie and rarely a suit, and one could easily imagine him as a retired school teacher or bus driver spending his time chatting in a local café or dozing over a newspaper on a park bench. When he speaks, however, one becomes instantly aware of a quiet but deeply impressive charisma, and intelligence of a high order. His style is simple, his voice, tone, vocabulary those of the man and woman in the street. In every conceivable sense he appears as one of the people. A speech he made to a gathering of intellectuals shortly after his triumph in the polls is as deeply inspiring in its own way as Obama's victory address to the US nation a year earlier.
In it he lays out an Athenian vision - not of a country where citizens are offered a banal series of consumption choices, but of one where everyone is empowered by the quality of their education to lead fulfilling lives and to participate in the wellbeing of the nation and of their fellow citizens. One senses that Uruguay is breaking new ground, and that if the country continues to travel the road on which it is now embarked, it will likely emerge in twenty years time as the Switzerland of the southern hemisphere: at once the most deeply democratic, technologically dynamic and culturally creative nation in Latin America. In the UK, with our usual hubris and contempt for poorer nations in distant parts, we will probably refuse to see the lesson offered by this small country. Instead, as likely as not we will watch in mild bewilderment as it scoots past us on the UN Human Development Index. And then we will settle back to the petty squabbles of party politics and the vacuous blather of government ministers who have long since traded in whatever idealism and principle they might once have possessed, for the chintzy accoutrements of office.