By Benedict Mander
Uruguay may not be important in geopolitical terms, but it punches well above its weight in other areas.
It is now applauded as one of the most progressive countries in the world – which makes promoting the national brand much easier for the government agency charged with the task.
Uruguay was named the Economist magazine’s first “country of the year” in 2013, in recognition of the government’s “path-breaking” reforms. US President Barack Obama this year singled out President José Mujica’s “extraordinary credibility” on democracy and human rights.
Most recently, Uruguay caught the world’s attention with its attempt to regulate the market for cannabis, becoming the first country in the world to legalise everything from planting and production to consumption.
The value of the country’s cannabis market is $30m-$40m. The legislation is at an early stage, but the government is aiming to take the business out of the hands of drug traffickers and ultimately reduce crime.
What is more, Uruguay’s anti-tobacco legislation is in the global vanguard. The government has banned multiple sub-brands of cigarettes and the country was the first in the region to ban smoking in enclosed public spaces in 2006. Graphic health warnings cover 80 per cent of both sides of cigarette packets, and brands must use a single marketing image – meaning sub-brands such as Marlboro Red and Marlboro Gold are prohibited.
The legislation is contested by Philip Morris, one of the world’s biggest tobacco companies, in the hope of discouraging similar laws elsewhere.
Legalisation of same-sex marriages and the decriminalisation of abortion during Mr Mujica’s presidency have put Uruguay ahead of most other countries in the region.
In South America, only Guyana joins Uruguay in permitting unrestricted abortion, while Argentina and Brazil are the only other countries in the region to allow same-sex marriage.
Many of these policies were under discussion before Mr Mujica became president, but the former guerrilla fighter, known for his humble lifestyle, has implemented them.
Larissa Perdomo, who heads the government agency in charge of promoting the national brand, says her organisation’s “meagre” budget would never have been able to fund a media campaign capable of generating the kind of coverage that Mr Mujica has achieved.
The Economist cited Uruguay’s “admirably self-effacing” leader as the main reason for its decision.
Ms Perdomo points out that the value of Uruguay’s brand rose from $23bn in 2011, the year after Mr Mujica took office, to $30bn in 2013, according to Brand Finance, a consultancy.
But Mr Mujica’s image is much more positive abroad than it is at home.
Oscar Bottinelli, a pollster at Factum in Montevideo, says the personal qualities that have earned him so much international respect – such as his rejection of authoritarianism and his reflective nature – have generated a feeling of uncertainty among Uruguay’s voters.
“There is no clear direction, so people sometimes feel a bit disorientated,” he says.