Uruguayan President Jose “Pepe” Mujica’s May 12 meeting with President Barack Obama in Washington was an important if belated step in the right direction for U.S. engagement with South America, reconfirming to a frequently skeptical region the importance that the United States places on building relationships with leaders from across the political spectrum.
Since his election in 2009, the former guerrilla fighter has guided Uruguay as a democratic leftist more interested in results than ideology. Certainly, the successful effort last year to legalize the sale and distribution of marijuana and Mujica’s purposeful outreach to Cuba are among the topics that make headlines, but the hallmark of his presidency has been a focus on social development, economic growth with equity and democratic governance, not ideology or opposition to the United States. For a small nation nestled between two giants in South America—Brazil and Argentina—that’s a winning model, and one on which the United States can seek to build.
Indeed, relations between Uruguay and the United States are strong. The two nations enjoy long democratic histories, and Uruguay has been a frequent partner on issues from global trade negotiations to international peacekeeping operations. When then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took the unusual step of attending Mujica’s inauguration, it was an important signal of Washington’s desire to acknowledge and work with democratically elected leaders in Latin America and the Caribbean no matter their ideology. This was consistent with the way in which the United States approached the relationship beginning in 2004 with Mujica’s predecessor Tabare Vazquez, who, despite supposedly being at the vanguard of a pink tide of leftism washing over Latin America, set a course of strong, reasoned leadership in righting Uruguay’s economy while effectively engaging the international community.