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01/03/2014

Give this man a prize! Better yet, give his country a prize!

Mujica-04b12

Uruguayan President José Mujica (the one without socks) favours a relaxed sartorial style himself but does not impose his preferences on his more conventionally attired officials. (Matilde Campodonico/AP.)

And the winner is … Uruguay!

The small, oft-neglected South American country located across the Río de la Plata from far larger and more populous Argentina has been named by The Economist magazine as the Country of the Year for 2013.

Actually, when you think about it, this was a pretty easy call.

Uruguay’s ruler is a 78-year-old former guerrilla and now extremely unpretentious politician named José Mujica (pronounced: Moo-HEE-ka) who wears sandals to the office, lives in a modest farmhouse, and drives himself to work in a Volkswagen Beetle. If you’re anything like the writer of this blog post, it’s a toss-up whether you’d prefer to have him as your uncle or your prime minister. Probably both.

He has sometimes been referred to as the world’s “poorest” president.

Home

This is not the presidential palace. It is, however, the president's home.

Since taking office in 2010, Mujica has enacted a number of clear-headed and benevolent reforms, including the legalization of same-sex marriage and the relaxation of laws regarding abortion. He has also – and this is a global first for a national government – completely lifted criminal sanctions for marijuana use, including production, sale, and consumption.

The editors of The Economist have long supported the decriminalization of narcotics, so it came as no surprise that they would applaud this measure in particular. But, still, they do have a point.

“This is a change so obviously sensible, squeezing out the crooks and allowing the authorities to concentrate on graver crimes, that no other country has made it,” says the magazine. “If others followed suit, and other narcotics were included, the damage such drugs wreak on the world would be drastically reduced.”

Quibblers might seek to undermine the choice of Uruguay for this august award by noting that it’s hard to think of any single country that had a truly banner year in 2013 – and easy to think of a whole lot that didn’t – but enough negativity.

Good work, Uruguay.

Country of the Year!

Oakland Ross is a foreign affairs reporter for the Toronto Star.

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