Southern Exposure 16: Uruguay

After two days in chilly weather and fresh breezes the Zaandam arrived in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, on November 13, docking at seven a.m. When we opened the door to our balcony to welcome in the early morning sun, it felt balmy. At last, back to mild weather!

Now to be honest, I knew little about Uruguay before we arrived. Actually that is incorrect. I knew nothing about Uruguay except that it was located somewhere  in Latin America. After almost a full month at sea, covering several thousand miles and visiting so far some seven countries, I am embarrassed to admit how I ignorant I have been not only not to know anything about South America, but, frankly, not to care. In that regard I suppose I am not all that different from most “Americans,” as we call ourselves, an arrogant term we use to describe  the United States, which accounts for only a portion of the Americas and not even a majority. Carly Simon’s song, “You’re So Vain” immediately comes to mind. We in the U.S. tend to think that every song is about us.

Uruguay poses a particular challenge because it is so small, the second smallest in South America, with a population of only 3.5 million or about half as many as live in the Washington metro area. And more than half the population—over 2 million people– live in  in Montevideo. The country is noted for its lush, mostly flat interior and its beautiful beeches along the shore of the Rio de la Plata, where it joins the Atlantic Ocean. A little over a hundred miles upstream is Buenos Aires, our destination the next day. Our excursion took us into the town center, the old town, and along a vast ocean front with white beaches lined with fancy high rise apartment buildings. We also spent time inching our way along narrow roads through single family neighborhoods with large houses and manicured lawns. While parts of the city are showing their age, dating back into the 1700s, overall it was in pretty good shape and definitely has a charm. The street  life seemed more European than, say Lima, or Valparaiso, but  it is hard to say exactly why. One reason may be that over 88% of the population is considered white, in contrast to countries like Peru or Ecuador where it is much lower. After the bus tour Embry and I ate our first meal of (delicious) Argentine/Uruguayan beef and walked through the old town area with its small shops, cobblestone streets, street art and, of course, graffiti. 

What is most instructive is the country’s reputation as the most progressive and stable in South America. Excuse me? As I scan its history on line, I note the same period of Spanish oppression, then a period of brief independence in the early Nineteenth Century, then a period of authoritarian rule, then a long period of stability and democracy from the early 1900s to 1973 when there was a coup, martial law, curtailment of the press, and jail for dissenters, lasting until the mid 1980s. Does this sound like an enlightened, progressive historical past? The answer is that compared to most of the other Latin American countries, well, yes. There have been fewer killings, less brutality; and since the mid 1980s, the country has been able to hang on to its fragile democracy and pass a lot of progressive legislation. Everyone is required to vote, freedom of the press is guaranteed, gay marriage is allowed, the social safety net is pretty strong, and selling cannabis is legal. The fruits of the most liberal democracy in Latin America have been a relatively large middle class, reduced income inequality, and robust dialogue on national issues. The country has won a bunch of awards from the United Nations. So let’s hear it for Uruguay!

But what also stands out about the Uruguay story is the relatively low bar it has jumped over. It has experienced the same ups and downs as every other Latin American country-just not as extreme and for the time being it is holding it own. You definitely get the idea that  what it is holding onto is a gentle  thread which could snap at any time.

So what is it about these countries located not all that far south of us that have had unrelenting changes of fortune, that have experienced ups and downs often resulting in thousands of deaths and suffering beyond anything experienced in the U.S. except for our Civil War?

While we from the U.S. don’t pay much attention to what happens in South America, one good friend does—Hank  Ackerman, a retired journalist,   whose career with the Associated Press took him all over South America as bureau chief in Lima, Buenos Aires, and Caracas. Here are some comments he made  regarding my question to  him as to what to expect in Uruguay and Argentina:

The history of Argentina and Uruguay is much different from the rest of South America. Boiling it down, Argentina and Uruguay were an afterthought to the Spaniard conquistadores since neither had gold or silver — just a vast amount of agricultural land and a small population of natives. So, the two countries only became of importance when wheat and later beef could be profitably produced for the European markets.

 Starting in the 1850s, railroads largely financed by European concerns, principally the British, began to be pushed across the Pampas opening up the market for exports. The railroads were largely built by Italian labor, accounting for the extraordinary influence of Italian language and culture in Argentina. Argentines speak Spanish with a decidedly Italian flavor, and Argentines for all of the above reasons were viewed in the rest of South America as being different. And, with the huge volumes of exports in the 1890’s, the phrase “rich as an Argentine” became widespread. As the nation grew wealthier, its ties to Europe ( and certainly to Great Britain) became stronger such that Buenos Aires looks and feels like a European city more than any other metropolis in the New World. 
When you get to Brazil, you’ll see why it under the Dutch and then Portugal developed in a different way largely based on the huge import of slaves to work the massive sugar cane and cotton planta
tions in the northeast. 

Thanks, Hank. Hope there is more where this came from.

Next stop: Buenos Aires.

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