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Uruguay: an ensaoclopedic entry

URUGUAY | Thursday, 22 May 2008 | Views [1368]

Glories of the past...

Glories of the past...

I thought I would try to write a little summary about what I’ve learned about Uruguay during the time I’ve spent here. I have to confess that I was largely ignorant about the country before leaving Sweden; I had heard that it was once considered to be the Switzerland of South America and I knew that most of the Uruguayan immigrants in Sweden had fled a dictatorship in their home country. Having once barely been able to distinguish it from its northern neighbour Paraguay, I like to think that I’m a little better informed these days. The summary will probably be quite unfocused since I’ll write about things that I’m personally interested in, and I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the information either*. But hopefully it might serve as a bit of a starter to anyone who’s interested.

Back in the day, the area which is now Uruguay was populated by Charrúa Indians. Then the Spaniards came along, took their land and killed most of them just like the European colonial powers did to the rest of the people originally inhabiting the continent. The Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata was then established, reaching from the tip of the continent up to the gold and silver mines of Potosí in what is now Bolivia. Montevideo, which is now the capital of Uruguay, rivaled with Buenos Aires, another important port city across the river, a rivalry which continues today – if not economically, at least in the hearts and minds of many a Uruguayan. Uruguay’s independence was declared in 1825, and apart from conflicts with Argentina and its colonial master, little Uruguay has also had some skirmishes with its other giant neighbour, Brazil. Following WWI, Uruguay became rich exporting meat to Europe, but in the mid-20th century, demand fell and poverty made headway, exacerbated in contemporary times by financial crises in Argentina.

A visitor to Uruguay, especially if they come to Montevideo (which is inhabited by 1.5 of the country’s 3.3 million people), will immediately notice the distinct Europeaness about the place. The houses, the food, the gestures and at least the exterior of most people draw strong comparisons to countries along the Mediterranean, especially Spain and Italy, from where most of the population originates. However, there is apparently also a significant Armenian and Jewish part of the population. In the capital there is also a good deal of Afro-descendants; I think I read recently that 5% of Montevideanos identify themselves as such. Supposedly, there has been an effort to unite the country under a ‘European’ or ‘white’ identity during the building and maintenance of the nation, but I think this is slowly changing. Candombe, which I wrote a little about in a previous entry, a musical expression created by African slaves, is now practiced in a lot of Montevideo’s neighbourhoods and forms the major part of the country’s carnival held in March each year. According to a study I read, not only are more people starting to acknowledge their African bloodline, but also that stemming from the Charrúas, which have otherwise been considered to have been completely wiped out (Ana informs me that they almost were, when ‘father’ and founder of the Republic, Fructuoso Rivera, betraying the indigenous leaders that fought with him against the Spaniards, conducted a mass killing of the indigenous population in an episode called ‘Salsipuedes’. ‘So we were kind of born with genocide all over,’ she says.)

The political scene in Uruguay has historically been dominated by two parties: Colorado, representing city interests, and Blanco, championing those of rural landowners. From what I understand, support for these parties tends to stem from family tradition and money/power interests. In 1973 began a military dictatorship which lasted during 11 grueling years, resulting in thousands tortured, exiled or dead (of which the remains or death records of many are still to be found, lending them the infamous label of ‘desaparecidos’). Not at all coincidentally, Argentina, Brazil and Chile were also under CIA-backed military rule under this time, and the persecution of opposition was smoothly handled by a project of coordination between the four countries, called Operation Condor. In 1984, Uruguay went back to become a parliamentary democracy with the two old power-brokers as the main political contenders and an amnesty law for the perpetrators of the dictatorship; a law that is still in force today. However, in 2004, a broad leftist coalition called Frente Amplio won the elections and is now in its second term, led by president Tabaré Vázquez. With a purported focus on social issues and poverty, the party is deemed too tame by some, disappointed by the compromises that have been made partly due to its diverse make-up, while many others continue giving it strong support as it is the first progressive government seen in Uruguay so far and the only strong alternative to the traditional parties.

In terms of society, most of what I can say about it comes from personal observation and includes quite a bit of generalization. Poverty is widespread and the difference between wages and commodity prices is big, which means that people work like crazy to make things work and that a large part of the country’s young population is emigrating. It’s a macho society, with whistles and comments directed at women heard everywhere and Argentine shit like ‘Bailando por un sueño’ shown on a national channel as some examples. As in most of the world, the national passion is football, with Montevideo clubs Peñarol and Nacional inducing most of the fervour and a strong pride in its national world championship titles in 1930 (at the world’s first ever World Cup) and 1950. A macho (or rather, macho-fied) sport in a macho society does not bode well for women’s football in Uruguay, but that’s a whole other chapter which I will rage about some other time.

Much more can be said about Uruguayan society, but I think I’ll leave it at that for now. What I would like to add, though, is that I’ve enjoyed learning about the country and society immensely, and wish I had time to explore it further (only two and a half weeks remain). On a final note, another national passion is the drinking of yerba mate; most Uruguayans can be seen walking in the street sipping it from their gourd and holding a thermos under their arm. The drinking of mate is a very social procedure, as it’s passed around to all in a company to be shared among them. I have a feeling it will turn out to be one of my fondest memories of my time here, representative as it is of the great friendships that I’ve made.

* Though a little help with dates and figures has been provided by Wikipedia, which as we all know, is the trustiest, faultless source out there.



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