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A Contradiction Called Uruguay


translated by Francisco Gonzalez


We Uruguayans have a certain tendency to believe that our country exists, but that the world remains unaware of it. The mass media–the media that has a worldwide impact–never mentions this tiny nation lost on the Southern end of the maps.


As an exception to this rule, a few months ago the British press did mention us on the eve of prince Charles’ visit. On that occasion, the prestigious London Times informed its readers that Uruguayan law authorizes a betrayed husband to cut off the nose of his unfaithful wife and castrate her lover. Thus The Times attributed these bad habits of British colonial troops to our marital life. We appreciate the kindness of the connection, but the truth is we never sank so low. Our barbarous country, which abolished physical punishment in schools one hundred and twenty years earlier than Great Britain, is not what it seems to be when viewed from above and from afar. If the journalists chose to get off the plane, they might encounter a few surprises.


We Uruguayans amount to a pretty small number: only three million. We could fit in a single neighborhood of any of the world’s big cities. Three million conservative anarchists: we don’t like to be told what to do, and we have a hard time adopting changes. But when we decide to change, we take it seriously, and healthy winds of change are blowing now through this nation. It is high time we stop being passive witnesses to our own misfortunes. Uruguay has long been sitting motionless on his own decadence, since the times when we managed to be at the forefront of so many things. The protagonists have become spectators: three million political ideologues, while real politics fell in the hands of politickers who turned citizen rights into power-granted favors; three million technical directors of soccer, while Uruguayan soccer feeds on its own nostalgia; and the national cinema has not gone beyond the state of hope.


The country that is lives in constant contradiction with the country that was. Uruguay established the eight-hour work day one year before the United States and four years before France, but finding employment nowadays is a miracle, and putting food on the table by working only eight hours a day is even more miraculous: only Jesus could manage it, if he were an Uruguayan and still retained the capacity to multiply fish and loafs of bread.
Uruguayans established divorce laws seventy years before Spain, and universal suffrage fourteen years before France. But reality continues to treat women worse than they are treated in the words of tangos, which is no small feat; and women are conspicuous by their absence in politics: a few feminine islands in a sea of males.


This tired, barren system not only betrays its own memory, but it survives in perpetual contradiction with reality. The country depends on the export of meat, leather, wool and rice, but the land is in the hands of a few. And those few–who preach the virtues of the Christian family but fire the laborers who get married–hoard up everything. In the meantime, those who want land to work on it, get the door slammed on their face, and those who manage to get a bit of land, depend on the loans that banks always give to the haves, never to the ones who need them. Tired of receiving one peso for each product that is worth ten, the small rural producers end up trying their luck in Montevideo. The desperate come to the capital of the country, center of bureaucratic power and every other kind of power, in search of jobs that cobweb-filled factories deny them. Many end up collecting garbage, and many continue their trip from the port or from the airport.


In terms of the contradictions between power and reality, we win the world championships that elude us in soccer. On the map, surrounded by its great neighbors, Uruguay looks like a dwarf. But we are not really so dwarfish. We have five times more land than Holland, and five times fewer people. We have more arable land than Japan, with a population 40 times smaller. Yet Uruguayans emigrate in great numbers because here they cannot find their place under the sun. We have a scant and aging population. Few children are born.


On the streets one sees more wheelchairs than baby carriages. And when the few children that there are grow up, the country drives them away. We export youth. There are Uruguayans even in Alaska and Hawaii. Twenty-some years ago, the military dictatorship forced many people into exile. Now, in a democracy, the economy is driving them out of the country in even greater numbers. The economy is managed by bankers who practice socialism by socializing the cost of their fraudulent bankruptcies, and practice capitalism by offering up a service country. In order to get into the world market through the servants’ door, they are reducing us to the status of a financial sanctuary with banking secrecy laws, a few cows on the background and ocean vistas. In such an economy, people (no matter how few) are superfluous.


Modesty aside, we should also say that we deserve a place in the Guinness book of records for honorable reasons as well. During the military dictatorship, there was not a single relevant intellectual, scientist or artist in Uruguay–not a single one–willing to applaud the rulers. Afterwards, already in a democracy, Uruguay was the only country in the world to defeat privatizations in a referendum: at the end of 1992, 72% of Uruguayans decided by plebiscite that the essential public services should continue to be public. This piece of news did not deserve a single line in the international press, even though it was a rare show of common sense. The experiences of other Latin American countries teach us that privatizations may very well enlarge the private accounts of some politicians, but they double the foreign debt (as happened in Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Mexico) while selling off the national sovereignty at banana prices.


The usual silence of the mass media prevented any minute chance there might have been of the referendum spreading its example abroad. But within our own borders, such a collective act of national assertion against the main current, such blasphemous statement against the universal dictatorship of money, showed that the energies of dignity which the military terror had attempted to destroy, remain very much alive.


For whatever these lines are worth, if they are worth anything at all, let me offer them as a basis to vote for Encuentro Progresista. I hope that in the next elections the ballots confirm the nervy vocation of this paradoxical country in which I was born and would gladly be born again.

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