What do people know about Uruguay? If you are a football fan, you might be able to drop few names from their current successful generation of players. If you are into politics, you might know that it’s the most liberal country in South America, especially when it comes to women’s choices regarding the reproduction process.
You might also remember their Volkswagen beetle-driving sympathetic former president José “Pepe” Mujica AKA “the poorest president” because of his modest lifestyle as well as because he kept donating his presidential salary to charity. You could also know that it’s a relatively small country with 3,3million people, and that marijuana is not illegal in Uruguay.
However, Uruguay’s journey to become a country with one of the most stable economies, in the region wasn’t easy. Like every country in Latin Americas (well – the whole world really but we’re now in Latin World), Uruguay also had their fair share of crazy coups, spins, wars and military dictatorships. La Plata basin was rather strategic post to control and the country’s history was therefore affected by ongoing fights between the (former) colonial powers of Britain, Spain and Portugal.
Jumping fast forward, after defeating the military dictatorship that ruled the country since the coup in 1973, on 2 February 1985, Uruguay finally became a democracy. Too much happen between the country’s “discovery” and 1985 to list it in a travel piece. I’ll therefore pick just 3 historical facts only, which I will select purely based on my subjective choices.
A right to get a pregnancy-termination
Let me start from modern day and then head backwards in time. Some of you, liberal people might be aware that Uruguay is one the two countries in South and Central Americas where, rather than a general rule, an individual person has a choice over her body, when it comes to a possibility of getting an abortion, the only other country being Guayana.
Abortion has always been a controversial subject, especially in deeply religious countries. I’m not going to dive into the dilemma much because I’d write an essay on it and it wouldn’t change a thing. I’ll just mention few (IMHO objective) observations regarding this particular clash of opinions followed by what I want to believe to be an objective conclusion.
From what I understand people sometimes mistake the whole thing for a conflict between anti-abortionists and pro-abortionists, while in reality it is a debate between the pro-lifers and people fighting to be able to make their own choices. No one is fighting for abortions. Some people just want to have a choice of what to do, especially under extreme circumstances. I personally see this anti vs pro definition as a massive misconception from within this debate.
Another interesting point I would like to mention is that one side of the argument that likes to call themselves “pro-life” seems to be showing very passionate and uncompromising passion to protect all unborn children, while at the same time, when it comes to protecting the already born children in an equally uncompromising fashion, they are somehow not so eager to do so.
What I am trying to say is that the same politicians and other “pro-life” community leaders are often able to support selling arms to, or even sanctioning the actual bombings of certain areas where many already living children and pregnant ladies live. The same people furthermore often support certain political decisions of not providing these children and pregnant women with a shelter upon escaping those war zones either. Personally, I find it rather confusing and very inconsistent, this “protection of all life” thing of theirs. Proof me wrong, please.
Another observation regarding the pro-life group worth mentioning here is that – at least in places where they have succeeded – it strongly appears like a vast male-majority decision making process, while their opponents do come across as representing also women’s voices. I believe that this is another important distinction between the two opposing sides of this argument particular (or any other, as a matter a fact), because it’s a debate about a law which concerns women in a first place. Why should they not have a say in this debate?
I guess that the technical core of this argument comes down to a definition of what is a living human and what is “just” a fetus. I understand that for example for a happy couple with a great economic background in a safe and prosperous country, just a successful insemination is a god-like miracle already. I also understand that it’s all about a game of playing a role of god for people to have a say in such an issue. However this is an area that does not affect everyone equally, in every case of pregnancy and that is the major point to be taken into the consideration.
Back to just facts only
Anyway, when it comes to Uruguay, we are talking about already established legislation now as well as eradication of charlatanism of undergoing dangerous illegal surgeries. Women in Uruguay wanted to have a choice and they have succeeded in 2012. There were recent changes in Chilean and Argentinian legislations, allowing the procedure in case of rape or mother’s health being at risk, which is considered a big progress over here as it offers some control over women’s choices.
Prior to legalization of abortion in Uruguay, the punishment for undergoing the procedure was 3-12 months in prison, while performing an abortion was punishable by 6-24 months in prison. The amount of punishment depended on judge and the circumstances of accused, such as risk for the woman’s life, rape, family honor or particular economic standards of the accused.
While a right to have a choice in this case is considered to be a human right for many, the other liberal policy Uruguay recently promoted (legalization of Marijuana) is pretty much a life style choice, unless we take its medicinal use into consideration. In 2013, Uruguay became the first country to legalize the plant.
The goal was to take the profit away from the criminal drug dealing gangs and offer an alternative for the smokers not to support the criminal gangs. As a matter a fact, there’s no recorded increase of the marijuana users but there is recorded decrease of the drug gang related crimes. Simple. Not much space for a dilemma here.
The second historical event I’ve picked regarding Uruguay’s history is taking us back to 60s. The country was troubled by economic crisis and social unrest from the mid50s. In 1962, the inflation was running at a historically high 35%. Among other protest groups, a movement called Tupamaros emerged. The name is derived from the revolutionary Túpac Amaru II, who led a major indigenous revolt against the Spanish colonialists of Peru in the 17th century.
Anyway, you can guess that we’re talking about a left wing group with deep social thinking. Their activities were literally Robin Hood-like. I’m talking about things that technically qualify as terrorist activities, such as robbing banks and distributing money in poor neighborhoods. Later it grew further, adding also political kidnappings and attacks on security forces on the menu. The legendary president José “Pepe” Mujica was an active member of the group back then.
Like it or not. It’s kind off romantic and it’s kind of terrorism at the same time, like Robin Hood or anyone who used force against the regime, whether you think it was morally right or wrong. Is it really like that? How about freedom fighters or whistle blowers? Where is the thin line between terrorism and freedom fighting or exposing the regime’s crimes against humanity? Who determines that? I like this “dilemma” and I think I will get back to it in another piece 😉
Anyway. Many of the group members were killed by Uruguayan army in early 70s and many others remained in prison, incl the “poorest president” until 1985.
And last but not least, is an important and sad historical event of massive importance. I must point that Uruguay is the only Latin country without any existent indigenous population because they’ve annihilated them all.
Charruas, the remaining original inhabitants of these lands whom were not eliminated by European diseases and soldiers were later all massacred by Uruguayan forces. The major event took place on the 11 April 1831 and history remembers as the Slaughter of Salsipuedes. Country’s “heroic” army led by president’s brother Bernabé Rivera attacked the gathering of the main Charrúa chiefs after getting them drunk first, apparently.
The order was given by Uruguay’s president and a national independence hero, AKA freedom fighter, Fructuoso Rivera. People don’t talk about that much in Uruguay though. The positive and friendly image of a friendly beetle-driving president and legal weed is too dominant to start damaging it with a dark historical mark of ethnic cleansing.
Uruguayans are known to be very friendly. I can confirm that and yes, they have shared their mate with me on numerous occasions. There might be some resemblance with their southern neighbours when it comes to accent and several cultural icons, such as Tango, steaks, mate and so on. Uruguayans are however more melancholic. Well, they actually are rather melancholic, which is almost impossible to say about Argentinians 😀
Montevideo is a nice charming city and it’s not even that small (pop 1,3million, area 201km2), it has nice caves, tango, steaks, beaches, La Rambla and much more. In my humble opinion, Montevideo’s biggest disadvantage is its proximity to Buenos Aires because many people can’t stop comparing the two. I admit, it took me a while to adjust coming there from BA but it would happen to any city after Buenos Aires, a city I fell in love with.
In a way it makes some sense due to the partially parallel history and similar cultural symbols architecture as well as some because of some architectural similarities. But yet, Montevideo is nothing like Buenos Aires, eventhough it’s just across of La Plata River. The best way to explore Montevideo’s unique beauty and charm would be taking one of the numerous walking tours that are available in pretty much every hostel.
I’ve stayed in nice and spacious Jazz Hostel near by Parque Rodó in Palermo hood and enjoyed the strolls around the Old Town during the day (it didn’t look like it’s going to turn into the safest part of the town after the office hours) either walking around the edge of the river (La Rambla) or cutting through the town.
How to get there?
The cheapest way was to take a 2hrs (€46) Seacat ferry from Buenos Aires to Colonia del Sacramento from where you’ll be picked up by the bus heading to Montevideo‘s bus terminal or where you can stay and enjoy the strolls around beautiful old town colonial streets and cafes. You can take a more expensive ferry straight to Montevideo as well.
As for the public transport, friendly Uruguayans will be always happy to tell you which bus to get and where to get off. Unlike in most cities in South America, in Montevideo you can purchase the ticket off the driver.
Next possible destinations?
- You can visit the amazing capital of Argentina by taking a ferry from Montevideo or Colonia del Sacramento as mentioned above
- In case you wanted to embrace your inner hippie, head north to Punta del Diablo and Cabo Polonio
- While you are in this region, I would certainly recommend visiting the magical Iguazú Falls