Map of Uruguay

It was the meddling British who used their cartographic skills to delineate the country that would become Uruguay in the early 19th century, as a buffer zone between the two regional giants, Argentina and Brazil. The result was a country stuck in the shadows of gargantuan neighbours whose influence has played a major role throughout this country’s history.

At the turn of the 20th century Uruguay was one of the region’s richest countries. Its wealth resulted from fertile land and high demand for its principal exports: beef and wool. The remnants of these glory days are etched into the streets of the capital, Montevideo, where crumbling neoclassical townhouses line the streets, reminding inhabitants of the opulence of days gone by.

Photo: Stefan Boness / Panos

With this wealth flourished a liberal political tradition and a stability that earned Uruguay the moniker ‘The Switzerland of Latin America’. Unlike in much of the rest of Latin America, the Catholic Church and landed élites were relatively weak forces as the state began to take shape. It pushed ahead with progressive reforms and was the first country in the region to legalize divorce (1913), grant female suffrage (1931), and create a welfare state. It was a land of plenty and took to this role with brio, staking a claim on the international stage and twice winning the football World Cup (in a bona fide example of poetic justice it trounced Argentina and Brazil in the 1930 and 1950 finals).

But in the 1950s demand for Uruguay’s exports dropped, unemployment grew and social unrest gained momentum. Trade unions clashed with governments and the revolutionary leftwing guerrilla group Tupamaros emerged. In 1973 the military took control. Twelve years of repressive social policies ensued, during which Uruguay accumulated the largest number of political prisoners per capita in the world. Torture often led to death, with an estimated 160 ‘disappeared’ at the hands of the junta.

With the restoration of democracy in 1986 came attempts to restore democratic freedoms and the battered economy. Power alternated between the country’s traditional (and very similar) political parties: Blanco and Colorado. Both were committed to following neoliberal measures by the book, pushing through reforms that favoured foreign investors and privatizing much of the public sector.

When the financial crisis that struck Argentina in 2002 spilled over, however, it led to recession and to deeper debts to the IMF. The peso collapsed, poverty proliferated and many younger Uruguayans emigrated in search of work. The popularity of the Government plunged, as did trust in the neoliberal model. The existing political duopoly was challenged by the Broad Front, a coalition encompassing members of the centre and far left headed by Tabaré Vásquez, and this triumphed in the 2004 elections.

Vásquez has overseen a recovery in Uruguay and aligned himself to the so-called ‘pink tide’ of leftwing countries dominating Latin American politics. Attempts to deal with the country’s bloody recent history are also being addressed. Although an amnesty law prohibiting the prosecution of members of the armed forces for human rights abuses remains in place, a reinterpretation of the law has led to the detention and trial of high-ranking officials, including former Presidents Juan María Bordaberry and Gregorio Álvarez. New life is being blown into the ailing welfare state, and Uruguay is again taking the lead in pushing forward progressive reforms. The country’s sandy beaches and hilly plains are bustling with visitors from increasingly far-off destinations who have come to experience its famed buena onda (good vibe) and many of those who left are returning to find that something similar to ‘the golden years’ are back.

*Ana Caistor-Arendar*

‘Save our Slum!’

Buenos Aires considers itself the Paris of Latin America. Its skyline glistens: 30-storey glass skyscrapers tower over ornate early 20th century mansions. Yet a glance at the foreground reveals a labyrinth of muddy foot-tracks winding through rows of cement and corrugated iron shacks that stand precariously side by side. There are no streetlights, and rubbish gathers due to the lack of drainage and waste collecting systems. This is Villa 31, the last shanty town in the heart of the capital, a stone’s throw away from the city’s most exclusive real estate.

Villa 31 was created in the early 1940s to house the wave of immigrants arriving from Europe. It is now home to 25,000 of the capital’s poorest residents. The newly elected mayor of Buenos Aires, entrepreneur Mauricio Macri, has signalled that he plans to demolish Villa 31 once he is sworn in later this year. In response, the people of the Villa are uniting to resist the destruction of their homes.

The demolition of Villa 31 is not a new idea. Following the economic and social crash that Argentina suffered in 2001 the country has enjoyed a period of recovery. Under President Nestor Kirchner the economy has grown by eight per cent a year for the past four years. Unemployment levels have dropped and business is booming. Nowhere is this more evident than in the country’s capital. ‘The years after the crash have seen Buenos Aires enjoy a property boom,’ says Roberto Aisenson, a leading Argentine architect. ‘People no longer wanted to invest their money in banks or bonds, as they didn’t trust them, so they invested their money in property.’

As a result land in the capital is highly sought after, with about a third of the city’s property being bought by North Americans and Europeans. Not only are locals being priced out of the market but the capital’s poor inhabitants are being relocated to the provinces to create more space for deluxe condos and shopping malls. Villa 31 sits right in the centre of this reconstruction.

‘Macri wants to demolish Villa 31 because of the investment potential it has for him,’ says Villa resident Edith Rojas, ‘but he does not consider what will happen to the residents. If I am moved to the provinces I won’t be able to feed my family; my job is here, my family lives on my salary.’

Alternatives to eradication do exist. A group of architects from the University of Buenos Aires have been working with Villa 31 and have drawn up plans proposing its regeneration. ‘If the government built a few tower blocks with proper amenities like water and drainage systems, they could use the rest of the land for whatever they wanted,’ says Ramon Ojeda (pictured above), president of a committee formed to fight the demolition. ‘We don’t want it for free. Around 90 per cent of people who live here work – we are prepared to pay for services.’

Yet it’s unlikely that Macri will pursue this option: the majority of the public fear the _villas_ and their _villeros_ (residents). Indeed, he refuses to comment or expand on his plans for Villa 31 until he has taken office in December. ‘Things are changing here, though,’ says Ramon, ‘people are becoming more aware of their rights. Today the neighbours are mobilizing; they want a voice, they are demonstrating, they are talking to people who can advise them. We are not going to allow them to move us.’

Subscribe   Ethical Shop