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May 22, 2012 | 3 | By Kevin Read

On a bus ride from Montevideo’s modern airport to the city center, I was lucky to get a brief, and very specific, lesson on Uruguayan history and learned that, in 1945, Britain owed Uruguay around 17 billion US dollars for cows. It was one of the biggest butcher’s bills in history. The economy of Uruguay has, for a long time, depended on agricultural exports, so when Britain was thrown into chaos during the Second World War and it started to import beef from relatively stable South America, Uruguay boomed. Britain paid back the debt, at least partly, with trains. uruguay

Even today, Uruguay is basically one big ranch. Meat, leather, wool and dairy products provide a huge amount of its income, which the country spends on running a large state to spread the income evenly among the people. The exchange of cows for trains is a fitting analogy for how Uruguay operates: the agricultural exports which formed the debt with Britain was largely paid back with the rail network, which was owned by British companies and then nationalized by Uruguay for the benefit of everyone.


But Uruguay has a more complicated history than that. In the old town of Montevideo, perfectly gridded streets are lined with ornate colonial buildings. The variation in their maintenance is huge: some have become boutique hotels or restaurants, others have weeds growing in the cracks of their crumbling walls. This port town has long been overshadowed by Buenos Aires further up the river, but its occasional importance as a gateway to South America resulted in pockets of great wealth for traders, who built parts of the (now) old city to look like Spain and Portugal. In the years following the second world war, when the economy crumbled with the drop in worldwide demand for Uruguay’s agricultural products, the country experienced a mix of violent guerrilla movements, repressive governments and military rule. Its history has left the city of Montevideo looking chaotic and mismatched, with none of the architecture quite fitting and no obvious ambition. Along with the patchy refurbishment of the old city, other areas contain both modern glass high-rises and communist-style concrete apartment blocks. There’s an old (but updated) theatre in town and a distinctive former hotel which looks something like an art deco palace, but both share a plaza with a giant and ugly apartment building with air conditioning units sticking randomly out of the windows.


uruguay-4What I did see of Montevideo felt bland and inconsistent. The city is neither attractive or particularly ugly, the people not desperately poor or extravagantly wealthy. There’s a long stretch of beach bordering the city, but no high-rise apartment buildings looking out to sea or tanned locals enjoying the sun. In Uruguay generally, the food is all acceptable and hearty, but not spicy or memorable. The weather is mild and consistent, and the terrain flat and uniform. It’s an average place. It’s not a bad place, but it’s not very interesting either, and it’s not photogenic (which is why the words of this blog post tell one story and the pictures are an abstract series of unconnected scenes)

That all sounds insulting, so maybe I didn’t spend long enough there to really understand what makes Uruguay stand out. On the other hand, perhaps it’s quite accurate and yet still not offensive. People in Uruguay are generally relaxed, happy, cultured and educated. There’s little corruption and the country has a high Human Development Index (a rough, but useful, measure of a country’s level of development and not just its economy). It’s inoffensive internationally (its military is used almost exclusively for peacekeeping by the UN) and politically progressive. uruguay-5Uruguay may not have the internationally known reputations of Brazil or Argentina, and few sights that you’d put on a postcard to send home, but, despite living in the shadows of its larger (and, to many Uruguayans, bullying) neighbours, it seems like a nice place to have a life. It may not be all that much to visit, but at least we’ve still got a place to buy beef.





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One response to “Uruguay”

  1. Jamie says:

    To be honest, I knew far less about Uruguay than I realised I did even though what you taught me is that there is fairly little to learn. Actually, that sounds exactly like what small nation states should aspire to: low corruption, decent standards of living, solid exports (who doesn’t like beef!)

    Anyway, you don’t need me to tell you, but keep up the good work!


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