While Uruguay is considered to have a fairly good economy, globalization has devastated many people in the country. People that were poor previously, but had a quality of life and could take care of their families are now living below the poverty line. An example of this is the town of Bella Union. Bella union was an agricultural area but the creation of Mercosur which allows free trade between Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, Bella Union products were unable to compete with cheaper imports and thousands of people lost their livelihoods, left Uruguay, and fell into poverty. It is undeniable that globalization has increased the availability of certain products and brought wealth to some, but it is also robbing citizens of their traditional livelihoods and eliminating other options for those mislaid.
Tuesday, May 10, 2011
Twenty years ago Uruguay had a comparatively equal distribution of wealth and one of the lowest poverty rates in Latin America. However, this year the poverty rate was at 18.6% (down about 3% from last year) about 47% of the children under the age of six in Uruguay live in poor households with insufficient food, water, and other necessities. The majority of those living in poverty live in Montevideo or other smaller cities and towns. Children coming home from school hop on busses and present notes to passengers begging for money.
Uruguay is a highly educated country with a high literacy rate and a large group of middle and upper class professionals. Education in Uruguay is free, from primary school up to the University and is compulsory for a child from the age of six to fourteen. The university of the Republic is a public and free university in Montevideo. It is one of two universities in Uruguay, the other being the Catholic University of Uruguay, and is the only public one. The only real requirement to attend the University of the Republic is to have completed primary and secondary school. However, the majority of student that attend the university are middle to upper class because of financial pressure on poorer families. A young adult in a poorer family may need to work to supplement the family income, and would have trouble paying for the books and expenses of attending the University. It is also more difficult for people living in rural areas to attend because the only university is in Montevideo and this is an added expense and complication for rural families.
Uruguayans that do attend the university prefer to specialize in professions that they consider prestigious such as law, medicine, administration, and engineering. But there has arisen a discrepancy between the number of jobs the university trains for and the number of jobs available in these prestigious fields. This leads to an emigration of the best educated in search of more jobs and better opportunities- a brain drain so to speak.
Drinking Yerba Mate is not unique to Uruguay, many other Latin American countries drink the tea, but Uruguay has put its own unique spin on the practice. Yerba mate is an herb that is made from a type of holly. The herb is placed in a prepared gourd called a mate, hot water is added to it, it stews, and then is drunk through a straw that filters the leaves called a bombilla.
The Guarani Indians introduced yerba mate to the Europeans and it was very popular with the gauchos who drank and traded the tea. While other countries drink mate mostly at home with family and friends, Uruguayans drink it all the time. They carry a thermos of warm water along with their yerba and mate. Mate is definitely a social activity, but not one that is restricted to any sort of time or place. Traditionally, the drinking and sharing of mate was more structured with the Matero preparing the yerba and then each person drinks until the mate is empty, then refills the mate with water and passes it to the next person. Uruguayans have discarded the structure and now drink mate at the beach, on walks, sporting events, work, and group activities. It has become an informal but no less important aspect of the culture. Sharing mate is symbolic of the ties to friends and family.
During the military regime (1973 to 1985) it was dangerous to gather publicly in groups because of the risk of social gatherings being interpreted as being political. So, people would drink mate when they gathered together in order to avoid suspicion. This could possibly serve as the origin of the present infatuation Uruguayans have with mate.
Poor prison conditions are a problem in many Latin American countries and Uruguay is no exception. The number of Uruguayan detainees has almost quadrupled in the last twenty years resulting in sever over crowding. The overall population density of Uruguay prisons is 137% of the recommended limit. A population density of 120% is considered critical. To make the problem worse the prisons have a recidivism rate of 60%. So 60% of all detainees end up returning to crime, drugs and prison. Another reason for the intense overcrowding is the increase in drug abuse in Uruguay and harsher sentencing for minor crimes.
In addition to overcrowding, the prisons are not well maintained and therefore in a state of disrepair. Prison fires are common and result in the death of inmates. Inmates have limited access to water and sometimes resort to drinking water from the toilet. Disease is a problem and prisoners have very limited access to medical care some prisoners cut themselves in order to get medical attention. Prisoners rely on visitors for food in order to get the minimum daily calories. 65% of the detainees are still awaiting their trial but they are held together with convicted prisoners and violent prisoners are imprisoned with non-violent prisoners. This has led to a good deal of prisoner on prisoner violence.
Recently more money has been put into the prison system in order to correct overcrowding, drug dealing, and improve rehabilitation. The renovating of the prison system is essential since the current system just produces citizens who are more likely to commit crimes and turn to drugs than before they were imprisoned.
The celebration of Carnaval in Uruguay is the longest in the world. The Uruguayan Carnival is often overshadowed by the celebration in Brazil, but it has a unique flavor that stems from Uruguay culture and history.
Carnival lasts for about forty day from January to March every year. Uruguayans do not take that entire time off to celebrate, but it is during that period that special performances and parades are performed and awards are given for the best acts. One of the prominent elements of Uruguay’s Carnaval is the Desfile de las llamadas (Parade of the Calls). The llamadas are drum parades and it’s called llamadas because the different parade troupes would “call” to each other with their drums. The llamadas consist of drummers, dancers and special dancing characters such as gramillero (herb man) and mama vieja (old woman). Gramillero and Mama vieja are important figures that represent the old doctor that use herbs to cure and the grandmother matriarch figure. These two characters represent figures from early colonial slavery in Uruguay.
The most prominent theme in the Uruguay Carnaval is that it is a celebration of history and identity, specifically black history and identity. The dancers, music, and characters all represent the slave struggle and resistance, the fight to hold on to their culture and memories. The candombe plays a very prominent part in Carnaval and as I mentioned in a previous post, the candombe was brought to Uruguay by slaves and mixed with European music elements to create a style unique to Uruguay and the slaves brought there.
Carnaval is so obviously a celebration of black identity that there are Negros Lubolos, white men who paint their faces black. In a role reversal the Lubolos sings songs about missing the African homeland, loving their white mistresses, and the hardship of pleasing their white masters. The Lubolos take on the role of an African slave in order to experience Carnaval like a black man. The white and black participants and observers of Carnaval have two different experiences of the event. For the African descendants, Carnaval is a declaration of their identity and a revival of their protest.
Like the majority of Latin American countries, in Uruguay abortion is illegal except in special circumstances, those circumstances being rape, incest, and the health of the mother. A mother who received an illegal abortion can be sentenced to 3 to 9 months in prison while those that performed the procedure can receive 6 to 24 months in prison. Despite the law, about 30,000 illegal abortions occur yearly in Uruguay (conservatively) and there are only 55,000 births per year. Abortion, then, is used as a means of fertility control, but it comes at a cost. 29% of maternal deaths result from abortion complications (the world average is 13%). The reason for this high percentage is that a safe abortion would cost 500 to 600 dollars, which is unaffordable for many women.
In 2008 a bill that would have legalized abortion up to the 12th week of pregnancy passed the Uruguayan senate and House of Representatives but was vetoed by President Tabare Vasquez. Before the bill came to a vote Uruguayan senators were under pressure to reject the bill by those opposed to it, including the catholic church (the Archbishop of Montevideo compared those that supported the bill to terrorists) and even six republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives signed a letter urging Uruguayan Senators to vote against the bill. This caused a bit of a ruckus with legislatures and activists who thought it was undue interference.