15 May 2016

Reflections Upon Leaving Uruguay

After several days of heavy rains, we were fortunate enough to have a sunny day on 20 April when we cleaned ourselves out the doors of our little house in el campo outside of La Paloma, Rocha, Uruguay, settled up with everyone we had sold or traded all our stuff to, said goodbye to our friends, and took a taxi to the terminal to ride the bus to the airport and leave in the early hours of 21 April, exactly seven years and a day after we left the United States for South America.

I had been content to live the simple life in Uruguay, making do with what we had. I loved the sound of the chattering parrots in the trees all around us and of the waves of the Atlantic Ocean hitting the shore in the distance. But it was hard for Jamie there, as we were a couple of kilometers away from the center of town, while the nearest beach was probably more than half a kilometer, and with the pain in his feet and legs he has been suffering, he was pretty much limited to the block of Barrio Parque that consisted of our house at one corner and the little neighborhood store at the other, with a trip to town requiring taxi rides there and back. We had been going out to eat in town about once a week, to break up the monotony of my cooking (Was it just me, or had the quality of the produce available around town been growing continually more shitty as time went by?); but even that was getting old because, other than the fancy, expensive Bahia, the obvious choice for special occasions, the few restaurants that stayed open throughout the year all served the same uninspired menu.

For Jamie, disillusionment with the country we had chosen as our home had become too much to bear. For me, it only really hit home when I walked into the vaunted new Carrasco International Airport… and was shocked at how utterly lame it was! Sure, it looked impressive from outside. But inside? It was more like a bus terminal than an international airport that had been lauded as the best in the world! One little parting gift to Jamie was the large Antel advertisement with the words, un país con internet gratis para todos los hogares – a country with free internet for every home – jajaja, what a joke, after all the problems we had had getting them to bring the high-speed fiber-optic line to our house from just across the street, topped off by a doubling of our rate with no prior notice whatsoever. ¡Internet gratis mi culo!

So after arriving in Bogotá, getting settled in at the Viaggio Virrey, our lovely little apart-hotel in an upscale neighborhood of the city, and catching up on our sleep, Jamie spent the next day and a half trying to bring the little Acer notebook we’d bought at a duty-free shop at the Brazilian border soon after our arrival to La Paloma seven years ago – back to life while I read the book about a young Uruguayan woman that I’d had for a while but never got around to reading until after leaving the country.

The book, The Tree of Red Stars by Tessa Bridal, offers a captivating look at the period of Uruguayan history leading up to the military coup, as the protagonist comes of age amid growing resistance to US investment and influence in the region and eventually becomes involved with the Tupamaros, the same Marxist guerrilla group that ex-president José “Pepe” Mujica was working with when he was imprisoned by the military and held at the bottom of a deep well for years.

As I read, it was interesting for me to think about the country I had just left after spending altogether about five years living in a little family beach resort on the Atlantic coast (plus a short time in the city of Rocha, the capital of the Department of Rocha, when we got kicked out of town because the owners of all the little rental houses wanted to rent them by the night or the week during the summer holiday season of January and part of February). So we had been living off in the boonies, away from the cultural and social scene of Montevideo, which is the singular large city in the country and home to a huge percentage of the Uruguayan population. But despite our seemingly idyllic, solitary location away from everything and everybody, we were still feeling the effects of a sort of downfall – a returning planet Earth of the nation after Pepe Mujica carried to new heights the idea of living humbly and wanting to help the poor and disadvantaged. Meanwhile, it turns out that he failed to govern very well, and the effects of the corruption and incompetence during his administration are now coming to light. In fact, the whole region is plagued with a backlash against the wave of left-wing leadership that swept into power in recent years, with Brazil going through the turmoil of impeachment proceedings in an explosive atmosphere where it seems that just about every politician is involved in some scandal and the Brazilian people are in the streets protesting – both for and against President Rousseffʹs impeachment. Argentina has transferred to a more centrist government that has stopped all the monetary monkey business and has already patched things up regarding the vulture fund situation, but the transformation has been and will continue to be painful, as the unsustainable system of Kirchnerist government handouts is replaced by the reality of how much it has been costing the Kirchnerites to stay in power by pretending to have solutions for improving the lives of the lower classes. And then there’s the mess that is Venezuela

What this all goes to show is that Latin America does not need the United States or any other foreign entity to mess things up for them; they are perfectly capable of messing things up all by themselves. I am totally over and done the whole USA-as-bogyman-for-all-the-worldʹs-troubles attitude. It’s passé… and far from being the whole story. Yes, I get it that the United States has been a horrible, domineering, violent, and exploitive neighbor to all of Latin America, which the Uruguay novel makes clear. Yes, I read Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America, a searing analysis of colonial capitalist influence on all that is wrong with Latin American societies, while I was in Uruguay. But at this point, one has to accede that the United States has significantly changed the way it conducts its foreign policy, with a pivot away, if you will, from involvement in Latin America, other than the ongoing and ineffective militarized War on Drugs. The Cold War, at least in the Americas, is over. Cuba and the United States have reestablished relations. There are no CIA operations to help the old-school ruling regimes rid themselves of leftist governments – or even the possibility of one gaining power, as was the case in Uruguay. And the fair trade movement is working to ensure that trade partnerships include human rights protections whenever possible. The thing is, I just don’t think that the United States can get away with blatant undemocratic meddling around the world, particularly in its own hemisphere, like it once did. I am not arguing that the meddling and certainly not that the spying no longer occurs, but rather, that these types of activities cannot be quietly carried out by the US government as easily as they used to. People are becoming increasingly aware of how their lifestyles and personal choices are contributing to human misery in other parts of the world… and that matters.

So, problems such as rising youth violence and crime were beginning to become apparent, even in little La Paloma, when the old man who owned the local grocery store got beat up and robbed. But amid this and all of the regional uncertainty that was starting to make us uneasy, what was really causing distress was the rate of inflation – well, that, and the lack of culture, especially concerning the food. Honestly, how is one expected to live life without regular access to cilantro or dependable lemons or even decent tomatoes (not to mention the coffee situation – we were drinking Nescafé because the ground coffee there is expensive but not very good)?!?

And thus we have left the mate, the chewy meat, and the dulce de leche behind, opting for the much more vibrant setting of Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, México, with an invigorating visit to Bogotá along the way.

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