By Jacqueline D. Mourot
Often overshadowed by its larger and more well-known neighbors, Brazil and Argentina, Uruguay is a beacon of democratic and economic stability in Latin America. Uruguay’s democratic government, strong institutions, and strategic location contribute to its importance in the region. Its beautiful coastline, vineyards, rustic countryside, and warm culture also make it an enjoyable place to live and serve.
Roughly the size of Washington state with a population of approximately 3.5 million people, Uruguay is the second smallest country on the South American continent. Uruguay maintains historically close cultural ties to Italy, Spain, and France. It is considered one of the continent’s longest, most vibrant, progressive societies thanks to its political stability, advanced social legislation, and relatively large middle class. In the early 1900s, Uruguay was the first country in Latin America to give women the right to vote, legalize divorce, implement free public education, and establish labor unions. Uruguay’s gross national product (GDP) per capita is among the highest in Latin America, as is its literacy rate. The country still enjoys the most equal income distribution in Latin America, according to United Nations (U.N.) reports. Uruguay’s political and economic stability make it a strong and reliable partner. With the election in November 2019 of 46-year old Luis Lacalle Pou (Uruguay’s youngest president), the new centrist government is the most favorable it has been to the United States in the past 15 years.
The United States and Uruguay have enjoyed diplomatic relations since 1867. In 1906, Elihu Root was the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Uruguay. The local government declared the day of his arrival a holiday on account of the numerous festivities in honor of this historic moment in the bilateral relationship. During World Wars I and II, Uruguay remained steadfast to its neutral position, but at the same time supported U.S. interests. In WWI, Uruguay commandeered five German ships in the Montevideo harbor and subsequently leased them to the United States. In WWII, Uruguay denied the Germans sufficient time to repair their largest heavy cruiser, the Graf Spee, that had been critically damaged in the Battle of the River Plate, resulting in the German captain scuttling Germany’s number one naval vessel in the Río de la Plata. Uruguay’s neutralist diplomacy and progressive government is the hallmark of its historic and present role on the continent and in numerous world forums.
The 69 U.S. direct hire and 212 locally employed staff serving at Embassy Montevideo are experiencing one of the nation’s most exciting eras. The presidential elections last November marked the most important government transition, ideologically and generationally, in the past 20 years. The Port of Montevideo is at the mouth of the hydrovia (waterway) that cuts through the second most fertile agricultural basin in the world; Uruguay is a co-founder of MERCOSUR (the Southern Common Market), and actively engaged in global peacekeeping operations. Uruguay’s democratic and economic stability allows it to have an outsized influence in sharp contrast to its neighbors, where politics and economics vacillate dramatically. These and other key attributes translate to active diplomatic engagement at all levels.
Shared values and ideals contribute to the strength of the bilateral relationship between Uruguay and the United States. In late 2019, the first-ever presidential election vote recount in Uruguay’s history proved once again that Uruguay is a true example of democracy in action. For one week, with a too-close-to-call election, all votes were recounted. Citizens peacefully awaited the results and accepted the winner without contest. No protests, no street marches, no angry rallies. The respect for the electoral process shown by all parties and the Uruguayan people was a shining example of trust in institutions and principles in the face of declining faith in democracy around the world. Uruguay’s commitment to freedom, justice, human rights, and democracy has led it to be one of only three countries in Latin America ranked a “full democracy” by The Economist Democracy Index, as well as one of the region’s most egalitarian countries.
However, there are still tough issues to address, many of which were key topics of last year’s election. Montevideo recently became the most expensive Latin American city to live in, according to Mercer Consulting. Its historic image of an egalitarian “middle-class” country has been brought into question in recent years by the continued growth of a poor underclass largely disconnected from employment or educational opportunities.
Citizen security was a leading issue in recent elections in response to year-on-year increases in common crime and the development of Uruguay as a major regional narcotics transshipment hub. Uruguay’s crime rates increased dramatically over the past two years with armed robbery and homicide rates increasing by 57 percent and 38 percent respectively. The increasing insecurity has directly impacted both embassy personnel and American citizens visiting or residing in Uruguay. The new administration’s Ministry of Interior views the embassy as a key strategic partner, and they are working together to modify law enforcement training, deter the flow of illicit narcotics, and improve citizen security, forging a close working relationship with the national police.
Uruguay’s political and economic stability, strategic port, and 13 free-trade zones reinforce its potential to serve as a trade and business hub for the region. Zonamerica, one of Uruguay’s 13 free trade zones, is a 125-acre park that hosts roughly 350 companies with 10,000 employees. The strategic location of Uruguay’s port, regulatory framework, strong institutions, and special import regimes could make it an effective distribution center for U.S. goods into the region. The 3,000-mile hydrovia starts at the Port of Montevideo and stretches to Bolivia. Traversing the second largest agricultural exporting region in the world, it is the southern twin of the Mississippi River; Montevideo is New Orleans, and Bolivia is Minnesota. The hydrovia has the potential to be equivalent to that of the Mississippi River in the United States in terms of getting commodity products to market.
The United States is Uruguay’s third-largest trading partner, behind China and Brazil, and the fourth-largest investor. With the establishment of a Foreign Commercial Service Officer position in 2019, the embassy directly supports efforts to promote greater trade, and to spur private sector growth through engagement with the 120 American businesses operating in Uruguay who employ more than 20,000 people.
In 2019, the embassy invested more than $3 million in exchange programs, seminars, and training courses, increasing bilateral understanding and cooperation and reaching 540 participants including Uruguayan teachers, entrepreneurs, military officials, law enforcement, and community and government leaders. The Fulbright Commission supports study and research exchanges for students, scholars, and K-12 teachers. Through the Binational Center, the embassy provides English classes to more than 10,000 students annually across its network of 37 centers.
Uruguay is positioned as a key partner in advancing American policies in regional and international fora and continues to play a constructive role globally. Uruguay is the host of the MERCOSUR headquarters and has maintained the secretary general position at the Organization of American States for the past five years. Uruguay has one of the most professional and responsible militaries and is Latin America’s largest troop contributor to U.N. peacekeeping operations currently in Golan Heights and the DRC, more than Mexico, Argentina, or Brazil. This fact, coupled with the country’s stability and respect for the rule of law and property, provide the critical foundation for a strong U.S.-Uruguay military partnership.
While positive and active bilateral engagement keeps staff busy, Montevideo is not all work and no play. There is a lot to enjoy and do in Uruguay and neighboring Argentina, only a two-hour ferry ride away. Families enjoy strolls along Montevideo’s famous rambla—the 13.7 miles of uninterrupted oceanfront sidewalk or trips to Punta del Este and Colonia del Sacramento to enjoy the beautiful beaches and colonial town charm.
Dining options abound in Montevideo with a good steak being the order du jour at iconic dining venues like Garcia’s and the Mercado del Puerto. Lots of delivery options exist for groceries and restaurants, and when missing a taste of home, many local McDonalds, Subways, or Starbucks are just a short walk away. Or enjoy a local favorite like the chivito, a hot sandwich loaded with thinly sliced beef and topped with slices of ham, bacon, lettuce, tomato, melted mozzarella cheese, and a fried egg.
In Uruguay, the parrilla, the gaucho barbecue pit, is a staple in local culture, and weekend asados, or barbecues, with family and friends are a must. Another equally important tradition in Uruguay is drinking maté, a hot beverage prepared by steeping dried leaves of yerba-maté in a traditional calabash gourd. It is very common to see Uruguayans everywhere, at all times of the day, carrying their maté gourd and thermos of hot water tucked under one arm, with a folding chair under the other. Visiting one of Uruguay’s beautiful vineyards or ranches is not to be missed with options for all budgets. The embassy recently organized a family outing trip to nearby Juanico vineyard that included a delicious meal, wine tasting, and outdoor play for kids. Horseback riding is also a favorite pastime that can be enjoyed at any number of ranches or estancias in the country’s interior.
There are also a number of cultural festivities and attractions in Montevideo and around the country. Highlights include ballets at the Sodre National Theater; live tango performances; and the performances, parades, and candombe drumming during the 45-day long carnival festivities. Celebrations of rural cowboy or gaucho culture are seen at the annual Expo Prado in Montevideo or the famous annual Patria Gaucha festival in the northern town of Tacuarembó, which includes a reconstruction of historical gaucho dwellings and a parade of some 4,000 horses. Uruguay also has a lot to offer the tech savvy with 89 percent internet penetration, some of the fastest internet speeds, and largest share of social media accounts in Latin America.
Uruguay is a beacon of democracy and a source of economic stability and access to the region. Its shared values and welcoming culture present an opportunity for the United States to connect and partner and make it a great place to live and work. Embassy Montevideo continues to build on the shared commitment to democracy, increased economic trade and investment, regional security, and meaningful people-to-people exchanges. Uruguay is not only a strong regional partner to the United States but also a symbol of a promise for a bright and prosperous future for Latin America.
Jacqueline D. Mourot is a public affairs officer at Embassy Montevideo.