I don’t really need a particular reason to visit a place, just existing on a map is enough. However in the case of Uruguay my curiosity was further stoked by its nickname of “The Switzerland of South America”.
The nickname was earned deliberately, Uruguay has consciously looked towards nations of neutrality and progressive policy like Switzerland for inspiration for over a century.
FUN FACT #1: Uruguay was the first country in the world to legalize pot.
Where most of South America tends to be religious, conservative, fiscally undisciplined and populist. Uruguay stands alone as a quiet, secular, progressive experiment. The zig to the rest of the continent’s zag.
They are the anti-Argentina in many ways, especially economic ones, despite being extremely similar neighbors.
FUN FACT #2: Uruguay is currently ranked the most fully democratic country anywhere in the Americas (just a pinch ahead of Canada).
Even the ferry from Argentina to Uruguay belies these contrasts, the ferries owned by Uruguay are traditional old boats, inexpensive and slow, taking over four hours to cross. The Argentinian ferry is flashy, literally one of a kind, powered by jet engines from a Boeing 747, the fastest in the world, very expensive (my ticket was $170 Canadian), makes the trip in just over 2 hours and the owners are still drowning in debt.
FUN FACT #3: Uruguay is currently ranked the least corrupt country anywhere in the Americas.
I heard multiple times that Montevideo is the safest (and sleepiest) capital city in South America. Despite this my walk from the port I arrived at to where I’m staying following my arrival definitely had my head on a bit of a swivel. At 7:30pm the old town is deserted, poorly lit, filthy and almost entirely covered in graffiti, there is also a significant population of unhoused people. It feels a bit like being back in Vancouver actually.
I walked the 15 minutes to my place and met my host, we had a good talk and when I brought up the issue of safety in the city after dark he looked surprised and assured me that anything other than panhandling is extremely rare.
FUN FACT #4: Uruguay was the first South American country to give women the vote.
I felt the same thing last month when I got to Paraguay and first arrived in Asuncion, I made assumptions based on what I saw around me, which turned out to be completely factually incorrect (Asuncion is the second safest capital).
Now that I’ve been here a few days I can also see how unfounded my concerns here were as well. The city might be beat up in places but it’s exceptionally friendly. I’ve had more warm interactions with people here than anywhere else this trip, easily.
FUN FACT #5: Uruguay was the first South American country to constitutionalize the separation of church and state.
Historically the city is younger than places like Asuncion and Buenos Aires, even if it looks older, and unlike Buenos Aires or Asuncion it was never part of the action, never got the attention and historical importance of other cities. It feels like it’s been ignored for a long time and it feels like it’s pretty ok with that.
FUN FACT #6: Uruguay was the first South American country to legalize gay marriage.
From my readings it seems Montevideo, and Uruguay as a whole, is very aware of how rough the city looks and accept it for one reason: a very strong national philosophy of not spending money they don’t have. Having the eternal economic disaster of Argentina next door has made Uruguayans ok with facing higher prices, higher taxes and less developed infrastructure because in exchange they get stability, a strong social safety net and a functioning, stable, economy.
FUN FACT #7: Uruguay was the first South American country to legalize abortion.
Uruguay has also managed this feat despite having nothing to trade for it, they have zero natural resources and little to trade.
A country like Canada has the luxury to trade resources for stability, Uruguay has had instead to trade economic responsibility for stability. The city might be rough here and there and a bit broken but people are happy, protected, and proud.
FUN FACT #8: Uruguay was the first South American country to legalize prostitution.
The only real dark spot in Uruguay’s history came during the late 1960s when the United States decided all this equality and peacefulness couldn’t be allowed to continue and had the CIA launch Project Condor. The CIA convinced the police and army in Uruguay (and other South American nations) that they were being taken advantage of and that it would be in everyone’s best interest if the army just stepped in and took over. So, with lots of money, training and weapons from the US, they did.
FUN FACT #9: Uruguay is currently ranked the most peaceful country in South America.
From the mid 70s to the mid 80s Uruguay became a hellscape, with more political prisoners arrested, tortured or disappeared per capita than any place else in the world. Leftist parties outlawed, universities closed down. One fifth of the population went into hiding. The right-wing of Paraguay took the shopping list the United States gave them and went to town with it.
FUN FACT #10: Uruguay is, per capita, the largest contributor to the UN Peacekeeping Force.
Eventually after a decade of this the people sorta just all started ignoring those in power, culminating in a general strike, eventually the army gave up and offered several new constitutions for the country, these were also ignored. After a time elections were held and the army/police agreed to step aside in exchange for amnesty .
In the decades since Uruguayans have twice voted to rescind this amenity and prosecute their torturers.
They’ve also amended the new constitution in several ways to prevent such a mistake from occurring again.
People I talk to here are aware of these achievements and are proud. They feel they have done amazingly well at making the most out of a little. I am insanely impressed with the country.