Sunday, 1 July 2018

Guest Post - What I Know About Uruguay, Some Of It A Bit Weird by Jenny Haddon - Bookish World Cup - Uruguay

Until I was in my twenties, I didn't even know where Uruguay was. Then I found myself in the Public Record Office, which in those days was in Chancery Lane, reading a massive leather-bound volume of nineteenth century ambassadorial despatches. Thick, linen-based paper, crackly with age, covered in flowing handwriting that had turned sepia over the centuries. Very Da Vinci Code, now I come to think of it. All written from Rio Janeiro.

"Rio?" I hear you cry. "That woman still doesn't know where Uruguay is!"

Ah, but we are talking the 1820s and Latin American boundaries were still up for negotiation back then.

Not that I knew much about that. I was doing the legwork for a biographer of Dom Pedro Primeiro the first Emperor of Brazil. I was just ordering up the volumes I'd been told to and taking notes of anything that mentioned Dom Pedro. I had no idea that Brazil had ever had an Emperor and didn't much care, but those letters from the British Envoy-Extraordinary and Minister-Plenipotentiary were cracking stuff.

For Lord Ponsonby hated Rio. I mean, he really hated it. According to him, the climate was vile, (hot and sticky or windy as hell); the town was ramshackle, culture non-existent, the court ill conducted and the Emperor unspeakable. What's more, his lady wife was suffering badly – from both the temperature and the Emperor, by the sound of it.

The biography's working title was Every Inch a King, which in the circumstances was perhaps unfortunate. Dom Pedro, had been brought up in Rio ever since he was nine years old, when the Portuguese Royal Family escaped from Napoleon, transported by the British Navy. The climate, Lord Ponsonby implies, was conducive to lustful thoughts and lascivious behaviour. And the Emperor was still in his twenties and having the time of his life. General randiness was clearly the order of the day and pretty public, too.

Please, wrote Lord Ponsonby, could he and his wife not move to Montevideo, where the climate was mild, the breezes gentle and the general conduct altogether more what Lady Ponsonby was used to? He made Uruguay sound like Paradise. Which to him, it probably was, poor soul. 

Anyway, he helped set up the nation of Uruguay, mainly because having a buffer state between the powerful nations of Brazil and Argentina would benefit British trade, I have to admit. Uruguayan opinion is divided these days on whether that was a) a Good Thing and b) what the residents of the time really wanted. So unless you already know the opinion of the people you're with, it's a subject probably best avoided in the pub with a bunch of Uruguayan supporters. 

And Uruguay has remained some people's idea of Paradise ever since. In the last century it was often called the Switzerland of South America because it developed a Welfare State. And yes, Ponsonby was right, there's that healthy year-round mild climate and fertile countryside too.  And the country's strong commitment to education has delivered universal adult literacy.

Its long tradition of democracy was interrupted 1973-1985 by a repressive military dictatorship, a fate that it shared at the time with both its immediate neighbours and pretty much the whole of the sub-continent. To be fair, the military claimed to be taking a stand against the Tupamaros, a left wing guerrilla group which kidnapped the British Ambassador, Sir Geoffrey Jackson, and held him hostage for eight months. But the generals and the guerrillas are both gone now. And in 2013 Uruguay was the first country to legalise the cultivation, sale and consumption of marijuana for recreational use, as a measure to counter drug cartels.

But it is really its comprehensive Welfare State that is the most fascinating thing about Uruguay. The country introduced its first state pension programme in 1896 with a fund for teachers. Thereafter, pensions developed piecemeal, trade by trade. (The UK passed the Old Age Pension Act in 1908.) Child benefit payments started in 1943.  (1946 in the UK.) Again, to be fair, social welfare programmes have had their hiccups and the system became a political football for a while. But Uruguay's Welfare State has always broken new ground, in both its successes and failings

As for its national football team, what can I say, except that, in football as in so much else, the country has always punched well above its weight? This year Uruguay qualified second in its group. Brazil (population 208 million) won 12 of their 18 games and led the group. Uruguay (population 3.4mn) won 9.  Argentina (population 44mn) and Colombia (population 49 mn) won 7 each.

Latin America's Paradise , as Lord Ponsonby thought? Well, it's definitely in with a shot.

Thank you so much Jenny for this fascinating post. 

 Author Bio

Jenny Haddon writes romantic fiction as Sophie Weston or sometimes Sophie Page.

Her latest is, serendipitously, The Prince's Bride.  It was written and published before Harry and Meghan made their announcement, honest!

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