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A Country Dying on Its Feet

Interest rates went down in Uruguay this year. Last year, at the height of the Tupamaro crisis, you could borrow money at 60 percent. The interest, payable in advance, was immediately deducted from the loan; so that, having borrowed a million pesos, you left the bank with 400,000. And that was good business, with the peso losing half its value against the dollar during the year, and with inflation running at 92 percent.

Now it is a little less frenzied. The Tupamaros—there were about 5,000 of them, mainly townspeople from impoverished middle-class families—have been destroyed. The army—essentially rural, lower-middle-class—is in control and rules by decree. Interest rates have dropped to around 42 percent, with the taxes; and inflation this year has been kept down to 60 percent. “Prices here don’t rise every day,” the businessman said. “They also rise every night.”

Yet until the other day, they tell you in Uruguay, road workers could be seen grilling their lunchtime steaks in the open air; and the Uruguay peso was known as the peso oro, the golden peso. In 1953 there were three pesos to the United States dollar; today there are 975.

My father bought a house in 1953 with a 6 percent loan from the Mortgage Bank. At the end, in 1968, he was still paying 30 pesos a month on his mortgage. [Thirty pesos: twelve cents.] That may be funny to, you. For us it is a tragedy. Our Parliament refused to revalue mortgage repayments—the politicians didn’t want to lose votes. So everybody had his house as a gift. But they condemned the future generations.

The law has now been changed. Interest rates, like salaries, are tied to the cost-of-living index; and the Mortgage Bank these days offers depositors 56 percent—7 percent true interest, 49 percent the inflationary “adjustment.”

Mr. Palatnik, the advertising man who handles the Mortgage Bank campaign, has also been engaged by the military government to help calm the country down. And, to the disgust and alarm of left and extreme right, Mr. Palatnik doesn’t appear to be failing. He hasn’t so far made himself or the government absurd. Again and again on television, in the commercial breaks in the Argentine soap operas, after the talk of government plans, hope comes in the form of a challenge: Tenga confianza en el país, y póngale el hombro al Uruguay. Literally: “Have faith in the country, and put your shoulder to Uruguay.”

But in Uruguay these days it is hard not to offend. New Dawn, the weekly newspaper of a new right-wing youth group (“Family, Tradition, Property”), published a strong attack on Mr. Palatnik, with a distinctly anti-Semitic cartoon. Mr. Palatnik, who is middleaged, challenged the editor to a duel. He sent his padrinos to the New Dawn office, but the challenge wasn’t accepted. The New Dawn group isn’t important; but, like many businessmen in Montevideo, Mr. Palatnik now carries a gun.

The precaution is excessive. President Bordaberry and his army are, at the moment, in control and on the offensive; arrests and interrogations continue; the days of guerrilla kidnap in Montevideo are over. Montevideo, so dangerous last year, is now safer than Buenos Aires; and some of the more ransomable American business executives in Argentina have moved across the River Plate to Montevideo, to the red brick tower of the Victoria Plaza Hotel in the main square, with the equestrian statue of Artigas, the founder of the Uruguayan state, in the center.

Government House is on one side of the square. There are sentries in nineteenth-century uniform, but also real soldiers with real guns. On another side of the square the Palace of Justice, begun six years ago, stands unfinished in the immense crater of its foundations. Grass, level and lush as if sown, grows from the concrete beams, and the concrete columns are stained with rust from the reinforcing steel rods.

Montevideo is safe. But the money has run out in a country whose official buildings, in the days of wealth, were of marble, granite, and bronze. All the extravagant woodwork in the Legislative Palace, all the marquetry that rises from floor to ceiling in the library, was made in Italy and shipped out, they say, in mahogany crates. And that was just fifty years ago. Now the palace is without a function, and soldiers, making small gestures with their guns, urge passers-by to keep their distance.

Fifty years ago, before people built on the sea, the fashionable area was the Prado: great houses, some gothic follies, great gardens. The Prado park is now tended only in parts; the once-famous rose garden runs wild. Beyond the bridge with the tarnished belleépoque sphinxes, a long drive, shaded by eucalyptus, plane, and fir, leads to the Prado Hotel, still apparently whole, with its green walks and balustraded terraces and a fountain that still plays. But the asphalt forecourt is cracked; the lamp standards and urns are empty; the great yellow building—Jules Knab arq 1911 incised halfway up—has been abandoned.

Montevideo is in parts a ghost city, its nouveau-riche splendor still new. It is a city full of statues—copies of the David, the Colleoni statue in Venice, elaborate historical tableaux in bronze. But letters have dropped off inscriptions and have not been replaced; and the public clocks on street corners have everywhere stopped. The plane trees in the center are not old; tall carved doors still open on to marble halls with fine ceilings that still look new. But the shops have little to offer; the pavements are broken; the streets are too full of people selling chocolate and sweets and other little things. The three or four fair restaurants that survive—in a city of more than a million—do not always have meat; and the bread is made partly of sorghum.

Even without the slogans on the walls—Stop Torturing Sassano, The Military are Torturing Sereny, Death to the Dictatorship, Tupamaros Renegades Thieves Swine, Putamaros (puta, a whore)—the visitor would know that he is in a city where, as in a fairy story, a hidden calamity has occurred. A fabulous city, created all at once, and struck down almost as soon as it had been created.

The country has grown sad,” an artist said. He survives by living to himself, doing his work, and pretending that Uruguay is somewhere else. He doesn’t listen to the radio or watch television or read the newspapers. What—apart from football—had he missed in that morning’s El País? A plane hijacked to Bolivia; 500 secondary school students suspended; five “extremists,” three of them university students, indicted by the military court for “conspiring against the Constitution.”

When Uruguay was rich, politics was a matter of personalities and the army hardly existed. Now the money has run out, and the little country—almost as big as Britain, but with fewer than three million people—tears itself apart.

The army came for me at four in the morning. In the jail—they play pop music in the torture cells—I was made to stand with my feet together for ten hours. Then I was given the “submarine.” I was winded by a heavy blow in the stomach and my head was held under water. They’re expert now. But they’ve had accidents. Then I was made to stand again. When I collapsed I was prodded between the legs with a bayonet

The “submarine” is “soft” torture. People who have been burned by the electric prod don’t talk about their experiences.

Everyone in Uruguay, whether on the right or left, knows now—sixty years too late—where the trouble started. It started with the president called Batlle (pronounced Ba-jhay); it started with the welfare state Batlle, after a visit to Switzerland, began to impose on Uruguay, just before the First World War. Uruguay had the money. Her exports of meat and wool made her rich, the peso was on a par with the dollar. “In those days,” a banker says, “out of every dollar we earned abroad eighty cents were pure surplus. A surplus provided by the land—the rain, the climate, the earth.” The land might be said to be Indian land, but the Indians had been exterminated in the nineteenth century. A monument in the Prado park commemorates Uruguay’s last four Charrua Indians, who were sent as exhibits to the Musée de l’Homme in Paris, where they died.

Pensions, every kind of workers’ benefit, women’s rights: month after month Batlle handed down the liberal laws to an astonished pastoral people. And suddenly Uruguay was modern, the best-educated country in South America, with the most liberal laws; and Montevideo was a metropolis, full of statues.

Sábat, the cartoonist, who left Uruguay eight years ago and now works in Buenos Aires, says: “Uruguay is a big estancia. Only a megalomaniac like Batlle could think that it was a country. It remains a big estancia with a city, Montevideo, that is crystallized on the 1930s. Creativity stopped then. The country was developing intellectually. After Batlle everything was crystallized.”

A socialist teacher, more romantic, grieves for the gaucho past:

Batlle should not have been born in a bucolic country. He went to Europe and got all those lovely ideas and then looked around for a country where he could apply them. And as the country didn’t exist he invented it. He invented the industrial worker, bringing in people from the country to the town. People used to drinking mate, watching sheep, sitting under the ombú tree—which wasn’t bad, you know: it was beautiful: the twentieth century doesn’t want us to live like that. He invented the workers and then he invented the social laws and then the bureaucracy—which was terrible. I am not certain why this should have led to corruption and venality, but it did.

A businessman:

Utopia is the worst thing for a man. He is old at thirty. That happened to us.

A banker:

All the productive infrastructure was built between 1850 and 1930 and was based on existing British investments. Very little was done afterward. A power plant was finished after 1945; that was the most important addition. No new roads, no new bridges. The country was living like a retired person on a pension.

And, with the new state, a new glory. Football, introduced by British railway workers, became the Uruguayan obsession. Sábat: “Our provincialism was backed up by our football—a proof of greatness that had no relation with reality. In 1924 in Paris and in 1928 in Amsterdam we were the Olympic champions. We were the world champions in Montevideo in 1930 and in Rio in 1950. And we thought: ‘If we are world champions in football, then we must be world champions in everything.”’

In the park named after Batlle, the great football stadium, built in 1930 (together with the Legislative Palace) for the centenary of Uruguay’s independence, and named after Batlle, still draws the crowds. The newspapers still devote half their space to football. But football has decayed with the economy; and now, like the cattle, the better footballers have to be sold off to richer countries as soon as they are reared.

There are many jokes in Uruguay about the bureaucracy; and they are all true. Out of a work force of just over a million, 250,000 are employed by the state. PLUNA, the Uruguayan airline, used to have 1,000 employees and one functioning airplane. The people at ANCAP, the state oil company, tried to get to the office before it opened; there were more employees than chairs. In 1958 the Ministry of Public Health recruited 1,500 new staff. In 1959 in Public Works there was one messenger for every six civil servants. In Telephones and Electricity there are forty-five grades of civil servants. Nothing is done by post; everything requires a personal visit. The service is slow; but the public, scattered among the messengers and the sleeping police dogs in the foyer, is uncomplaining: many of them are civil servants from other departments, with time on their hands.

It is a kind of ideal; government offices which are like clubs for public and staff, a whole country living the life of a commune, work and leisure flowing together, everyone, active and inactive, a pensioner of the state. But Uruguay still lives off meat and wool; and Montevideo, which contains more than a third of the country’s population, is an artificial metropolis. The padding of the civil service, which began thirty years ago, in the time of wealth, disguises unemployment and urban purposelessness. Everyone knows this, but too many people benefit: the whole state has been led into this conspiracy against itself. “Everyone is pension-minded,” the businessman says. And even the left-wing slogans of protest against the military government can be cautious and practical: Paz Salario Libertad, Peace Wages Liberty.

The girls in the blue nylon coats in Telephones and Electricity can earn about $120 a month. In summer, from December to March, they work from seven to one. They go off then to a second job. Or they go to the beach. Montevideo is built along a beach; all roads south end in white sand and a bay. And this is where Uruguayans regularly lose all sense of crisis, and the will to action is weakened: on the too accessible beach, in the resort developments just a few minutes outside Montevideo where many modest people have summer houses amid pines and dunes, and in Punta del Este, eighty miles away along a coast of Californian splendor, where the wealthier have weekend homes: Punta del Este, one of Uruguay’s economic disasters, built mainly in the 1950s with loans from the Mortgage Bank, the satellite resort town of the artificial metropolis.

Everyone rejects Batllismo, but after sixty years everyone in Uruguay has been made by it. The resort life is all they know; its crumbling away leaves them confused. “Spiritually,” a journalist said, “we feel we have gone back.” Spiritually? “I don’t like to be stressed permanently.” He was a two-house man; but he had to do two jobs, one with the government; and his wife was doing two jobs. And cars were expensive, because of the 300 percent tax. A new Volkswagen cost $8,000; even a 1955 Rover cost $3,500. “We won’t progress. What’s progress, though? America? That’s consuming and stressing, keeping up with the Joneses. We don’t have that kind of shit here, if you pardon the expression.”

But there was the high price of cars. “I’ll tell you about Uruguay in one sentence,” an architect said to me on my first evening in Montevideo. “The last Jaguar was imported in 1955.”

These are withdrawal symptoms and they add up to a kind of spiritual distress: Montevideo, spreading along its beach, needs the motor car. Without the motor car, tracts of the city will have to be abandoned, as the Prado park has been abandoned. All that resort life, all that modernity of which the Uruguayans were until recently so proud, depend on consumer goods which Uruguay bought from more “stressed” countries and—wasting the talent of two generations in a padded civil service—never learned to make.

The antique cars of Montevideo—pre-1955 Citroens, baby Morrises and Austins, Fords and Chevrolets of the 1930s, and other names now abandoned or superseded: Hupmobile, Willys-Overland Whippet, Dodge Brothers, Hudson—are not as gay as they first appear, part of the resort life. The country is under siege. The simplest things are smuggled in by truck from Argentina; the supplies of modern civilization are running out.

Uruguayans say that they are a European nation, that they have always had their back to the rest of South America. It was their great error, and is part of their failure. Their habits of wealth made them, profoundly, a colonial people, educated but intellectually null, consumers, parasitic on the culture and technology of others.

The Tupamaros were destroyers. They had no program; they were like people provoking a reaction, challenging the hidden enemy to declare himself. In the end they picked on the armed forces and were speedily destroyed. “The Tupamaros were not the beginning of a revolution,” Sábat says. “They were the last whisper of Batllismo. They were parricides, engaged in a kind of kamikaze. In Uruguay now everybody, whatever slogans he shouts, is either a parricide or a reactionary.”

There is no middle way. Political attitudes have grown simpler and harder; and it is impossible not to take sides. Last October a student in the engineering faculty of the university blew himself up while making a bomb. The army closed the university—independent until that day—and arrested everybody. Parricide or reactionary, left-wing or right-wing, each side now finds in the other the enemy it needs. Each side now assigns a destructive role to the other; and, as in Chile, people grow into their roles.

Those who can, get out. They queue for passports at the rear entrance of the pink-walled Foreign Ministry, formerly the Santos Palace (built in 1880, the basin of the fountain in the hall carved from a single block of Carrara marble). At Carrasco airport someone had chalked on a wall: El último que salga que apague la luz: The last person to leave must put out the light.

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