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Country of the Month: Uruguay

By: Kate Gruetter

National/World Editor

Nicknamed “the paradise of fat cows,” Latin American country Uruguay captivates visitors with more than its significant cattle population (ratio of cows to people: four to one). The second smallest country in South America, Uruguay also boasts rolling grasslands and captivating wooded valleys. More importantly, the nation is unique in that it’s making its way towards a balance between environmental sustainability, political peace, and a good quality of life for its citizens, something few other countries have successfully accomplished.   

Brazil, Argentina, and the Atlantic Ocean border Uruguay, and the native language spoken is Spanish. The nation’s main industry involves sheep and cattle; wool, beef, livestock products, skins, and hides account for about two-fifths of the country’s export income. Most of the country’s population is concentrated in Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital, and its culture incorporates both European and indigenous elements.

The most fascinating part of this Latin American country is its ability to promote prosperity in a climate friendly manner. Uruguay places first in political rights and civil liberties in South America, while also hovering at around a 10 percent poverty rate. Though its carbon footprint sits at the global median, 4.5 tons per capita, few countries have accomplished both the quality of life and environmental achievements of Uruguay. 

It took a long time for Uruguay to reach this point; Throughout the 1960s, the country suffered from attacks and social unrest created by a Marxist-Leninist group labeled the Tupamaros, who were known for robbing banks to spread wealth to the poor. Continuing into the 1980s, the government exiled between 300,000 and 400,000 people, while imprisoning another 500, creating the world’s highest rate of political incarceration. After the economy collapsed in 1985, locals joked that the “last person in the country had turned off the lights.”  

The election of José Mujica as President in 2009 was a turning point for the nation. A former banker and leader of the Tupamaro, Mujica possessed a deep commitment to social welfare, which he demonstrated by vacating and then opening the presidential palace to the homeless. Perhaps the most notable of his actions, Mujica donated 90 percent of his salary to charity and drove a 1987 Volkswagen Beetle to Parliament.  

In 2008, Mujica’s predecessor, Tabare Vazquez, consulted Ramón Méndez on the country’s energy crisis. Méndez proposed a plan for a countrywide transition to renewable power in September of 2008, which passed the cabinet. However, when Mujica assumed his role as President in 2010, he pushed Méndez to take a new approach, one that the opposition in the government would also agree on.

Today, Uruguay operates on 98 percent renewable energy, which Méndez believes resulted in a change of mindset among the people as well.  Citizens began to hang their laundry, take the electric Montevideo buses, and buy laundry timers, while meetings over the future problems of the country began to feel like just that: problems, rather than crises. 

Uruguay is a country worth recognizing, not just for its rich culture and high cattle population, but also because of its ability to overcome its political unrest and transform into a unified nation behind revolutionary energy sources.  

(Sources: Wikipedia, Britannica, New York Times)

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