Our first publication comes from the "Winter 2019" issue of Dissent Magazine. It is an English language translation of a piece by a "professor of history at the Universidad de la República" who has side gigs as "a researcher at the Sistema Nacional de Investigadores del Uruguay" and "president of the Superior Council of the Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales."1 Let us begin with the title block:
Uruguay: The End of the Dream?
In the nearly fifteen years since it took power, the Uruguayan left has enjoyed broad legislative and economic success. But now its momentum may be stalling.
Never mind that the cited economic success started cracking sometime between 2010 and 2013, then broke when the 2013 "information sharing" agreement with Argentina came into force. The photo of below the title is of one, Pepe Mujica. The fellow is second to Luis Suarez when it comes to Uruguayos with name recognition outside the hugbox, but domestically present influence is below that of Mitt Romney in the US.
During the Pink Tide, international attention often focused on the most flamboyant and controversial heads of state, with their radical rhetoric and often limited commitment to the separation of powers. Perhaps it was for that reason that Uruguay, despite a very serious project of reform and three consecutive left-wing governments led by the Frente Amplio (Broad Front), attracted less attention. When international attention did arrive, it was usually by way of contrast. The avuncular former guerrilla, in the figure of José “Pepe” Mujica, seemed an antithesis to the large egos serving as heads of state elsewhere; he lived on a modest farm and drove a 1987 blue Volkswagen Beetle while president from 2010 to 2015. He could also be counted on for expressions of democratic values. He made way for his predecessor (and successor), Tabaré Vázquez.2 And surveying the struggles of the left on the international scene shortly after he left office, Mujica judged: “If it is the left’s turn to lose ground, let it lose ground and learn, for it will have to begin again.” But if Uruguay seems like the most successful of the Pink Tide’s “social democratic governments,” its transformative legacy in Uruguayan history assured, its future is less certain.
The Frente Amplio took power in the elections of October 31, 2004, which produced a flood of votes for the left, giving it the presidency in the first round and a majority in both legislative chambers. This ended years of rule by the centrist Colorado (“Red”) Party, the conservative National (“White”) Party, and civic-military dictatorships, which had governed the country in sporadic alternation for 175 years. The electoral results in 2004, 2009, and 2014 permitted the Uruguayan left to achieve three consecutive governments with legislative majorities. And the left’s success coincided with vigorous economic growth. Even with the slowdown at the start of 2015, the period beginning after the crisis of 2002 marks the most significant stretch of economic growth in Uruguay since at least the 1960s.
In my reading the last time Uruguay has a leader in the Spanish caudillo tradition was Luis Alberto Herrera. Herrera never made it to the presidency, but he dominated the politics of his time to the point Herrerismo is a dirty word among the youth. His grandson did make it the the presidency 1990-1995 after suffering assassination attempts during the 1970's well after the old man died in 1959.
Things started declining in the 1960's when Europe started feeding itself again and some commie rebels took up antisocial tactics in the pursuit of their socialismo. Mujica is one of those rebels.
This strong growth was matched with a dramatic, uninterrupted reduction in poverty. Between 2004 and 2014, the rates of poverty and extreme poverty fell, respectively, from 39.9 percent to 9.7 percent and from 4.7 percent to 0.3 percent, according to Uruguay’s National Institute of Statistics. The most recent numbers continue to reflect those declines, with poverty at 7.9 percent and extreme poverty at 0.2 percent.
Under the Frente Amplio, Uruguay has also seen a more gradual but persistent decline in inequality. From 2004 to 2014, the Gini coefficient declined from 0.46 to 0.38—the lowest in Latin America. However, in spite of this decline, a disproportionate share of wealth and income remain concentrated among a small elite. Patterns of inequality also continue to play out along familiar geographic and demographic lines. Afro-Uruguayans and the young remain disproportionately represented among the poor, with the country’s black population still facing poverty rates 10 percent higher than whites despite a significant decline. These tendencies are shared by other progressive governments in South America, such as Brazil under the Workers’ Party.
Notice the lack of establishing where the lines for "poverty" and "extreme poverty" are either at a given point or in relation to the inflation. The point of the "Gini Index" has been discussed before in Republican Literature.
As with other Pink Tide countries, the economic dynamism underlying the impressive social advances of this period resulted mainly from the boom in the price of commodities.
Because of prudent economic management, Uruguay has not yet suffered a recession, as has befallen other Pink Tide countries after the fall in commodity prices.3 Still, other features of the economy remain little changed. Increased investment has come mostly from foreign sources, with national capital playing only a supporting role. Industrial and value-added exports did not increase significantly and remain strongly rooted in the region—in the Mercosur trade bloc and in South America more generally. There were no structural transformations in production or export infrastructure. During the most recent electoral campaign, for example, Tabaré Vázquez promised to increase investment in science and technology to 1 percent of GDP, hoping over the long term to decrease dependence on commodities and diversify the economy. Nevertheless, the amount remains stuck at 0.4 percent of GDP. The explosion of production in the agricultural sector—now challenged—underlined the severe deficits in infrastructure and the persistence of other structural problems that compromise continued economic dynamism. Unemployment, too, is creeping back up. After reaching a low of 6.3 percent in urban areas in 2010–11—the lowest level seen in Uruguay in decades—unemployment rates have been rising in recent years to approximately 8 percent, and the most recent data confirms a notable decline in hiring.
The 8 percent unemployment figure is taken from "recent years" rather than "Winter 2019" presumably for the usual reasons, and that breakdowns of the official numbers spammed by repeaters show ~25 percent of the population under 25 years of age is NEET. Further "notable decline in hiring" is an odd way to say more than 2000 young folks waited in line to apply for jobs when a new to Montevideo restaurant held a hiring fair. In the sun and heat of late fall, 2000 people waited no less than 2 hours standing in line to apply for one of 80 openings.
For a less than 4% chance at employment, kids showed up in force. If you ever wondered why all the job applications moved behind user hostile online "portals" this is why, in Uruguay and the United States an open call for applications turns into an event. No the kids are not all right, but they want to be. Not unrelatedly Uruguay leads the continent in suicide with self determined exits from this world compromising just a shade over 2 percent of total deaths. Suicides here, as in most places are dominated by young men between 18 and 30. Published unemployment rates are substantially lower in the over 25 demographic suggesting hiring has not "declined" but functionally stopped.
A Coalition at Its Peak?
Historically, the unification of the left under the Frente Amplio (dating back to 1971) was preceded and brought about by the unification of the unions under the Convención Nacional de Trabajadores (CNT) in 1964. Since its creation, Frente Amplio has included a movement dimension, through a territorial network of “base committees” that over the years has been incorporated into the decision-making bodies of the party. A wide network of civil society organizations—many of them linked informally to the unions—has maintained a special tie with Frente Amplio, even while keeping independence and autonomy. The union movement has sought to balance this relationship with the slogan, “independence doesn’t mean abstention.” Nevertheless, with the entry of the left into the government, these links have become tenser. As could be expected, disagreements have multiplied. The risks of a “Peronist” turn—in the sense of excessive dependence and cooperation between unions and the government—have been kept in mind always as a danger to avoid. Nevertheless, the privileged relationships between organizations of civil society and the Frente Amplio have been maintained, even as the Frente Amplio’s capacity to mobilize support has diminished somewhat in recent times.
As described in my earlier, brief history of Uruguay the groups comprimising the Frente Amplio coalition started as loosely aligned terrorist groups which triggered a dictatorship. With Luis Alberto Herrera and the caudillo tradition which turned this river bank into a country dead, no caudillo emerged. Eventually with a lack of leadership on either side The dictatorship ended with peaceful democratic referendum in the 80's and the Pinkos bided their time until and Argentine fuck up spilled over into Uruguay letting the Frente Amplio capture government the following elections.
The Frente Amplio however is not a strong coalition as evidenced by their three presidential terms consisting of Vázquez, Mujica, and Vázquez again. All 20 or 30 plus parties inside the Frente Amplio jockey for position by frequently presenting themselves as alternatives to the rest of Frente Amplio. Mujica's MPP does this frequently.
On balance, the fourteen years of left-wing governments in Uruguay reflect a strong record of economic growth and decreased inequality, alongside a set of other important reforms—the creation of an integrated health system; advances in labor relations; a law against gender-based violence; a range of measures furthering gender equity at home, at work, and in government; and affirmative–action policies for groups facing discrimination, including Afro-Uruguayans. In July 2017, Madrid’s El País newspaper highlighted the Frente Amplio’s successes in a front-page article titled, “The discreet miracle of the Uruguayan left: 15 years of uninterrupted economic growth.” It contrasted the country’s record of equitable growth and stable government with the crises facing its larger neighbors and the turn to the right, and even ultra-right, across Latin America. Where countries like Brazil and Argentina were failing, the article noted, “this small country [Uruguay] distinguished itself with a peaceful third way.”
And here we have it, the growth started before Frente Amplio, and whether any actual growth happened after 2012 is very doubtful.
Yet the honeymoon may be coming to an end. Despite its successes, the current government faces significant discontent both within and outside its ranks. Polls ahead of the upcoming elections, in late 2019, show the conservative Partido Nacional catching up with the Frente Amplio for the first time since the left took power. The situation has left both those in the government and outside observers grasping for an explanation—and the party battling to reclaim its advantage. The challenge for the left is to show that it cannot only adapt its agenda to adverse economic conditions, but expand it to address lasting structural problems. These include the need for profound education reform, for more investment in science and technology, for transforming the economic base to reduce dependence on commodities and for the creation of better jobs, for public-safety laws that are not punitive but meet public expectations for security, and for a deepening of social rights.
As the billboard ask "Quién es Juan Sartori? The young men who are employed or killing themselves increasingly resort to opportunistic rapiñas, snatch and grab thefts. The pichis choosing the quick rush of some pasta base over joining the system fight for prime corners to plea "una moneda para comer algo" to the tune of 1000+4 pesos during a typical weekday if the win and defend the right corners. The "adverse economic conditions" and "lasting structural problems" are for the most part the result of these socialists who inhereted a growing economy and squeezed in into a depression spackled over with statistics.
Just today for the second time in a week a police officer was shot and killed in Montevideo. Monday a police officer was shot interrupting a rapiña. Today the police officer was shot 3 times as he was closing his garage door, the shooter approached from the street before firing 3 shots and fleeing. No relation between the latest police officer's assassination and any theft is known. The clear tape of the shooting is playing on the evening news.
For now, the main “flagships” of Uruguayan progressivism appear to be stagnating, and public opinion seems to believe, accurately or not, that the second Tabaré Vázquez government lacks a vigorous agenda or the strength necessary to renew the Uruguayan left’s transformative project. The government’s transformative impulse has arguably been waning since as early as the previous term, during the presidency of José Mujica, whose charisma, combined with the continued economic growth and passage of several significant reforms, partially occluded the decline. The Vázquez government, on the other hand, has come under criticism for its growing distance from everyday citizens. With the left’s most ambitious plans realized, many feel that the Frente Amplio has reached the “end of the dream,” to borrow the title of Chilean writer Joaquín Brunner’s most recent book.
There is nothing left for a "renewed" leftist transformation to do but take a Venezuelan turn and more aggressively giving the people exactly what they voted for. One thing about Mujica that grated the Uruguayos was how he paraded his aspirational priviledge as humility and voluntary poverty. The man has a farm! And a CAR!!!! Mujica's late 80's Volkwagen Fusca is far more car than most Uruguayos have access to, either personally or through their family connections. His farm is also more farm, what offensive inequality!
The country has also not escaped the tragedy of widespread corruption that afflicts the political and business classes in nearly all of Latin America. The case that led to the resignation of former vice president Raúl Sendic Jr. in 2017 is still working its way through the courts. And the country’s governance faces other unresolved problems, such as the financing of parties and the lack of accountability in public works. Reforms are necessary to bolster public confidence in state-owned businesses and the public sector more generally. Across South America, the impact of corruption scandals has been enormous and debilitating for the left-wing project. Uruguay traditionally has lower levels of corruption, fostering greater levels of trust in state institutions, but sustaining this trust will take aggressive anti-corruption efforts.
Indeed Uruguay traditionally has a history of low "corruption", and then the Frente Amplio took power and the managment they appointed to various state enterprises started looting. Raul Sendic looting the national oil importer ANCAP is merely the biggest documented case of this looting.
Recent surveys carried out by the government itself provide further reasons for concern. One poll revealed that, for the first time, social inequality and poverty were widely seen as “the fault of the poor themselves,” rather than the result of wider social structures. These conclusions suggest a dramatic shift in the Uruguayans’ public attitudes, which have historically tended toward a more solidaristic way of thinking. Surrounded by right-wing and ultra-right-wing governments, bordered by the extremist Bolsonaro government in Brazil, the challenges facing the Uruguayan left in this year’s elections are clear. The elections will either extend or interrupt the “progressive cycle.” In other countries of the region, like Brazil, conservative turns have begun in the final terms of left governments, leading to disillusionment among sectors of the left when the transformative impulse fades into a kind of undercover conservatism. Parties in power that have become excessively worried about maintaining power, or about the reprisals of opposition figures if they should reach government, have undermined their own electoral fortunes. There seems to be a risk of this dynamic playing out in Uruguay as well.
The Uruguayan left has been aggressively pushing the "solidarity" view of Uruguay's people since the 1960's when things started getting lean as more of Europe was turned back on after fighting amongst liberal democracies wrecked that continent. More than 50 years of pushing that line, and it hasn't survived 15 years after the explicit left took control. Blame for poverty is being shared by the impoverished and the new, flatter social structures being hammered by the Frente Amplio. It's not a risk, it is playing out unless the opposition eats each other.
Still, a great majority of Uruguayans remain committed to the values of democracy; in the current moment, viewed alongside the global and continental trends, this is no small thing. The left in Uruguay, as elsewhere, faces the dual task of articulating theories of long-term change while also being engaged in the short-term work of helping workers and the poor to get to the end of the month. Once in government, the left cannot abandon its long-term goals, even as short-term demands accumulate. José Mujica, in his inaugural address on assuming the presidency on March 1, 2010, said, “It is not easy to navigate. Compasses are no longer sure of how to point to the cardinal directions.” But navigate it must, so that the scope of its agenda can match the needs of the moment.
The Uruguayan people appear largely indifferent or hostile to their government, as most bipeds have been since government became a thing. The few kids parroting Frente Amplio lines and trying their very best to get in with one of the coalition's many parties have a pet issue. This pet issue is building a "Metro" for Montevideo. Not a passenger rail line along the coast conveying tourists from Colonia to the Eastern Beaches of Maldonando and Rocha and going either through or around Montevideo. They want light rail trains in the city, preferably underground. There's few thoroughfares above ground that can fit them in the city, and all of those are clogged with bus traffic. All a "Metro" can do is Maduro away all of the food not already marked for export during the building and keep the food headed out paying to maintain the pumps.
But accutely injuring the Frente Amplio in the public mind however is a recent piece of envirorastry. At some, unclear future date stores won't be allowed to give customers free plastic bags to carry their purchases home. Instead some indeterminate price is to be imposed on the grocery bags. The locals use plastic grocery bags in all manner of creative ways that go far beyond mundanely reusing them as the only trash bags they have ever known. They attacked a major cultural artifact in an election year where "Violencia Sin Precedente" was the graphical banner on the local newscast today following that second perforated police officer within a week. The impending bag ban doesn't get much news time, but it gets a lot of conversation time.
Anyways, lets go back to 2006 when the Telegraph wrote up Uruguay for their travel section during the first Vázquez regime:
"The summer season is ridiculously short," despaired Steven Chew, as our Buquebus ferry bounced across the River Plate towards Montevideo. "Just 15 days starting from 27 December. Blink and you'll miss it. We'll witness the aftermath. Note the air of desperation as the drinks cabinets run dry. Mind you, for anyone uninterested in the new year party scene, Uruguay is a great place to visit right through to May, especially on the back of a trip to Buenos Aires. It's better value, less crowded, less hyped and altogether more relaxing than Argentina."
Chew, 34, from England, is a most agreeable Latin American guide. He has been composing bespoke holidays here for 14 years. Thanks to his connections, doors that ordinarily remain shut fly open, which, in a closed society like Uruguay, is exactly the knack one needs. I hoped to harvest his expertise.
"What exactly does one do in Uruguay?" I asked.
"If you need to ask, you probably shouldn't go," he winced. "It is a source of pride among Uruguayans that their country lacks any world-class attractions. No Iguaçu Falls. No Patagonia. No Andes. But there is something wonderfully old-fashioned about Uruguay, and so beautifully uncomplicated."
Uruguayans and Argentines are close River Plate cousins. They look and speak the same, but differ widely in outlook. Uruguayans are so conservative, patient, low-key and unconventionally Latino, that they could almost be Scandinavian. Argentines, on the other hand, are self-conscious and fashion-conscious sophisticates. "Argentines look down on Uruguayans like the British denigrated the Spanish in the 1970s," said Chew. "They consider Uruguayans slow, dithering and backward in every sense."
First impressions of Montevideo: craggy, tumbledown, faded, crumbling, leafy and reminiscent of the eastern bloc circa 1965. The clocks are one hour ahead of Buenos Aires, but in every other respect this city is 50 years behind, basking in the glories of its shipping and offshore-banking heyday. Hillman Imps with 500,000 kilometres on the clock jostle with Austin Healeys.
Having thrown cursory glances at Montevideo's cultural gems (the Mercado del Puerto, the dilapidated Beaux-Arts architecture, the magnificently restored Teatro Solis and the museum dedicated to Joaquin Torres Garcia - the painter and sculptor who introduced Constructivism to Latin America), we set off by non-Imp car eastwards along the River Plate to take possession of the Uruguayan Riviera.
Uruguay is easy driving country. It has a population of around three million, most of whom inhabit Montevideo, leaving the countryside virtually empty. Yet I found it hard to believe, as we sped past concrete shacks with heavily cannibalised motors standing on bricks in front gardens, that Uruguay has won the soccer World Cup twice.
Two hours later, the new-build river-view apartment blocks of Punta del Este came into sight. Reputedly a hedonistic sandpit for rich Porteños (natives of Buenos Aires) and Brazilians with millions who come here for the beaches, the security and the friendly welcome, this former resort was once favoured by the Rat Pack, Brigitte Bardot, Gina Lollabrigida, Yul Brynner and Che Guevara. Today it is the gentrified holiday/weekend spot for well-scrubbed nuclear families. It's worth crossing the River Plate for, but not the Atlantic. What has spun off from "Punta" to the east, however, at the villages of La Barra and José Ignacio which overlook that point where the River Plate turns into the Atlantic, is far more compelling and sophisticated.
One point of interest in Punta del Este, however, lies moored in the marina. Seven identical yachts there belong to Carlos Pedro Blaquier, the Argentine millionaire industrialist and art collector who translates Bertrand Russell in his spare time. An insomniac, Blaquier often stays aboard his yachts, which rock him to sleep. Each yacht serves a different purpose, cooking, eating, sleeping, etc. On the rare occasions that he goes out to sea, he usually takes three yachts. The first breaks the water, the second is for Blaquier in person, and the third is the kitchen.
Half a kilometre of scrubland beyond Punta, you arrive at the suburb of * *Hollywood. It resembles an architectural beach-villa competition that got out of hand. There's a wildly eclectic anthology of clashing architectural styles: adobe huts, mock Tudor, Cape Dutch, thatched, contemporary hacienda, Victorian gothic revival, art deco, Bauhaus, clapboard, Cotswold stone, and so on. Some villas look not so much designed as congealed; others are simply glazed boxes for exhibitionists and people who want to check up on how rich their neighbours are. Faced with so many architectural moments, moods and mutually exclusive mission statements, I almost thought we'd veered off-piste and taken a detour via Wentworth. Was that really a Kent-style oast house? "Controlled architectural mayhem," tut-tutted Chew.
Ten kilometres further on, you reach La Barra. Here, things quieten down, architecturally speaking, but they heat up from a social point of view. The very smartest villas are concealed from view, and in the majority of cases are designed by Mario Connio, a Porteño architect and designer who returned to South America after 36 years in Madrid. Connio is now riding the wave of the development of the Uruguayan Riviera. A few kilometres beyond La Barra, you reach José Ignacio, a settlement of beach huts in clapboard and stone, frivolously painted blush pink, apple green and turquoise. José Ignacio is the epicentre of the Uruguayan Riviera. It's always hot here, regardless of the weather.
During summer's brief fling, La Barra and José Ignacio turn into a fortnight's trade fair for the cosmetic surgery industry, the psychotherapy industry, the movie industry and the fashion industry. The population seems to consist of a Bohemian jet set of actors, models, model agents, sundry Uru-trash, social moths and los ricos y famosos of Argentina who spend their summer holidays in Gente (People) magazine, the Argentine social glossy. Among the luminaries are Naomi Campbell, Gisele Bündchen and Mario Testino, the fashion photographer. You could almost forget St Tropez existed. Plastic, hysterical, Miami-on-acid, it is a deliberately glitzy scene whose core is hermetically sealed to outsiders.
"Each season gets more and more international," yawned Chew. "Media and lifestyle brands are 'discovering' Uruguay." Last season, in the enclave of La Pedrera just outside La Barra, Microsoft rented a $110,000-a-month villa for the summer; Google surpassed this with an even costlier house nearby. There is already a Bhudda Bar in José Ignacio, and the Miami-based Setai Club is due to open here in 2007. Anyone of a faintly neurotic disposition would go mad worrying whether they'd been invited to the right parties. If you make the beach before 2pm the next day, then you didn't. "This may explain why February is when all the Buenos Aires shrinks come here on holiday," said Chew, "so that they can squeeze in a bit of creative ambulance-chasing on the side. Didn't you know? Everyone has a shrink in Buenos Aires. If you don't, you must be mad.
"But if you just want a laugh and to be part of a glamorous whirligig," continued Chew, "the Uruguayan Riviera is a classic, unsentimental what-makes-the-world-go-round mix. It is a meat market of stop-watched shelf-lives, diminished fruit-fly attention spans, broken-off conversations and prioritised social agendas."
"Of course, this hedonism is most un-Uruguayan," said Rosie May Carter, Edinburgh-born Uruguay-based creator of www.uruguay24-7.com. "While catwalk models sashay along the beach in bikinis, one kilometre inland gauchos herd cattle and silently play out the rituals of maté drinking." The very fact that the real Uruguay is not like this hysterical beach scene is the very reason why the beach scene alights here at all. Uruguay is the safest, most tolerant Latin American country to visit in style. You can flaunt jewels, designer clothes, fast cars, homosexuality and even American passports with impunity. "And depending on the season, Uruguay is a wonderful place to show off or recover from cosmetic surgery," one woman told me.
A pioneer of the Uruguayan Riviera is Francis Mallmann, 50. An Argentino-Uruguayan restaurateur, Mallmann operates in Buenos Aires, Mendoza and José Ignacio. Chef, poet, designer, musician, Mallmann has transformed Los Negros, his rustic beachside restaurant in José Ignacio, into a literary Aladdin's cave. Every inch of wall is inscribed with poetry by Rupert Brooke, WH Auden, ee cummings, Erasmus, Plath and Hughes, and passages from Pericles and Borges. Customers are often puzzled to trip over Mallmann seated alone at a small table, cigar and wine to hand, lost in a book of English verse, wearing a towelling robe with the ocean still dripping off him.
"The Riviera has three levels of visitor," he said over grilled beef with chimichurri sauce (olive oil, parsley, oregano, garlic). "The very rich; the medium rich that own those coloured villas; and the people who own flats in Punta del Este who sometimes outspend the rich to be in on the scene."
Mallmann sketched out a typical high summer's day: get up at the crack of noon and hit the beach for a hard afternoon's relaxation. Lunch from 4 to 6pm, then home for a nap. Shower at 11pm, and then dine at midnight. Besides Los Negros, the most fashionable restaurants are La Huella, another oceanfront fixture which serves reliable seafood, with beach service in high season, backgammon and cocktails; and Marismo, an insider's "secret" located down a track en route to Laguna Garzon, which consists of a huge bonfire built on a sand dune surrounded by low-lying tables. "Most of the action takes place at private parties," said Mallmann. "In the 1980s, the biggest party giver was a Brazilian name of Scarpa. Dom Pérignon flowed and everyone dressed in red or white. He went bankrupt."
A possible heir to Scarpa's socialite crown is Alan Faena, owner of the "Faena Hotel + Universe" in Buenos Aires. Tierra Santa, his oceanfront estancia 35 kilometres north of Punta, is the setting of exclusive private parties attended by the likes of Charly Garcia, the Argentine rock musician, and socialites like Brooke and Emilio de Ocampo among the usual cast of Brazilian models.
To show us the real Uruguay, Mallmann invited us to his latest project in the village of Garzon, 35 kilometres inland, folded in rolling green hills and valleys richly covered with grasses, wild, scented flowers and thickly leaved trees - like Tuscany but with cattle instead of Volvos. Garzon is a sleepy hamlet (population 200) of single-storey whitewashed houses twinned with nowhere, camped around an incongruously grand plaza with lawns, palms, hedges and fountains presided over by a bust of José Artigas, Uruguay's national hero. Ever since Garzon's timber mill fell silent for the last time several decades ago, the traffic has consisted of dogs, horses and the occasional chicken. At "Provision Natalia", we called for beer, and drank in the peace while dogs played at our feet, watched by the heads of five wild boar nailed to a post.
Mallmann fell in love with Garzon 10 years ago. He agonised over whether to open a hotel here. In December 2004, he finally did. Hotel Garzon is a converted shop with five chic bedrooms and a dining room hung with watergraphs by Mallmann's friend Martin Summers, the London-based Impressionist dealer. A door leads to Mallmann's poetry library, which Martin Amis sometimes borrows (Amis lives in José Ignacio with Isabel Fonseca, his Uruguayan wife). The hotel overlooks a small garden with potted plants, lawn and pool. The kitchen uses a technique known as infiernillo ("little hell"), a spectacular Incan method involving twin wood fires lit above and below, a health and safety nightmare. The staff are a delight. Adrian, the manager, 30-ish, doubles as the Mayor of Garzon. You won't want to leave.
"Uruguay's biggest asset is the quality of its people," said Mallmann. "They're very warm and friendly. Unlike other South Americans, they pay taxes." I was growing increasingly suspicious of the flawless Uruguayan character, and made a mental note to Google "serial killings Uruguay".
The following morning, I strolled about the village of Garzon taking in the wild flowers that plundered the artist's palette of blues, pinks and yellows. Once your auditory synapses have discounted the enthusiastic dawn chorus of mooing, bleating, barking, neighing, chirping, cock-a-doodle-doing and oinking, a magical stillness hangs over the place. Garzon's streets are as wide as they are long; if you look down any of them, you see aspects of the Uruguayan countryside rolling into the distance, a land where the cows aren't mad and the chickens don't have flu. It is the perfect antidote to the Uruguayan Riviera, and a chance to glimpse the world before it became globalised, rushed, panicky and overcrowded.
Besides Hotel Garzon, Mallmann owns eight buildings here, each one earmarked for development: a cantina here, a shop there, a suite of rentable rooms over there. He plans to restore the plaza and transform the derelict timber mill into a concert hall.
"Why not visit Punta del Diablo," said Mallmann, as he waved us goodbye. Diablo? "Just up the coast. I'm thinking of opening a place there. I've rented a tent on the beach. Stay in it if you like."
Punta del Diablo, near the border with Brazil, forms the centre of three points of land that thrust into the ocean, like the diablo's (devil's) trident. It's a low-budget coastal resort, a jumble of illegal Toy Town beach huts, bars and T-shirt vendors perched on mountainous dunes overlooking superior beaches.
Mallmann's beach tent proved to be a wigwam with a bedroom, shower, kitchen and safari-style viewing deck on a raised platform with commanding views of the Andean topography of the Diablo sandscape and ocean beyond.
"Seafront plots sell from US$35,000 (£18,000)," said Santiago Diaz, the local estate agent. "You can get them for less. A beach house for 12 rents for $300 (£167) a night. Not that people sleep here. No one goes to bed before 5am. There's always time to sleep in winter."
Punta del Este built up even more. The further east coast has gained favor because Punta gets crowded, and the older Eastern-bloc high rises have been joined by more new construction Eastern-bloc high rises. I can't speak to details of the 2006 Uruguay tourist experience beyond marvelling at the hell inflation has once again wrought.
- The awful trend of presenting history as a "social science" rather than a humanity lives here as well. [↩]
- Most notable for being against tobacco and in favor of coca leaf. The pro-coca position is attributed to fostering good relations with Morales in Bolivia. Of course with a bit of cooking coca leaf yields powder cocaine and the local bane, "pasta base" as a byproduct. [↩]
- Claim striken for reasons revealed in the rest of this paragraph. [↩]
- ~30 USD, well in excess of the minimum and typical wages [↩]