|Sunday, January 30, 2011
Four Points Sheraton was a very classy hotel: rooms were spacious and comfortable, well-placed toiletries, a bright bathroom, and very nice breakfast. They offered free ½ hour Internet service on their business computers, not your own. Using your own computer would be charged by the hour. Time was limited; therefore it didn’t pay to buy time, just quickly check my e-mail on the free service.
We were definitely away from the equator! A cool 70° with low humidity and a nice breeze had some wearing light sweaters. Jimena would take us on a mostly coach tour of Montevideo, with a few photo stops.
Uruguay did not have the natural resources as some of the other cities, so it wasn’t much sought after for colonization. When its deep port and strategic location came to be recognized, shipping and settlement followed. Now the port used to export raw materials of beef, leather and wool.
We started at Old Town passing Constitution Square, the cathedral, Independence House, Solis Theatre, which is the opera house and Independence Square. Most of the buildings around Independence Square had columns or colonnades made of different materials, but all carrying out a columnar appearance. The city had once been encircled by a wall, since destroyed, but a section of the wall using the same bricks was erected to remember the past.
Between sites, Jimena talked about the government of Uruguay as being paternalistic. Many services that were provided by the government free of charge are now being provided by other companies creating some competition. Schools and health care are free and government controlled. Attendance is mandatory from 4 - 16 years old. Anyone can attend college; the only requirement is to complete high school. But then it isn’t entirely free. Six years after graduation the person pays into a Solidarity Fund until he/she retires. The amount to be paid is a percentage based on how many years the person attended school. The money from the Solidarity Fund goes to fund scholarships.
Former president Tabaré Vazquez instituted a number of reforms such as the progressive tax, increased welfare considerably, made it compulsory for every shop to have a defibrillator, as a strict Catholic he vetoed abortion. Homosexual couples cannot marry, but they have equal rights as married couples and can also adopt. The present president considers himself a man for the people and dresses and speaks the part, unkempt clothes and sometimes vulgar speech.
With the number of civil wars and wars with its neighbors, the city is not lacking for monuments to its heroes.
There were also a number of bronze sculptures by José Belloni. La Carreta shows three pairs of yoked oxen tugging a covered wagon
. Another is more symbolic showing a wagon stuck in the mud representing Uruguay as being stuck in the mud, but the gaucho using all his physical strength getting the wagon out of the mud while the woman in the wagon represents the determination and perseverance in the struggle.
Of course, Montevideo has Carnival, and this one is the longest in the world, lasting 40 days, with singing and dancing every night going on right now. Some performances poke fun at public figures, all in good fun.
The problems facing Uruguay today are mostly connected with the economy. How to pay for free health care when people are living longer and there aren’t enough young people to support the programs. Increasing the birth rate has been considered. Health care has declined with longer waits for service and medication.
We drove through different neighborhoods defined as either middle, middle upper class and wealthy. Diplomatic neighborhoods with ambassadors from Canada and the US, the palace of Rev. Moon fit in the last category. Beautiful beaches, not on the ocean but the river, contribute to the economy by increased tourism. Near the harbor was the anchor of the Graf Spee that was sunk off the coast of Montevideo.
The afternoon was free to explore on our own. Jimena assured us that we would be safe because police protection is added whenever a cruise ship is in port. As I walked to the flea market and shops I had no concern for my safety; the police was quite visible.