I arrived in Colonia del Sacramento, a famous historical town in Uruguay across the river delta from Buenos Aires, a week ago tomorrow. Three days in Punta del Diablo followed by two and a half in the capital, Montevideo, and already I have to leave. Last night my new Uruguayan friends invited me to stay with them here in Montevideo, and if it were not for the looming 90 day expiration of my Brazilian visa, I would likely take them up on the offer. As it is, however, I board a bus at 9:30 tonight and endure an 18-hour ride to Florianópolis, Brazil.
With so little time in the country, I had to soak in as much as I could of Uruguayan culture in a short amount of time. Last night I went to see a murgas show, which is part of Uruguay´s celebration of Carnaval. Murga is "musical theatre" (in the accurate words of Wikipedia) that provides political and social commentary in an extravagant form. While I did not understand everything the groups sang about, I often heard "yanqui" (people from North America) and "Obama", which shows how much American culture and politics affect people all over the world. While our policies and culture were a common topic to touch upon, the groups obviously did not sing exclusively about yanqui things. They provided social commentary on a plethora of topics related to Uruguayan politics as well as South American policitics in general. They made some very poignant observations, not that I understood what they said, but judging by the crowd's reactions, their commentaries were accurate depictions of the Uruguayan mentality.
On another political note, the president gave an address in a plaza in downtown Montevideo, and according to one of the Uruguayan workers at my hostel, large protests were anticipated. I will try and explain what I understand of the situation:
In the 1970s, many governments here in South America fell under violent military dictatorships: Argentina, Uruguay and Chile especially. The governments of these countries kidnapped, tortured and killed thousands of people who came to be known as los desaparecidos or "the disappeared ones". Before losing power, the military government here in Uruguay passed a law making it illegal to persecute those government officials responsible for the murders and violations of human rights. All military files regarding this time period remain confidential (Check out this picture and the following two from Córdoba, Argentina that show the names of victims from this era in the form of a fingerprint - you can also see the years in which they disappeared).
The current leftist government (let´s not get too wrapped up in the word "leftist" - you can be leftist and not be extreme) promised to revoke that law and seek retribution but has done nothing since taking office. When government officials do not keep their promise here, the people unite and protest. Banging pots and pans during the president's address is a common form of protest. Another method of protest someone described to me is turning off all the lights in the city at night. This seemed particularly benign, but after thinking about it, it seems like a rather poetic form of protest. It doesn't really affect the politicians directly, but it shows that the people are united. I can't imagine all the lights going off in Washington, D.C. or New York to protest a lack of political action, though I would love to see such a show of solidarity in the U.S.
With that said, I had to see for myself what the president's speech would be like. Would there be banging of pots and pans, angry protestors , riot police? Travelers are typically advised to stay away from political events, but I nevertheless found myself walking to the center of town with some Uruguayan university students to a political rally. In contrast to what I heard, there was lots of flag waving and supportive chanting rather than banging of pots and pans. I was also surprised with how close spectators were allowed to get to the president. At one point, I was less than 25 meters from the stage!
Thanks to my friends María and Fede for showing me some authentic Uruguayan culture and giving me a taste of the democratic process as manifested here in Montevideo. If I could stay longer I would.