Archive | Uruguay RSS feed for this section
September 5, 2013

A lesson from the children – Cabo Polonio – Part 3 (of 3)

Year-round Cabo Polonio surfer Sebastian studies the bay for whales, which are common in the winter. Photo by brandon c janes iv

Year-round Cabo Polonio surfer Sebastian studies the bay for whales, which are common in the winter | photo by brandon c janes iv

At sunset, Cabo Polonio’s school teacher Laura Fontes, Sebastian, a traveler named Rafaela Lahore, an 8-year-old girl (one of Fontes’ students) and I traded turns scanning the bay for whales with a pair of binoculars.

Fontes, 26, was raised in the town of Rocha about 100 kilometers away. She said growing up in Cabo Polonio is its own form of education and the students are smarter because of it.

“(The students) can talk about the wind, the ocean, the animals, more than any children in the world,” Fontes said. “They play outside. In the city (children) just sit in front of computers or television,… here there are lots of places to play.”

Her school is a two-room cinderblock building with a breath-taking view of the western bay of Cabo Polonio.

Seven children of different ages and levels attend Fontes’ class, set under the fading portraits of Uruguayan liberator José Gervasio Artigas and José Pedro Varela, a Uruguayan education reformer.

Varela (b.1845 – d.1979) pioneered the first program of universal, free and compulsory education in South America. Today the country’s school programs even extend out to this isolated plot.

controlled liberty

Town dentist and former political representative of Cabo Polonio, Gonzalo “Ajo” Nuñez, has lived on the peninsula for 26 years.

When I arrived to interview him at his home – where he lives with his dog and young girlfriend Fatima – he insisted we smoke a joint first. Then, after he had thought through my questions, he rolled out onto his lawn and asked me to start rolling the camera.

Of everyone I met in Cabo Polonio, Nuñez seemed to have the most reasonable vision for the town, as a state-run ecotourism resort.

Nuñez was a member of the Committee of Advisors during the period in the 1990s when residents asked the goverment to come in and stop the illegal housing boom. The government stopped the construction, however, it brought with it other forms of pollution, he said.

He told me a story about an attempt to install a street light in downtown Cabo Polonio, which threated the town’s stargazing.

Children of the village – probably egged on by their parents – knocked out the lamp by throwing rocks at it, Nuñez said. The government tried to fix the lamp several times but each time the children would knock it down, until it gave up.

Across the dunes

I left Cabo Polonio before dawn, hoping to catch the 8 a.m. bus to Castillos and then on to Montevideo.

Hiking in the dark across a sandy river and over the sand dunes something mystical was still singing in my head.

Freedom is the most imprecise word. The word takes on special meanings for different people and different generations.

But passing over that seven-kilometer wide threshold of sand, I felt a freedom that I had been missing for a long time – exactly what Bea Pereira (the woman from the first video) was referring to when she described the “sprouting of the wild part of your interior being.” It was a freedom to be a child again.

So I understand now the myth of Cabo Polonio. This sunny, moon-shaped peninsula in Uruguay is no tourist destination. It is a libertarian paradise – a fountain of youth.

From the school yard, a view of the western bay at Cabo Polonio | photo by brandon c janes iv

From the school yard, a view of the western bay at Cabo Polonio | photo by brandon c janes iv

 

previous parts:

VIDEO: In defense of squatters; Cabo Polonio – Part 1

Pueblo chico, infierno grande: Cabo Polonio – Part 2

 

September 4, 2013

Pueblo chico, infierno grande: Cabo Polonio – Part 2

A horse grazes the winter grass on on protected land of Cabo Polonio National Park in Uruguay. Notice his front legs have been tied by his owner so that he cannot wander too far. Photo by brandon c janes iv

A horse grazes the winter grass on on protected land of Cabo Polonio National Park in Uruguay. Notice his front legs have been tied by his owner so that he cannot wander too far | photo by brandon c janes iv

 

When you wake up in Cabo Polonio you follow a pair of footprints made in the sand by the bare feet of a pretty girl you met the previous night. You follow them to a lighthouse where some horses are grazing on dry grass.

Below you is the wind-swept settlement you have come so far to see, less than a mile wide and separated into three distinct leagues of homes.

To your left – southward – are the privately-owned, upscale houses, built illegally during the housing boom of the 1990s and later purchased outright from their land owners at astronmical prices through a deal made with the government.

Locals say that rich families of government ministers in Montevideo and Buenos Aires own most of these houses, which are always empty in the winter.

The middle third is comprised of slightly less upscale houses. These have been claimed by the state because they sit inside the federally protected sea lion sanctuary.

And in the final third you find the disputed area of the town, the area which also contains the historical town center. It is here that Uruguayan fisherman arrived almost 100 years ago to build their houses out of plywood and wooden beams pulled from sunken ships on the coast, one resident told me.

Together the privately-owned and state-owned lands comprise about 200 houses, said Ruben “Popeye” Marcotte, a 22-year resident of Cabo Polonio, who is surprisingly anti-conformist for a park guard. Around 97 homes lie in the disputed territory.

Beginning in the 1960s, word of Cabo Polonio’s mystical attractions spread across South America and each year about 20 vacation homes were built – most of them illegally, until – in 2000 – members of the village’s so called Commission of Advisors asked the government to come in and stop the growth.

Each summer between 1,500 and 2,000 tourists arrive daily in Cabo Polonio to enjoy its warm beaches, spectacular skies and the unique culture of its inhabitants. In the winter the village becomes a ghost town and the majority of the homes are empty.

It didn’t used to be this way, said Marcotte.

“It was different. Not like it is now,” he said. “Back then I worked with lots of people and we had work year round. There were a lot more people who worked in construction and fishing.”

Memories of rustic realism

One old-timer named Johnny – who owns his property outright – described to me the fishing on the peninsula before the land became protected by the government. He explained how the fishermen would set the angle of their gill nets against the natural form of the shoals so that the fish could not escape.

He showed me a thin cut of shark meat that he had salted, slipping it out of his cupboard like a book.

In the winters, his family used to cook dulce de leche on wooden stoves, placing marbles in the pot with the sugar and milk so that they would know when the pot was starting to boil, or maybe it was so they wouldn’t have to get up to stir it.

With only seasonal work in tourism and a moratorium on building, most of the original families have moved away. Most pillars of the community have died.

Shifting dunes, shifting society

The government has twice razed homes in the disputed third of Cabo Polonio, targeting houses it says encroach on the natural movement of the sand dunes, and alter the natural ecosystem.

Lucio Cavalieri Suanes came to Cabo Polonio searching for an alternative lifestyle, away from the big city in the late 1990s, purchasing his home in what is now the disputed territory. The house is one of those on trial.

Something as simple – and critical – as repairing a roof on a home in Cabo Polonio takes months, he said, because the regulations have made it impossible to obtain a permit from the Rocha State government.

Suanes said that the government will not issue permits to the disputed third, because it wants to demolish as many houses owned by low income residents at it can.

Unable to repair his home, Saunes lives with his girlfriend Aida in a cramped basement of a different home.

“The nature is very alive, with strong winds – your house deteriorates quickly,” Suanes said. “They will not give you permission to repair your house because they want it to fall on your head.”

Costly regulations have forced many residents of Cabo Polonio to move away, and the popoulation is slowly changing from the poor fishing commune into a village used only by rich businessmen and politicians for their week-long vacations from the big city,  Suanes said.

The government is ruining the culture of the city, which is its true and only attraction, Suanes said.

“Without people this would be just two beaches, rocks, a lighthouse, and sea lions, no great attraction,” Suanes said.

“What makes (Cabo Polonio) special thing is the community that has formed.”

other parts

VIDEO: In defense of squatters; Cabo Polonio – Part 1

A lesson from the children – Cabo Polonio – Part 3 (of 3)

September 2, 2013

VIDEO: In defense of squatters; Cabo Polonio – Part 1

During the night the lighthouse at Cabo Polonio provides the only man made light, beside the full sky of stars. Photo by brandon c janes iv

During the night the lighthouse at Cabo Polonio provides the only man made light, beside the full sky of stars. Photo by brandon c janes iv

There are many myths about Cabo Polonio and they are all true. The 40 people who live there are all mad. They live off mussels and weed, and happily roam their quiet grassy peninsula in a libertarian paradise, isolated by seven kilometers of sand dunes on Uruguay’s virgin eastern coast.

Electricity has long been ruled out and the only thing that breaks the darkness of a starry night is the swinging lamp of the lighthouse built on the village high ground.

Friday night, on hearing the grinding of the passenger 4 X 4 – the only ride in over the dunes – Sebastian, a young surfer and concierge of the Viejo Lobo Hostel, marches out into the yard holding a white glowing orb, charged by the previous day’s sun. It has the word HOSTEL painted on the side and he uses it to direct the evening arrivals from across the town square.

That is how it begins.

Liberal habitats

The majority of the year-round inhabitants of this village are squatters. Having built their earthy beach huts on the land of old-time ranchers, legal disputes over property rights have continued for decades.

A housing boom in the late 1990s caused the government to step in and take control of the development of the land, which has no vehicle access.

As one of South America’s largest sea lion habitats – a recent occurrence – the southernmost portion of the land was made into a national park in 2009, further complicating the government’s attempt to resolve enduring legal battles between village residents and land owners.

Many of the residents rent rooms from their squatted houses as their main source of income.

An unintended consequence of the federal designation has placed these small-time artisans and free-form hoteliers into a protected status of their own, allowing them to own their homes – not the land – as long as they stay year-round. Like the Incan Virgins of the Sun, they are allowed to live in paradise, as long as they never leave the garden.

Their fight is to retain the natural state of the land and to keep the peninsula from turning into another coastal resort town, as has happened in so many of Uruguay’s once-quiet beach towns, such as Jose Ignacio or the casino rich Punta del Este.

Gonzalo "Ajo" Nuñez, 25 year resident of Cobo Polonio, finishes rolling a marijuana cigarette at his home on the beach. Photo by brandon c janes iv

Gonzalo “Ajo” Nuñez, 25 year resident of Cobo Polonio, finishes rolling a marijuana cigarette at his home on the beach. Photo by brandon c janes iv

Nature’s pleasures

The inhabitants of Cabo Polonio have everything they need: fresh fish are harvested each day from the sea, wine and mate arrive by 4 X 4 and many grow marijuana (which is legal to consume in Uruguay) in the hidden nooks of their makeshift homes.

While many of the villagers cannot claim a right to the land on which they sleep, the people of Cabo Polonio glow with a sense of community and generosity.

Arriving at this secluded hamlet in the winter – when few tourists were around – I had the privilege of interviewing many of the village elders (those who arrived before the 1990s) and spent my nights lying on the rocks singing with the sea lions.

next part

Pueblo chico, infierno grande: Cabo Polonio – Part 2

A lesson from the children – Cabo Polonio – Part 3 (of 3)

 

August 30, 2013

Uruguayan journalist: animal cruelty discussion yet to begin here

From the roof terrace of Laura Lacurcia's shotgun style apartment in el barrio Villa Muñoz in Montevideo, life slows down. Photo by brandon c janes iv

From the roof terrace of Laura Lacurcia’s shotgun-style apartment in el barrio Villa Muñoz in Montevideo. Photo by brandon c janes iv

 

Last night I had a home-cooked meal at the house of Uruguayan journalist and single mother Laura Lacurcia – in exchange for some help producing a video about the animal cruelty in Uruguay.

In 2009 Uruguay passed its first laws prohibiting the mistreatment of animals by their owners. Unfortunately, the enforcement has not caught up with the legislation and still most Uruguayans are not aware that the laws exist, Lacurcia said.

Stray dogs and stray cats run rampant through the neighborhood streets and horses, conducted by the city’s homeless, drag ubiquitous chariots of trash across the city day and night. Other darker mistreatments, including bestiality, are widespread throughout the country, Lacurcia said.

A look inside

Last night, just before the sun went down, and the temperature dropped below 50 F (10 C), Laura, her eight-year-old daughter Victoria and I prepared a meal of vegan pasta at their home.

The two girls live in a small, shotgun-style apartment in the neighborhood of Villa Muñoz, the first of many cramped neighborhoods that extend into Montevideo’s northern sprawl from the coast. She does not like the neighborhood. It can be dangerous at night and the sidewalks are crumbling, she said.

On the first day we met, August 22, a pair of drunkards stood in the streets arguing and kicking glass bottles for hours at her street corner. This day was much calmer.

Her apartment is hidden from the street behind a metal security door and a long narrow hallway, which is open to the night sky. Upstairs, on the terrace, the sounds of Laura’s foster dog, Uma, announce our arrival.

“The mistreated one,” she said, with much sarcasm.

Laura Lacurcia and her foster dog Uma enjoy a few moments of calm at home in Villa Muñoz neighborhood of Montevideo. Photo by brandon c janes iv

Laura Lacurcia and her foster dog Uma enjoy a few moments of calm at home in Villa Muñoz neighborhood of Montevideo. Photo by brandon c janes iv

Raising awareness

Lacurcia, 45, works in radio journalism in Uruguay but most of her income comes from her two part-time jobs: answering telephones for a professional answering service and administering floral therapy.

Since June, she has focused most of her energy on researching and expanding her blog and Facebook page, Periodismo.Animal, she said.

“In Uruguay hundreds of people kill dogs, cats, horses and other animals,”  Lacurcia said. “Hundreds of animals are tortured, burned alive, raped and murdered, and the perpetrators are left free. There are laws but they are not regulated.”

August 28, 2013

When the municipal workers of Montevideo went on strike, Newstramp was there

A man sleeps on a rock pile near Calle 25 de Mayo in Montevideo Monday, 26 August 2013. Photo by brandon c janes iv

A man sleeps on a rock pile near Calle 25 de Mayo in Montevideo Monday, 26 August 2013. Photo by brandon c janes iv

 

Shed this illusion that, ‘Uruguay is the new Switzerland.’ Nearly 30 years after the military dictatorship, the country is still a volatile environment.

Just this evening, on my way to a restaurant, I passed a burning dumpster in the Plaza del Entrevero. In the few short minutes that I stood there, I saw the dumpster transform from a quiet mass into a violent ball of flames. Montevideanos walking home from work, took no notice as the black plastic doors of the dumpster melted into the air and the smell of burning trash drifted into the street like a bad memory.

The only person on the street not caught up in the hustle and bustle of the busy city was a fat man leaning on the security grille of a jewelry store that had been closed for hours. I asked him if we should call the fire department. He did not seem concerned, studying the flames.

“It is alive,” he said.

Services suspended

Earlier in the day, on a walk back from my interview with Edison Lanza, director of CAinfo, a transparency NGO based in Montevideo, I walked into a protest march of the municipal workers of Montevideo.

The workers were protesting the low wages and poor working conditions of the lower-rung city employees. Amid rapid inflation and cost of living increases across the country, civil servants – police and firefighters – have received salary increases, but the rest of the city employees – traffic workers, secretaries, custodians – have not.

I only spoke with a few protesters in the march, which took up about two city blocks, but those who I spoke with lacked the spirit that I – and the dozens of drivers who missed their traffic lights – had hoped they would.

The workers had been on strike for 17 days, paralyzing many of the city’s municipal services, traffic control, public works projects, trash pickup. Perhaps the fire department had ceased operations as well.

I spoke with two municipal office workers who said, although thier conditions were reasonable, they were marching for their coworkers who were not so well off.

“We are protesting together,” said JessicaFranco, 26, a secretary for the city. “It is everybody who suffers.”

I followed the rabble about 10 blocks, until it stopped in front of the Junta Departmental municipal administration building located on Calle 25 de Mayo, about a block from my hotel. There the drums rolled even louder and a tense confrontation ensued in the lobby.

After a few moments the majority of the striking workers were thrown out of the building.  According to the local newspaper El Pais, one was arrested.

A member of the protest group Gestión Humana stands outside of a municipal administration building in Montevideo in protest of low wages, poor job security and unclean working conditions for city employees.

A member of the protest group Gestión Humana stands outside of a municipal administration building in Montevideo in protest of low wages, poor job security and unclean working conditions for city employees. Photo by brandon c janes iv

 

Inside, Jorge Basso, the leader of the public employee’s group Gestión Humana, met with the city’s Human Resources director in a private board room, according to newspaper reports. No results were released Tuesday.

The workers soon calmed, ceased their drumming and lowered the tone of their chants. Several lit up marijuana cigarettes.

Montevideo is the only city I know where, on both the walk to and from work, you catch a wiff of that unmistakeable that green herb – and I don’t mean mate.

Criticize them all you want readers, but have you this: sitting in this restaurant, writing these words, a homeless Montevideano with a graying mustache, flat cap and green trousers approaches my table, looks into my eyes and says, “With all the pressure in the world… I ask for nothing,” turns his head and walks away.

August 26, 2013

VIDEO: Perfume of José Mujica – the world’s poorest president

Uruguayan President José "Pepe" Mujica getting out of his beloved '87 Volkswagen Beetle.

Uruguayan President José “Pepe” Mujica getting out of his beloved ’87 Volkswagen Beetle.

 

The official website of the president of Uruguay, José “Pepe” Mujica, lists the president’s occupation as chacarero floriculture – a small-scale farmer of flowers.

Dubbed “the poorest president in the world,” Mujica, a former left-wing revolutionary, has proven his devotion to the Uruguayan socialist party ‘s cause  through his many feats of austerity, including giving 90 percent of his $144,000 salary to the poor.

Hence the need for the part-time flower work.

Walking the streets of Montevideo – the seaside capital of this socially liberal country of 3.3 million people – nearly every Uruguayan has a story to tell about their president’s stoic lifestyle.

Mujica, 78, refuses to live in the presidential palace, Casa Suáres Y Reyes. Instead he lives in the run-down farm (owned by his wife’s family) on the outskirts of Montevideo with his wife and three-legged dog.

Saturday, in the Plaza Independencia, Miguel Arcangel, a 51-year-old dock worker, told me that Mujica’s farm specializes in Chrysanthemum flowers and that he has his own brand of perfume.

Gabriel Fleitas – Arcangel’s coworker – added, between sips of maté, that the president arrives at government meetings and national ceremonies in a dirty work coat and boots. Mujica never wears a tie – always a contrast to his slick-dressed ministers, several of whom were recently sent to prison on corruption charges (more on that later).

Mujica commutes to the glass-walled skyscraper called Torre Ejecutiva in the Plaza Independencia every morning driving a beat-up 80s-model Volkswagen Beetle, another Montevideano told me.

Clearly Mujica and his strange perfume have seduced the Uruguayans, who proudly view him as an image in their own likeness.

“It is with immense pride to have this old man, short, fat and ugly serving as my president,” Fleitas said. “That means something to me.”

Revolutionary words

Recent feats of stoicism are only the latest chapter in the life of this bold leader.

Mujica was imprisoned for 14 years during Uruguay’s military dictatorship – which lasted from 1973 to 1985 – for his involvement with the leftist guerilla group, the Tupamaros. Much of his sentence was spent in solitary confinement, where he befriend a frog and a rat, whom he shared his crumbs with, he told the New York Times in January.

He was freed in 1985 after “order returned to democracy in Uruguay,” the president’s website said.

His rise in politics was driven by the deep reflection he held in prison, he has said. In 2005, when he was reelected as a senator, he earned more votes than any politician in Uruguayan history. Uruguayans elected Mujica president in November 2009. He will serve his term through 2015.

 

cars parked on the street in Montevideo, Ciudad Vieja.

Montevideo, Ciudad Vieja
Photo by brandon c janes iv

Anti-corruption stance

Daniel Erosa, editorial director of Brecha, one of the country’s two leading political newspapers, said that Mujica is the second president elected from the Frente Amplio political party, a coalition of left-wing parties which includes the Socialist Party. Tabaré Vázquez, another Frente Amplio politician, served as president from 2005-2010.

However, Mujica’s presidency has been the most interesting to cover, Erosa said.

Erosa, who visits the president’s home often, said that in 2008, under Vázquez, the Uruguayan government passed its first comprehensive freedom of information laws. But Vásquez didn’t have the openness of Mujica.

“Mujica is always out in public speaking about the issues,” Erosa said.

His quotations are used around the world to champion liberal movements supporting same-sex marriage, abortion and legalization of Marijuana. (See below)

Economic boom

Good public safety and well established welfare programs make Uruguay one of the happiest Latin American countries to live in, said Renzo Manfredi, manager of Estancia del Puerto, a restaurant in Montevideo’s famous Mercado del Puerto mall.

Uruguay has also become one of the most expensive countries in South America,  partly driven by increased taxes used to pay for public programs which have helped the country’s poorest, according to a survey in 11 cities by the a group of newspapers from the Americas.

Prices continue to rise at the grocery store, but still a family of four with a car, house and private school tuition can live comfortably on a $2,000 monthly salary, Manfredi said.

“The people that didn’t have anything before now have more, but the people that have a lot now have less,” Manfredi said. “It’s better because there is more security. People are positive.”

—————————————————————————————————-

Mujica quotes

“I’m called ‘the poorest president’, but I don’t feel poor. Poor people are those who only work to try to keep an expensive lifestyle, and always want more and more.”

“It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, who is poor.”

“Nowhere in the world has repression yielded results,… We know we are embarking on a cutting edge experiment for the whole world.” – about a proposal to legalize Marijuana in Uruguay.

—————————————————————————————————-

Featured Image: Mujica VW by Bella Naija/ CC BY-SA 2.0