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In The Little Land Of Uruguay
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
A BIRD'S-EYE VIEW OF THE SMALLEST OF THE SOUTH AMERICAN REPUBLICS - THE RICHEST LAND SOUTH OF THE EQUATOR-A LOOK AT MONTEVIDEO AND ITS BEAUTIFUL HARBOUR-ITS PUBLIC BUILDINGS, ITS THEATRES, BANKS, AND STOCK-EXCHANGE-HOW URUGUAY 1S GOVERNED-ITS POST OFFICES, TELEPHONES, TELEGRAPHS, AND SCHOOLS- STRANGE STREET SCENES.
URUGUAY is the smallest and richest State south of the equator. It lies at the mouth of the Rio de la Plata, just across from the Argentine Republic, and at the southeast corner of Brazil. The whole country would hardly be a mouthful for Argentina, and not a good-sized bite for Brazil; but its soil is as fat as the valley of the Nile, and its people step high on the stilts of self-esteem. Most of the countries of South America are extensive. Brazil is as large as the whole of the United States without Alaska or our new islands. Argentina covers more territory than all of our country east of the Mississippi, but little Uruguay is only about as big as Missouri and Connecticut. It is about the size of North Dakota, though not so thickly populated as Nebraska. It has about as many people as Boston, and fully one-third of these are in the capital, Monte-video, which at present is considerably less populated than Cleve-land, Ohio.
But first let me give the reader a bird's-eye view of the country. If you could look at Uruguay from a balloon you would see that it is gently rolling; it has no hills more than 2,000 feet high. The land is spread out in undulating waves, the greater part of which is made up of rich pasture. It is well-watered, for there are rivers and streams everywhere and but few swamps. The climate is such that the grass is green all the year round, and the cattle and sheep are fed by simply turning them out to pro-vide for themselves. There is not 'a barn in the country. You may travel a thousand miles and not see a haystack or feeding-trough. Still there are flocks and herds everywhere; at least, 5,000,000 cattle, 13, 000, 000 sheep, and several hundred thousand horses and mules are sustained without trouble. Talk about Job and his cattle on a thousand hills! In respect to both hills and cattle, Job was a pauper compared with the Uruguayans.
The land is well adapted to support a great population. It has now about twelve to the square mile, and probably not half of this number when you take out the cities; I doubt whether there is a family for every 640 acres. Still the soil will raise wheat. It grows apples and pears for the Buenos Aires market, and it has strawberries nine months in the year. It is in about the latitude of Florida, but is not as hot in summer, nor as cold in winter. Its seasons, of course, are just the opposite of ours ; when we have fall, Uruguay has spring, and when we put on our sealskins the Uruguayan ladies are using their fans. August is the coldest month, and along about January the weather is warmest.
I spoke of the land being well-watered. The streams cover it like the veins of a leaf. The veins of the human body are not more in number than the waterways of Uruguay, and around almost the whole of the Republic there is a belt of water, making it, indeed, a peninsula. It has, in fact, about 700 miles of navigable waterways; there is the Atlantic on the south and southeast; there is the muddy river Plate with 155 miles of coast line; and a little farther over and along the the western boundary are 270 miles of the swift-flowing Uruguay. The latter is about 9 miles wide at its mouth, and during most of the year, steamboats of 14 feet draught can go up it to Pysandu, a city near the middle of the western boundary. From this point you get smaller streams, which carry you farther up, and the Rio Negro, which crawls across the country dividing it in two equal parts, is also to some extent navigable.
Uruguay has few large cities. It is like Argentina in that its capital rules it and forms its social, intellectual, financial, and industrial centre. There are perhaps four cities which range between 10,000 and 15,000 in population, and a dozen smaller towns of from 3,000 to 6,000 each. These are market towns and state capitals, but they all pay tribute to Montevideo.
Montevideo calls itself the Paris of South America. It is the healthiest city in the world and the cleanest city on the continent. Built upon a tongue of rock which runs out into the muddy Rio de la Plata, the streets all drain into the river, and every rain gives the city a washing. There is water on all sides of you; if you walk up or. down a hill you come to the sea, and the slope is such that there are no stagnant pools.
Monte-video means Â«I see the mountain." If you look at the root of this tongue of rock you will really see the mountain, from which the city is named. It is called " The Cerro"; but so far from being a mountain, it is not quite as high as the Washington Monument. At night you may distinguish twenty-five miles out at sea the revolving light upon its tower, but even if this were unlighted you could tell that the Cerro was there. How ? Why, by its smell. There is a great slaughter-house on the Cerro in which 200,000 cattle are killed every year, and from which, during a land breeze, a disgusting odour is wafted over the waters. Long before I could see the city, I knew by this smell that I was approaching Montevideo.
The bay of Montevideo is naturally one of the finest in the world. It is in the shape of a horseshoe, six miles in circumference, and so large that many hundred ocean steamers could be in it at a time. Hundreds of steamers formerly cast anchor here. This is not the case now, although more than a thousand ships call at the port annually. The waters of the Rio de la Plata for the past seventy years have been dropping mud into the bay. They have been filling it up at the rate of an inch a year, and now no ship that draws more than fifteen feet can come in. The result is that the ocean steamers must anchor far out in the river and all goods have to be brought in upon lighters. We were carried to the city on a steam-tug, our ship remaining several miles from land.
For years Montevideo has been planning to dredge this bay. It is estimated that it will cost $30,000,000 to clean out the mud, but the result would be worth much more than that to the city. It might make it the chief port of the river Plate, as it is al-ready the chief port of the country. There are now daily steamers from Montevideo to Buenos Aires, and every day or so you can get a ship for Europe. There are also steamers to and from the ports of Brazil, and river boats which will take you thou-sands of miles up the Parana, Paraguay, and Uruguay. I travelled more than 1,200 miles on river steamers in coming down from Asuncion to Montevideo.
I find Montevideo better built than most other South American cities. About one-fifth of the houses are of three stories. They are of a stone quarried near by and are in architecture more like the buildings of Europe than those of South America. Many of the houses are covered with stucco, painted in bright colours. Some are quite large. The Solis Theatre, for instance, covers almost two acres, and will seat 3,000 spectators. It was built more than 40 years ago and cost $300,000 at that time. Sarah Bernhardt has played in it, and Patti has also been listened to within its walls.
Another fine building is the "boisa," or stock-exchange, situated at the corner of Zavala and Piedras streets. This was built in 1863 and cost just about half as much as the opera house. It is the stock-gambling place of Uruguay, and, like the stock-exchange of Buenos Aires, has seen some notable crazes. Uruguay went mad about the year 1890, as did Argentina: it had one bank with a capital of $12,000,000, whose stock after its failure, some years ago, dropped to 80 per cent below par. At present there are a number of good banks, some of the largest being branches of the foreign banks doing business at Buenos Aires. Money brings good rates of interest, and, as far as I can learn, all of the banks pay dividends.
Referring to money matters in Uruguay, I may say that this is the only South American country I have visited which is on a gold basis. In Peru, Chile, Bolivia, and the Argentine, I got about $3 for $1 in negotiating my drafts on London; while in Paraguay, when I made a draft for $100 in gold I usually received about $700 in Paraguayan money. This was very pleasing, for although the money had not a purchasing value equal to its face value, it went a great deal farther than the same amount reduced to gold. In Montevideo an American dollar is worth only 96 cents and for an English pound you get but $4.72.
Cab fares here cost 50 cents a trip or $1 per hour. In Buenos Aires I paid the same price in Argentine money, or less than 33 cents Uruguayan; the result is that everything is dear and money does not go half so far. At the hotel in Montevideo I pay $3 per day, which is almost a gold dollar more than I paid at Buenos Aires, where the rate was $8 in Argentine money. A bottle of St. Julien, which I had the other day, cost me $4, and everything else is proportionately high.
There is now talk of establishing a bank with a capital of $10,000,000, which shall be under the control of the government, and shall have the right to issue bank notes to half the value of the capital subscribed. This bank will be called the Bank of the Republic. It can, pay its notes in gold or silver,' at its own discretion, and the president and directors are to be appointed by the government. The scheme, if carried out, will in all probability reduce Uruguay to a silver basis, for such financial institutions under a South American government cannot be trusted. The officers in power to-day may be all right, but those who come in by the revolution of to-morrow are more than likely to be all wrong. Such a national bank would always be at the mercy of the President of Uruguay, and there is no telling when an Executive may arise who will not embezzle the funds. Borda, the last President, had nothing when he was elected; when he was assassinated his estate was worth $3,000,000, and his widow today has villas, farms, and gold galore. Another President, I am told, stole about $5,000,000 from a former national bank during his administration. He had the appointment of the directors, and would send down for $50,000 at a time, for his personal use. As a result of such extravagance and corruption, running through a series of years, Uruguay has now an enormous national debt. Its foreign debt amounts to more than $128,000,000, and it is paying annually in interest alone about $4,000,000. The debt, if divided up, would require the payment of $140 by every man, woman, and child in the country, or of about $700 per family. The debt, in fact, is almost half the estimated value of the real estate of the Republic, which in round numbers, in 1895, was $275,000,000, of which almost half is located in the department of Montevideo.
And still the Uruguayan capital rather prides itself upon its thrift and piety. It has a cathedral, churches, convents, and hospitals. The cathedral is now about a hundred years old, and is as solid as when it was built. The Church of the Immaculate Conception was constructed by the milkmen and market-gardeners; and there are forty charitable institutions, with 12,000 members, that spend $250,000 a year on behalf of the poor and sick. There is a foundling asylum that provides for 280 babies annually; the institution, I am told, buries more than half of them before they get into short clothes. The percentage of illegitimacy is large, fully one-fourth of the children of the country not being Â« wise enough to know their own fathers." This, I am told, is in large measure due to the costly marriage fees. .
The state religion is that of the Roman Catholic Church, the Protestants being but a drop in the bucket of Uruguayan life. In the Department of Montevideo alone there are 179,000 Catholics to about 11,000 Protestants, and 23,000 others who are of no declared religion. I understand that Protestants are well treated and that in the cities religious intolerance is unknown.
Montevideo is noted for its culture. It is a city of news-papers, libraries, and schools. It has a national library, which contains 22,000 volumes. It has a national museum, in which there are 33,000 objects, and it has its daily, weekly, and monthly periodicals. It is the centre of intelligence for the country, and the leading dailies, weeklies, and monthlies are published here. Most of the dailies are in Spanish, but there are two in English, one in Italian, and one in French.
As to the school system, this is steadily improving. There are 500 more schools in Uruguay now than there were in 1876, al-though as yet only 9 per cent of the population attend them, and the majority of the common people cannot read or write. There are now close upon 1,000 institutions of learning, public and private. There are about 2,000 school-teachers, of whom more than two-thirds are women. Teachers are well paid, the average amount paid them being about $35 per month. Most of the teachers are foreigners, there being only 606 native teachers of the 2,000 in the service. Normal schools have, however, been established, and there will be an increased number of native teachers in the future. Montevideo has a university with 85 professors and 549 students. The course in this institution is very complete, law, medicine, engineering, and the ordinary college studies being taught. It is controlled by the government, which also supports an industrial school, having 243 pupils, and a military college, which has 48 students in attendance.
The country has good postal and telegraph systems. It has more than 4,000 miles of telegraph lines and nearly 350,000 telegrams are annually sent. There are 636 post offices, and last year the post office handled in the neighbourhood of 10,000,000 letters and about 26,000,000 newspapers and packages.
But let us go through the city and look at the people. We make the wharf our starting-point and walk over the cobblestones up the hills in the shadow of three-story buildings. We stop on the corner to get our boots blackened and are charged the regulation five cents a shine. Newsboys accost us with the daily papers, just as they do in New York, and well-dressed women and men pass by.
There are many curious sights. Men go by us with loads on their heads or on their backs. Here comes a milk-peddler; he is of the same style as those of the smaller cities of the Argentine Republic. He sits on his horse with his legs about its neck and almost on the top of the leather buckets that contain his milk cans. Each one is corked with a round piece of wood wrapped in a dirty rag, and I doubt whether he changes the rag from one year's end to the other. There he has stopped and has gone into the house. His horse stands still, although there is no hitching-post or iron ring in sight. He has hobbled the front feet of the animal with the whip. These men supply the city of more than 250,000 inhabitants with milk. They used to supply it with butter, which they made. by galloping their horses so that the jolting did the churning. Then, I am told, when you wanted butter the man dipped his hands into one of the cans and squeezed up a chunk. It is still the same outside the cities; little butter is used by the common people, and there are farmers with thousands of cows who eat their bread dry.
Listen to the horns! We hear them every few moments as we pass along the street, and wonder whether it is the Uruguayan Fourth of July, or Christmas, or New Year, and whether or not the boys are out for a holiday. We soon see that the horns are blown by street-car drivers, who thus notifiy all to keep out of the way. They sound their horns at every street corner and now and then give a toot between times. The cars are drawn by horses, and so far electricity as a motive power has not appeared. There are electric lights, however, and at public celebrations the whole city is ablaze with incandescent globes of all colours.
There are few cabs. The many hills and the cobblestone roads retard their use, and the people rely upon the cars as their chief mode of transit. The draying and heavy hauling of Montevideo is done in carts, to which two or three mules are harnessed, one on the inside, and the others on the outside of the shafts. The driver usually rides one of the outside mules. The carts have wheels from six to eight feet high, with hubs as big round as scrubbing buckets and shafts the size of telegraph poles. As we go farther we see that nearly all vehicles are two-wheeled. We ask why, and learn that taxes on such things are paid by the wheel, and that a two-wheeled vehicle pays only half as much as one with four wheels.
"The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane." Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor and stoic philosopher, 121-180 A.D.
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There are some good things in Uruguay, though in reality, the most prosperous country in Latin America is Chile, in terms of Per capita GDP, lower corruption and governance, Chile is far and away out ahead.