“A city that once was” is how I think you can best describe Montevideo. The greatness of the city’s past is apparent as you walk the streets of the city center – old signs and advertisements from the 60’s and even older are still present on the storefronts. Middies Art Deco buildings line the avenues and it takes little imagination to visualize the hustle and bustle of 1920’s Montevideo. That however is where the past and present diverge. While charming and safe, you look around the streets and they seem just a little less kempt and the pace a little slower than Buenos Aires and Santiago - but in a very subtle way. It felt almost gloomy to me – holding onto a shining past without as much optimism for the future. It felt very Argentinian and the Italian influence was everywhere. My curiosity grew in trying to understand what made the city give me such a different perception than I had imagined. I had not done a lot of research up to this point and what I subsequently learned was very interesting and in some ways validated my initial impression.
The origin of Uruguay as a nation is inexorably linked to both Brazil and Argentina. In 1811, the region of Uruguay along with the rest of Argentina won independence from the Spanish empire. As Argentina was trying to form a constitution and assemble a foundation for how the nation was to be governed, those of the region closer to Uruguay were proponents of federalism whereby a large degree of political and economic autonomy was given to each region. However, the rest of Argentina - particularly the power located in Buenos Aires, objected and moved towards a system of unitary centralism. This system was designed to focus the power in the capital and for the country to be run in a much more national sense. In reaction, Uruguay and bordering regions took the city of Montevideo by force and created their own autonomous government. Most of those areas ultimately reverted to Argentina but the seeds of Uruguay’s national identity were sown in the 1815 takeover. A year later, a force of Portuguese troops from neighboring Brazil invaded the country and took over Montevideo by 1817. The Brazilian empire held it peaceably until 1825. Another war of independence from Brazil took place from 1825-1830 until a British brokered treaty gave birth to the country of Uruguay as the independent state we know it as today. It is no wonder how similar it felt to Argentina from a cultural standpoint as it has its roots in both Argentina’s birth and its shared rivalry and distrust of Brazil.
I did some additional research into the current state of Montevideo and discovered that in many ways it is a city in decay. Montevideo is experiencing a population crisis with rapidly aging citizenry. Not only are families having fewer children, but the most talented of the young adults will emigrate to the US, or neighboring Argentina or Brazil in search of better opportunities. This brain drain has served to negatively impact the economy as well as lower tax revenues. The country is very liberal and has a very strong social security program. The declining revenue base has created a large amount of strain in the government’s ability to finance the pensions of the aging population and in many ways the country never recovered from the major recession it suffered along with Argentina in the early 2000’s. Uruguay is not seeing much if any population growth, and the population of Montevideo at 1.3mm has stayed pretty much the same since the 1960’s.
Walking the streets, you could notice the lack of energy in the people and the slow pace of life. Don’t get me wrong here as this post seems negative. The city is beautiful and the people were warm, but it felt like an unpolished version of itself. You can see the rebirth and vibrancy in many of the other big cities within Latin America and the buzz in the air just wasn’t the same. More than anything it was interesting to learn that my uneducated perception of the city on first impression was validated by a closer look at its history and current state of affairs.
Ironically, in staying with the theme of a city that once was, Mandy and I rented an Airbnb in the Palacio Salvo which is one of Montevideo’s icons. Completed in 1928 and standing 100m high, this building for a few decades was the tallest building in South America. We were lucky to occupy one of the four domes on the 19th floor. Sitting one floor below the top of this building, our vantage point provided close to 360 degree views of the city below. The rooms were impeccably furnished and it felt like being in a design magazine. The two days we spent in Montevideo were spent enjoying the views from our apartment and exploring the city. The food was delicious wherever we went and possessed the same steak- heavy, Italian-influenced cuisine of Buenos Aires.
I left Montevideo with a deep yet unique appreciation for it. In its withered buildings and grimy streets, there was a certain beauty to be discerned. While far from its peak, it still had a lot to offer. Something in me knows that there is a bright future in store for Montevideo. There is such a rich and pugnacious birth story of Uruguay. As a country that fought and won its independence from three separate nations to become what it is today – I can’t help but think it has a lot of fight in it left. // Jeff