Universal truths hidden behind Latin American walls

Clean, tan beaches north of the port of Montevideo, Uruguay, follow the Rambla boardwalk for kilometres. For the most part, luxury highrises line the inshore side of the six lanes dedicated to vehicular traffic.

Clean, tan beaches north of the port of Montevideo, Uruguay, follow the Rambla boardwalk for kilometres. For the most part, luxury highrises line the inshore side of the six lanes dedicated to vehicular traffic. Occasionally, older structures like the Castillo Pittamiglio with its eccentric stone – a headless winged lady atop a ship’s prow protruding from its facade – find a place among them.

Off the Rambla the image of this South American capital city changes quickly. In many sections blank walls rise up right from the edge of the sidewalks. This housing mirrors the traditional Spanish colonial style, with life focused inward around a central patio courtyard, rather than outward surrounding the home with a lawn. Occasionally, through an open street door, you can catch a view of the life within.

Often only a brief glance is needed to reveal a very different reality lived by many citizens of Uruguay far from that of the polished beachfront apartment dwellers. Crowded, multifamily units jammed together lay hidden from view. Results from the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), recently released, reveal that fully a third of Uruguayans do not have the income needed for even the necessities of life. This would be well below what Yukoners would call the poverty line.

Ten days ago, Uruguay and ECLAC signed an agreement in Montevideo to strengthen mutual co-operation in various areas of economic and social development. Diego Canepa, pro-secretary of the Office of the President of Uruguay stated at the signing ceremony that “there is a new Latin American agenda: following the lost decade, we have had a winning decade, and the challenge is to extend this to most people, rather than just a few.”

Alicia Barcena, executive secretary of the United Nations’ regional commission, noted that South America “cannot remain the most unequal continent in the world. This inequality hurts, as it works against development and prevents us from making the progress we would wish to.” Barcena affirmed, from ECLAC’s perspective, “We believe that all citizens have the right to equality and are entitled to rights. This is our guiding light.”

During my stay in Montevideo, I had the chance to visit the office of SERPAJ (Peace and Justice Service). One of the founders and the first co-ordinator of the SERPAJ was the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Adolfo Perez Esquivel. This Christian-based, non-violent human rights organization initially focused on the multitude of human rights abuses suffered under the harsh military dictatorships that afflicted the Americas in the 1970s and 1980s.

However, their mandate has evolved along with the times. Their human rights focus has broadened to include a host of anti-poverty issues. My conversation with the SERPAJ-Uruguay team took many turns leading to points like the fact that Uruguay, which has a population of around 3.4 million living within its 176,000 square kilometres (the Yukon is 2.7 times larger), has the same number of people in jail as Italy with a population nearly 10 times greater. Most of those imprisoned come from the poorer strata of society, a clear indicator of the depth of inequality in this land. Does this sound familiar?

Maybe with Jose Mujica, Uruguay’s president, at the helm this country has a chance to make some real inroads on the inequality question. He has been described as the “world’s ‘poorest’ president,” donating 90 per cent of his presidential salary to anti-poverty and small-scale economic development causes. President Mujica and his wife have chosen to remain on their small farm in the outskirts of Montevideo where they cultivate flowers to supplement their income, rather than move into the opulent presidential palace.

Wouldn’t it be interesting if other leaders made this kind of commitment? Possibly then problems such as inequality hidden behind the ideologically constructed walls of our own country would be brought out into the open and dealt with.

Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact pazypan@yukon.net.

Namaste notes

Sunday, August 25 – 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time. A suggested reading is Luke 13: 22-30.

Tuesday, August 27 – The Kellogg-Briand Pact is signed by 60 nations “providing for the renunciation of war as an instrument of national policy” in 1928.

Wednesday, August 28 – Krishna Jayanti or Janmashtami is the Hindu commemoration of the birth of Krishna – the eighth incarnation of god Vishnu, who took the form of Krishna to destroy the evil king Kansa.

Wednesday, August 28 – Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I have a dream” speech to 200,000 marchers at a civil rights demonstration in Washington, D.C., on this date in 1963.

Thursday, August 29 – The Inca, Atahualpa, was baptized then executed by the Spanish conquistadors under Francisco Pizarro in Peru in 1533.