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Tit For Tat: Baltimore Takes Another Hit, This Time From Uruguay

I imagine that however a Baltimorean feels when their city is attacked by the barbarian in the White House it has to be worse when the city is slighted by Uruguay, one of the world’s most progressive countries. On August 5th the Uruguayan Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a warning to Uruguayans traveling to the United States to take maximum precautions in the face of indiscriminate violence emanating from hate crimes including those based on racism. The warning stated that this violence had cost the lives of more than 250 people in the first seven months of the year. The warning advises avoiding Detroit, Baltimore, and Albuquerque, citing Ceoworld Magazine 2019 for the claim that these are among the 20 most dangerous cities in the world. I have not found this ranking on the Ceoworld website. No American city makes Ceoworld’s list of the 10 most dangerous cities of the world, but there are rankings on the Internet listing Baltimore (in addition to other American cities) as one of the world’s most dangerous cities.

So what’s gotten into laid back Uruguay, the country that failed to join its neighbors Argentina and Brazil in retaliating against the stricter visa requirements imposed by the U.S. after 911? The answer is that it was a tit for a tat that had stung Uruguay three days earlier when the United States State Department raised the alert level for travelers going to Uruguay from Level 1 to Level 2.

The State Department has four levels of travel advisories: (1) Exercise normal precautions, (2) Exercise increased caution, (3) Reconsider travel, and (4 ) Do not travel. The State Department’s rationale for increasing the advisory level for Uruguay is increased crime. “Violent crimes, such as homicides, armed robberies, carjacking and thefts have increased throughout the country and occur in urban areas frequented by U.S. government personnel, day and night. Criminals commonly travel in pairs on motorcycles to approach unsuspecting victims with a weapon and demand personal belongings. Armed criminals also target grocery stores, restaurants, financial centers, and small businesses, in which innocent bystanders are often victimized.” Uruguay claimed that the level increase was a politically motivated interference in Uruguay’s October elections, and it issued its own travel advisory in response.

In the rest of this essay I will explain why Uruguay might make the claim that the State Department’s increasing the advisory level from 1 to 2 is an interference in the upcoming Uruguayan election. And I will look at some of the things that might be used to evaluate the respective American and Uruguayan claims; Uruguay’s claim the the purpose of the new travel advisory was to interfere in it’s election, and the claim of the American embassy in Uruguay that there are no political considerations in the making of travel advisory levels. I will conclude that, while it’s not certain that the U.S. action was designed to change the outcome of the upcoming Uruguayan elections, it was likely a politically motivated attack on Uruguay that does not accurately reflect violence in the country. Finally, I will issue a travel advisory of my own.

Uruguay has its presidential election coming up in October. In addition, National Party Senator Jorge Larrañaga has a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot that would create a militarized police force that would conduct nighttime raids, with court order, into people’s homes in order to suppress crime. Amnesty International has presented a comprehensive critique of Larrañaga’s proposal, and has warned Uruguay that if it passes it’s reputation in the world will suffer. I turn to the presidential election.

One can understand why the current United States government would want to interfere in Uruguay’s upcoming election. For the last fifteen years Uruguay has been governed by a left wing party. Frente Amplio (Broad Front) is an amalgamation of communist, socialist, and left wing parties. And during this time one of FA’s members has become world famous and beloved with the result that more people than ever know of Uruguay’s existence. That person is, of course, ex-president Jose Mujica.

Despite FA’s far left pedigree, it has not been a revolutionary party. It is more evolutionary. And a result has been disillusion among some Uruguayan leftists. Some of these leftists say that FA is more about talk than action. Some criticize reactionary actions the government has taken with regard to the environment. The bottom line is that the Uruguayan government under the FA has been progressive. It’s had a very humanistic and liberal orientation. It seems to me that in this way the FA government has continued, with the exception of the period of dictatorship, traditional Uruguayan progressivism. This is the first South American country to abolish slavery, one of the first to give women the right to vote, the first to legalize gay marriage, and the first to legalize marijuana.

FA’s main rival in the upcoming election is the The National Party, nicknamed “the Blancos.” National’s presidential candidate is the young Luis Lacalle Pou. The Blancos are a center right party that might be roughly analogous to the Republican Party in the 80’s or 90’s when it reflected a conservative ideology before devolving into the personality cult that it is today.

Lacalle Pou claims that FA has been a failure in the last 15 years. He advocates an austerity program that would greatly reduce the government bureaucracy with the result that many government employees would lose their jobs. He takes the view that the productive elements of society need to be freed to bring a greater prosperity.

A Blanco victory over FA would nicely fit American neoliberalism. And Uruguayan Minister of Foreign Relations Rudolfo Nin Novoa has almost no doubt that the intent of the United States in changing the advisory level is to help FA’s opposition in the upcoming election. Nin Novoa points out that security is an issue in the election. And he points to Larrañaga’s ballot proposal as an example.

In the polls I’ve seen over the last year FA and the Blancos have been neck and neck. The two most recent polls I’ve seen have FA pulling ahead a little. Sometimes I wonder if this is because the Uruguayans are looking across the river at the disaster of neoliberalism in Argentina. But I don’t know. Let us return to violence and travel advisories.

In questioning the United States’ “divine mission” to classify all the world’s countries according to four levels, Nin Novoa points out that, unlike the United States, Uruguay does not have any cities on the list of the world’s 50 most dangerous cities. Two countries dominate lists of the world’s most dangerous cities; Mexico and Brazil. Here’s one list. Here’s another.

Uruguay’s largest city, of course, is Montevideo with a population of around 1.4 million. I’ve had discussions with both Uruguayans and foreign visitors on the question whether Montevideo is a dangerous city. Among the few Uruguayans I’ve discussed this topic with I’ve noticed a generational divide. The older and more conservative people I’ve spoken with say that there’s been a terrible increase in crime in Montevideo. One pointed out that the streets were safe under the dictatorship. These people do not like FA. The younger people I’ve talked to brush off this talk about Montevideo being a dangerous city. And it’s interesting how different have been the views I’ve heard from Uruguayans on how dangerous or not barrio Ciudad Vieja is.

A fun group with which to discuss the topic of Montevideo violence is the group that is always fun; the Brazilians. They do not take this topic seriously. I’ve seen Brazilians laugh out loud at the suggestion that Montevideo is dangerous. A Brazilian friend of mine says that one of the things he likes about Montevideo is that he can relax there; unlike in his hometown of São Paulo where he has to look around everywhere when he’s walking the streets. This is even more interesting when you consult the lists of the world’s most dangerous cities, see that Brazil and Mexico dominate, but that São Paulo doesn’t even make the lists. Nevertheless, as of August 2nd, the State Department has ranked both Uruguay and Brazil at Level 2. There is something suspicious about this equation.

On August 12, 2019, I checked the website for Canadian travel advisories and saw that, while travelers to Uruguay were told to take normal precautions, there was a much more serious warning with regard to Brazil: “Exercise a high degree of caution in Brazil due to high crime rates and regular incidents of gang-related and other violence in urban areas.” And while the New Zealand government website had no specific travel advisory for Uruguay, it had this to say about Brazil: “Exercise increased caution in Brazil due to violent crime.”

To me, the more interesting comparison is between Uruguay and its cousin, Argentina. That’s because these two countries largely share a common culture; Rio Platense. The countries are largely populated by persons immigrating from Spain and Italy. In fact, given the numbers of Italians who arrived in these two countries in the 19th Century, had Italian become the national language of Italy about 60 years earlier, it is likely that Italian would be the national language of Argentina and Uruguay today. The same Spanish variant is spoken in both Buenos Aires and Montevideo; Rio Platense Spanish. But rather than drag out the cultural similarities I’ll end the comparison with just one. These are the two countries where the custom is to eat gnocchis on the 29th of every month.

There are major political, social, and economic differences between the two counties. For example, the Catholic church has great power in Argentina and no power in Uruguay. A big difference is that Macri’s neoliberal Argentine government is way more to the liking of the United States than Uruguay’s FA dominated government. Recently Argentina has been in the news because of the rise of hunger and homelessness. So the questions I raise are how different are these two countries in terms of crime rate, and are they treated differently by the State Department? I begin with the second, which is by far the easiest.

The State Department gives Argentina a Level 1 ranking. On August 8, 2019, I checked travel advisories issued by the Canadian government. On that date Canadians were advised with regard to both Argentina and Uruguay to “Take normal security precautions.” Unlike Canada, New Zealand makes a distinction between Argentina and Uruguay when it comes to travel advisories. But the New Zealand distinction goes in the opposite direction from the American one. Here’s what the New Zealand government website said with regard to Argentina when I checked on August 8, 2019: “Exercise increased caution in Argentina due to crime.” And here is what New Zealand said about Uruguay: “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade is not issuing a specific travel advisory for Uruguay at this time.”

So there are inconsistencies between the respective governments of Canada, New Zealand, and the United States with regard to the risk to travelers in Argentina and Uruguay. My plan had been to resolve the inconsistencies with the use of international crime statistics. But I’m not the one can put that together. From what I’ve seen on the Internet if you look at the last decade or so going up to 2016, Uruguay has had a higher rate of murder and rape than Argentina. The one entity that claims to have up-to-date information is Numbeo, which ranks Uruguay as lower in crime and more safe than Argentina. But Numbeo appears to get its information from visitors to its website. And I’ve seen statistics from 2017 or 2018 showing an increase in crime in Uruguay. So I have not found recent statistics that would either support or refute the State Department’s increasing the advisory level for Uruguay. But the timing of the change, and the State Department’s inconsistency with Canadian and New Zealand recommendations regarding Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil, lend some support for Nin Novoa’s claim that the increase in level is politically motivated.

If the increase in the advisory level for Uruguay is politically motivated, one cannot be certain that the direct purpose is to favor a Blanco victory in October. I think the hypothesis that the purpose of the level increase is to interfere in the election is quite plausible. But the United States could have other axes to grind with Uruguay. For example, Uruguay has not followed the American line on Venezuela, but rather has taken an independent course.

Like boisterously bashing Baltimore, one country’s interference in the elections of another country is a hot topic in the United States. Some American politicians and pundits claim that Russia’s attempts to influence American elections are “chilling.” But I think its a problem with an easy solution. I think the United States and Russia should make a comprehensive treaty under which both sides agree not to interfere, not only in each other’s elections, but also in the elections of all other countries. Of course such a treaty is unlikely because the United States will not want to end a game in which it is the biggest player. So as irritating as Russian interference in American elections might be to politicians and government officials in the United States, it’s not so much chilling as it is simply the cost of doing business.

Another concern about the level increase has been expressed by an FA legislator. The concern is that the new advisory will harm tourism in Uruguay. This brings me to my travel advisory. While the State Department’s travel advisories may contain much useful information, some of them may partially reflect politics as usual. Do not let the Level 2 ranking for Uruguay prevent you from traveling there. In addition to the attractions Uruguay is already known for: beaches, estancias, and Montevideo’s Carnival with its murga and El Desfile de Las Llamadas, here’s a secret. Montevideo may be one of the world’s best cities for watching foreign film.

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