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Northern Uruguay

Aid in the Wake of Globalization

by Cassandra Heller

An empoverished dwelling - ragged chair, bicycle wheel, primitive table, closeline, tin roof, canvas and wood walls
Villagers who once lived in prosperous agricultural regions of Uruguay now live in poverty as a result of economic and political changes in the region.
Image by: Cassandra Heller
Source: New World Outlook
Four young children stand in front of a dilapidated building.
Sixty-five percent of the population live beneath the poverty line in Bella Union, Uruguay.
Image by: Cassandra Heller
Source: New World Outlook

New World Outlook, March/April 2006

At the place where Uruguay touches the corners of Brazil and Argentina lies a muddy, waterlogged village called Bella Union. Scraps of corrugated metal, plastic, and wood shelter families of five or six. Old cars sit lifeless on dirt roads, reminding the villagers of past promises. This productive agricultural region now suffers the effects of globalization.

Twenty years ago, Bella Union and other northern Uruguayan towns knew modest agricultural prosperity, producing sugarcane, rice, beef, leather, citrus, and other products for domestic use and export. Bella Union produced 60,000 tons of sugarcane in 1989, 60 percent of Uruguay’s sugar consumption. Many villagers moved to northern Uruguay, expecting to find jobs. But 14 years ago, the Uruguayan government failed to protect workers in northern villages. Since the creation of Mercosur, the Southern Common Market that allows free trade among Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay, local producers have found it impossible to compete with cheaper imports.

Between 1996 and 2002, 100,000 people (3 percent of the population) left Uruguay. The poorest villagers, with no work and little money to move, remain gridlocked. Forty percent of the people live in slums without electricity or plumbing. Some parents rely on their children to beg in the streets, exposing them to prostitution and drug trafficking.

Methodist churches are a source of hope throughout Uruguay, stocking medical clinics with medicines and providing cows for milk and beef. “The churches have addressed this dire poverty,” said the Rev. Araceli Ezzatti, a pastor of the Methodist Church in Montevideo.

Bella Union and Yacare
Update by Oscar Bolioi

In the north, the congregation of Bella Union has become a chartered church. Recently they have had more people attending, and the congregation is involved in the local community. We signed an agreement with the Sugar Cane Workers’ Clinic to continue our support with medicines, equipment, and voluntary personnel. This support has helped dental patients and patients suffering from ailments.
            A grant for distribution of school materials donated by a New Jersey organization was recently approved. This will allow us to equip four schools in Bella Union (around 1,100 children) and one school and one high school in Yacare (around 142 children and adolescents) with materials for a whole year. All these schools are located in slum areas.
            Conversations with local authorities of Bella Union opened the possibility of creating a new school in the poorest neighborhood. The Municipality and the Board of Education of Bella Union would build the school, and the Methodist Church would equip it. Children in that neighborhood presently have to walk across the national highway in order to get to the closest school.
            The technical work has been completed for the fish project to feed the people of the area. Juan Santana, a technical consultant from the Dominican Republic, will install five fish-raising tanks, which will serve as models for the local population to grow fish in that manner. This project will bring about a radical change in the nourishment habits of the people in these areas where sources of proteins are scarce. The plan is to replicate this project in other areas in the country, including the periphery of Montevideo. Other plans for microenterprises include the production of tapestries, ponchos, and clothes in Yacare to improve the economic situation. The Methodist Church in Uruguay’s dream is to help Yacare become a model town that will help other communities see how economic changes are possible.

The Rev. Oscar Bolioli is the President of the Methodist Church in Uruguay.


Bella Union
The Rev. Oscar Villagran, pastor of the Bella Union Methodist Church, and I walked along a residential road. “Don’t stop and stare. The people feel strange about the way they live,” he said. We passed ramshackle houses with muddy yards caused by severe flooding several days before. Tattered clothes hung from trees. To my left, a toddler stood alone, sucking her thumb in front of a shack. A woman with a pale and emaciated face was huddled under blankets on the cold, wet ground.

Pastor Villagran said that 35 percent of the population in Bella Union lives in similar conditions. Sixty-five percent live beneath the poverty line. Only 4 percent hold steady jobs. “In Montevideo the poor can look through rich peoples’ trash, but here they don’t even have rubbish to find food in,” said Pastor Villagran.

Some villagers sell stoves constructed from scrap. Most of the villagers, however, are waiting to see what changes the newly elected government will make when the Emergency Plan issued last year comes into effect. The plan will seek to solve some social, educational, and financial problems plaguing families whose average income is 1680 pesos per month (US $70).

Sara Sosa has been waiting to feel the impact of the Emergency Plan. With two nursing jobs, one in a private clinic and one in a public clinic, she brings in about US $300 a month—working 12- to 14-hour days. Since the government clinics cannot afford to pay specialists, she does everything from treating patients to mopping floors. Holding her baby, Carolina, on her hip, Sosa said there was no heat, blankets, fans, or ordinary hospital equipment in either clinic. “We need sponsors for the private clinic because the government does not fund it,” she added. The private clinic, supported by the Methodist Church, has no dentists, since it lacks funds to fix equipment and buy medicine. Last month, the local private clinic went a week without electricity because it could not afford to pay its bill. “We are really a third-world country,” said Sosa.

The private clinic’s only source of aid comes from local Catholic and Methodist churches, which in turn rely on outside donations. “The Methodist Church recently bought a changing table for the clinic,” said Sosa. “United Methodist churches in the United States provide all the medicine to keep the clinic functioning.” Two shelves, among rows of empty ones, contain medicines provided by the Methodist Church. Later that day, Pastor Villagran delivered donated food packages to flood victims.

Fields and endless empty dirt roads surrounded the village of Yacare. The Methodist church, established eight years ago, has been one of the few organizations to recognize the degeneration of Yacare, which once thrived on cattle. Farm laborers, once the responsibility of landowners, used to be housed in the owner’s farmhouse, usually near their families. Since the economic crisis, the owners can no longer afford to house their workers. The laborers now live in separate housing, which they must sustain on a meager $50 per month.

The Methodist Church in Yacare, headed by the Rev. Lair Ferreira, has 36 members in a town of 1,020, and 25 to 30 children attend Sunday school each week. With no medicine available at the local clinic and no pharmacy for miles, the church, with outside aid, has become the town drugstore. Since the town’s only doctor was away studying in Montevideo, the clinic’s only nurse allowed Pastor Ferreira and me to tour the small facility. The leaky building was damp in the cold winter air. Green mold formed on the walls and ceiling behind a steel table used to examine patients. Outside the building, a woman complained to Pastor Ferreira that she had pneumonia. “If there are any emergencies,” the pastor said, “they will have to ride in the ambulance to the next town, an hour away.”

Uruguay’s Economy

By most accounts, the Uruguayan economy is presently on the rebound. The gross domestic product grew 12 percent in 2004. The economy is largely dependent on agriculture and agricultural industries, with production of wool, meat, leather, and textiles as the leading economic sectors in the country. In 2003, however, the economy took one of its steepest dives in recent history. Three main forces converged on Uruguay in a short space of time from outside the country—results of a globalized world:
            • Currency devaluation in Brazil, 1999. Uruguay’s exports to Brazil lost value and could not compete  with Brazilian-made goods.
            • Hoof and Mouth Disease, 2001. Beef exports to North America were curtailed.
            • Argentina’s economic woes, 2002. Argentine withdrawals from Uruguayan banks caused a run on Uruguayan banks, overcome only by massive borrowing from international financial institutions. Exports to Argentina sharply dropped, since Argentines could no longer afford to buy. Likewise, tourism from Argentina to Uruguay stopped and the tourist revenue dried up.

From 1999 to 2002, the Uruguayan peso plunged, unemployment reached 20 percent, inflation surged, and the external debt doubled.

However, Uruguayan officials acted quickly in cooperation with the International Monetary Fund and worked out a debt swap with the private financial institutions that it borrowed from, extending the maturity dates on half of its $11.3 billion public debt. By 2003, confidence was restored in the economy and Uruguayan export prices began to rise.

Uruguayan Methodist Church president, the Rev. Oscar Bolioli, said that the 1970s dictatorship that overcame Uruguay caused many to die at the hands of the military. But today, he said, the country has an economic dictatorship. “The economy has been collapsing and hunger is killing more people today than the military killed 20 years ago.

“Some churches can’t afford to pay a full-time pastor, and we’ve lost 50 percent of the membership over the past 20 years. Yet this church has a presence in society that is bigger than its size. The church weathered the serious economic crisis from 1990 to 2000.”

The church began a five-year program that put the church on the right path. “Last year,” confirmed Bolioi, “all debts were paid, the economy was healthily increasing salaries, and we reinstituted some programs.”

Milk for the Children of Yacare Project, started by missionaries from a United Methodist church in Pennsylvania, bought three cows for the town to provide milk to the children daily. Future projects include a greenhouse and purchasing more animals for the townspeople. “I pray and give thanks for the congregation,” said Ferreira, “because I am learning a lot from them. They fill my life.”

The center of Salto, in contrast to Yacare, is a bustling minimetropolis where restaurants have digital televisions. High-tech products adorn store windows, and people and cars fill the streets. However children beg in the streets and families are living in slum housing, struggling to survive.

“You see how important it is for Uruguayans to have a cell phone and good stereo equipment,” said Miguel Arenas Herrera from Chile, assigned to Salto as a missionary by the General Board of Global Ministries. “Meanwhile, 30 percent of the city is under the poverty line and children are seen working in the streets of Salto.”

The Rev. Gustavo Garello, pastor of La Cruz Evangelical Methodist Church in Salto, added that one of the church’s main goals is aiding the children of Salto. Each day, the church serves children warm milk and bread before they go to school or work. As the economic crisis continues, about half the children work on the streets instead of going to school. “This is something new for us in the past two years,” said Pastor Garello, who plans to reconstruct the food program to encourage children to stay in school.

Local Methodist churches will continue to mend the lives of those subject to economic tides and political ambitions. With only promises of government help, how long can the churches continue to provide aid to an ever-increasing population whose livelihood has been undermined by a global interest in keeping prices down at the cost of local jobs and dignity?

Cassandra Heller served as an intern with New World Outlook in 2005. She is a student at Boston University studying English and philosophy.

Miguel Arenas Herrera can be supported as a covenant missionary through the Advance, Missionary Code: #14286Z.

See Also...
Topic: Agriculture Christian love Communities Environment GBGM programs Globalization International affairs Poverty
Geographic Region: Uruguay
Source: New World Outlook

arrow icon. View Listing of Missionaries Currently Working in: Uruguay   

Date posted: Mar 07, 2006