In February, I wrote briefly about the military in Uruguay. Here are some more thoughts.
In Uruguay, the military is just another middle class profession. It’s another thing that blends into the economy and society as a normal facet of life and bureaucracy. It’s not part of an overblown industrial complex with strong—or suspicious—links to the private sector. It’s not a forced symbol of patriotism. Much of this is because patriotism in a post-dictatorship political reality has distanced itself from the military as much as possible. Unlike America, the Uruguay’s military is integrated fairly well into everyday life, rather than explicitly separated from it, as James Fallows articulated so well in The Atlantic. Uruguay’s political establishment may have distanced itself from the military, but in an era in which they no longer run the show, the military hasn’t exerted itself to try to stand out from normal life.
There aren’t incessant recruitment drives and advertisements for a popular and commercial appeal to the military cause. A kid knows if they want to join because their heart or wallet tells them, not a recruiter. Civilians aren’t encouraged to bend over backward to people in uniform. Discounts for students and seniors are much more visible than for servicemen, and the notion of “active military personnel” is far less present in a country that’s not engaged in armed conflict. Bumper stickers here are a means of conformity, not dissent. People don’t put stickers on their cars boasting about their son the navy seal. In a society where bragging is seen negatively, the stickers Uruguayans put on their cars tend to collections of advertisements from an assortment commercial ventures, chief among them beach vacation rentals, a rice company (Saman! Rice to Meet You!), and supermarkets. A sporting event wouldn’t have flyover jets, much less even play the national anthem (unless it’s la Celeste). Peñarol is not going to have a special game wearing camo kits for veterans’ awareness, much less pink kits for breast cancer, or foreign language kits for minority awareness.
The commercialization involved in turning causes into spectacles is not a big deal in Uruguay, and the military is no exception. This is not to say causes don’t have their place in the public sphere. Simply that they are neither co-opted onto other events, nor part of a fundraising-industrial complex. Public gatherings about a cause like 5Ks on the Montevideo Rambla, or marches on Avenida 18 de Julio are common mediums to incite awareness about children’s rights, anti-violence, or remembering those disappeared in the dictatorship. In Cerro Chato, when I ran the anti-violence 5K “Yo Corro por el Buen Trato”, there wasn’t a fee, and the local chapter of Medica Uruguaya donated for the t-shirts. Front organizations like Susan G. Komen, or Greenpeace are exempt from the process. In these instances, promoting the cause is the only objective, not raising money, nor associating it with any other activities.
The military does occupy a place in the public sphere, but it isn’t drummed up. In a country that had a dictatorship only 30 years ago, the consequences of the dark side of a military are well-known to many citizens. Being subtle rather than brash becomes the modus operandi for the military’s image in everyday life. One way the military does make itself visible is through its music. Every Friday at noon, a military tattoo convenes in Montevideo’s Plaza Independencia and marches on surrounding streets, drawing admiring crowds of both locals and tourists. Prominent national events, such as the Expo Prado–a state fair without the rides, where ministries, state-owned enterprises, and other major players in civil society all have a presence—and holiday parades feature shows by military bands and drill exercises by squadron.
However, it’s not something that incites flag-waving and gun-toting from civilians. Uruguay has open gun laws. Yet, not once did I hear people either lauding them or complaining. It’s not an issue that engenders either opposition or fear. Ceremonies like those on Plaza Independencia are about commemorating a rich military history, and long deceased national heroes, not a belligerent present. Compared to the USA, a nation whose military is involved in much more than peacekeeping, Uruguay’s military rather is detached to the state of world affairs. In the end, Uruguay’s military appears merely another arm of life like the police, and education. But is worth acknowledging the possibility that its role in civil society could be purposefully and deceptively subtle. If so, an increasing backlash to leftist Frente Amplio reforms could be accompanied by a resurgent militarism.