British newspaper The Guardian recently published an article written by Oliver Balch describing Punta del Este as an “uber-rich ‘gated city’ ”. Sensationalizing the extravagant tastes of elites during the ePrix and contrasting it with the struggles of laborers in nearby asentamientos (slums) he asks if Punta is “a glimpse of our urban future”. The author likened Punta to a Monaco in Mali, giving the image of a deeply unequal Uruguay.
When I read articles like this one, The Guardian seems more and more like a tabloid disguised behind fancy fonts and niche interests that don’t represent the wider population. In doing so, when looking at far-flung places like Uruguay, it often fails to acknowledge underlying economic, social, and political realities.
Punta del Este is not an “uber-rich ‘gated city’ “. It is not Monaco, and Uruguay is not Mali. Yes, incomes and cost of living in Punta are the highest in country. But it is a public city just like any other, whose beaches, boulevards, and scenery can be enjoyed by all.
Compared to Las Vegas, Miami, or even the Monaco that the author mentions, Punta is quite simple, unadorned, and even (gasp) egalitarian. Likewise the Uruguay that serves as a backdrop to what the author calls “dystopian paradise” is nothing like chaotic and third world Mali.
Rather than focusing on the divisions of haves and have-nots, let’s look instead at just how many haves there are in the first place. A quick glance at Punta del Este and Maldonado on GoogleMaps shows that hardly 5% of the area (and the population) consists of slums. In eternally small-scale Uruguay, the few who live in Punta’s slums can get to work much more quickly and cheaply than workers forced to live in London’s Zone 6.
The majority of the area consists of high-rises and single family homes in leafy neighborhoods that would make Ebenezer Howard—founder of the Garden City movement—smile. Furthermore, these single family homes are rarely in gated communities, and many don’t even have gates themselves.
Where an outside observer on a week-long trip sees greed, Uruguayans and their government accustomed to a century of tourism see economic necessity.
There’s an Uruguayan phrase I love called “laburar la temporada”. In January and February, kids from across the country come to Punta to work as waiters, DJs, and hotel receptionists. The luckiest can make a year’s salary in these two months, simply because of the inflated prices, and the cushy tips from wealthy Argentines and Brazilians.
Pieces like Balch’s this fail to recognize that people have the right to live the good life, and that governments and individuals have the right to reap windfall opportunities. The seasonal boost driven mostly by Argentines (who own 60% of property in Punta) effectively subsidizes a generation of Uruguayan youth to spend the rest of the year studying, traveling, or just chilling out.
Many of these kids live in adjacent Maldonado, where it’s much cheaper than Punta, but where you still have solid housing stock, and proximity to the same amenities. Maldonado is also a cultural anomaly in Uruguay, where jazz and funk—rather than cumbia, folklore, or rock—define the music scene.
Promotion of beach tourism is integral to Uruguay’s economic development. In a country dominated by real cows, Punta is the cash cow, representing a not insignificant percentage of GDP.
The notion that regular Uruguayans are being left out of Punta is a bit farfetched. Most people I know in Uruguay don’t even aspire to this “uber-rich” lifestyle detailed by The Guardian. I notice a sense that Punta is best left to the pompous Argies with their fast cars and fake tans, so long as it helps the Uruguayan economy, providing jobs and stability. That Piriápolis, La Paloma and Atlántida are more popular with Uruguayans isn’t so much because they are second class, but rather because they’re what Uruguayans prefer when it comes to vacation.
The author, rather than moaning about the absence of public housing in Punta could instead point to the fact that a) in a wealthy locale, the market takes care of most housing needs, and more importantly, that b) in places where housing is needed most, Uruguay is a world leader in cooperative housing schemes, thanks to innovative programs like FUCVAM and MEVIR.
Another thing the author fails to consider is that perhaps the droves of Brazilians and Argentines are coming to tranquil egalitarian Uruguay precisely so that they can get away from beaches like Copacabana and even Florianopolis that are much closer to large slums and crime.
Guardianistas can gate themselves in their ideological bubble, see one tree down in the forest and assume there’s been a clearcut. But if they look deeper and wider at a country like Uruguay, they’ll see a country with a more positive glimpse of our urban future than Monaco, Mali, or even London.
The author made one final grave mischaracterization of the little country. Salto is not “a rural backwater”. It has been industrialized for over a century and today has a diverse economy that mixes cattle, citrus, wine, and a new regional branch of the national university. It is a pleasant tourist destination in its own right, with a peaceful riverfront, and nearby hotsprings. It too has a few asentamientos, but even they are overshadowed by human-scale public housing cooperatives.