Uruguay: Tiny Country, Big Population Problems

By Dr. Ana Margheritis, Politics & International Relations

The international press has focused on Uruguay lately and praised a number of factors that make the country attractive and relatively atypical in the Latin American context today: a small, gorgeous area of fertile land; political and economic stability; a friendly and laid-back style of life; progressive tax, social welfare and other policies (e.g., legalisation of abortion, marijuana consumption, and gay marriage); records of foreign investment; improvement in reducing poverty, unemployment, underemployment, and inequality, and a humble president whose simple, frugal habits and standard of living has not changed after coming to office.

Demographers argue that Uruguay is an atypical case in other respect, too: it did not go through peaks of population growth and an early decline in mortality and birth rates gave it a demographic profile more similar to the advanced countries than to its developing neighbours, though still sharing with the latter the same struggle to overcome economic under-development. Such demographic evolution contributed to a generalized perception of a lack of population problems and, consequently, to the absence of specific policies. Problems existed, though, compounded today by a low fertility rate, concentration of population in a small coastal area and few cities (half of the total population lives in Montevideo, the capital city), low immigration inflows, and continuous population ageing and emigration. Internal migration from the countryside to the coast has historically been the first step in a long journey that extends beyond the country’s borders as a significant part of the total population (between 15% and 18% in the mid-2000s) moved subsequently abroad. Thus, in terms of migration flows Uruguay passed from being a receiving country up to the 1950s to a sending country since then and depopulation became a structural problem.

However, it is not until the mid-2000s that the magnitude of the emigration problem was acknowledged and both population and migration issues entered the governmental agenda and political discourse. The immediate factor that prompted this policy shift was the mobilization of Uruguayans abroad around the time of the 2004 elections and its role in the Frente Amplio’s victory. This was compounded by the last two presidents’ leadership role, the profile of the emigrant group (i.e., young, highly educated), and the nature of the Frente’s political project, namely a development strategy in which the state has a prominent role and a progressive social agenda that brings human rights considerations to the forefront. A new set of innovative migration-related measures and institutional changes gained momentum in the last decade, though their scope and sustainability are still subject to controversies.

Uruguayan governments have, indeed, made significant efforts to reach out to citizens living abroad. Following global trends, several initiatives were launched: a new discourse to re-name the diaspora and its role in the nation; legislation update to institutionalize migrant rights; new bureaucratic units in charge of migrant affairs; a number of linkage programs to engage migrants with homeland, and the promise of inclusion and increasing political participation through extra-territorial voting rights. The emphasis on linkages and absentee voting rights promised not only to reinforce nationhood bonds but also to make effective a notion of citizenship that goes beyond territorial borders and redefines the idea of nation. Nevertheless, this initiative could not overcome political and social opposition. Most likely, it will be revived this year as national elections approach.

Among other lessons, Uruguay shows that sending state emigration policies require the political commitment of specific actors to prosper. It is not the state as a unitary apparatus or political parties but specific individuals and offices (i.e., the president, foreign minister, especial migration units) which push transnational initiatives politically. Emigration policy also requires an articulation between symbolic and rhetoric initiatives and concrete measures to entitle and engage emigrants. The label patria peregrine (peregrine nation), intended to emphasize that emigrants are still part of the nation, was too vague, did not resonate with the dual engagements of Uruguayans abroad and failed to give them an identity, thus jeopardizing the chances of constructing them as subjects and interlocutors. The use of this terminology also cast doubts on the conceptualization of the problem and policy intentions because it involves a redefinition of borders when, in fact, political and social ideas about the nation still remain strongly tied to territory in Uruguay. As the debate on extra-territorial voting rights illustrates, two views persist: the official political discourse emphasizes notions of national identity and unity, collective commitment with nation-building, and sense of responsibility towards the country’s fate even if at a long distance; in contrast, other political and social actors argue that physical presence in the territory at the moment of suffrage ultimately contributes to reinforce the nationhood bond, questioning that those who are physically absent decide on the lives of those who will actually endure the consequences of decisions.

Bureaucratic practices are a major obstacle to policy consistency and sustainability, as well as society’s low capacity to exert strong pressure or push for its agenda. Several of the initiatives above have been subject to constant vaivenes (the word I most often heard during field research, meaning ups and downs, comings and goings) and faced implementation problems.Thus, the sustainability of emigration policy in the long run is contingent not only on state’s capacity to reform itself but also on society’s ability to acquire a greater voice and more organizational capacity as well as to engage broader sectors with the re-construction of national membership along pluralistic and non-territorial lines.

In sum, Uruguay is a critical case to study emigration policies because, in contrast to other cases, discursive mechanisms have included but not targeted elites exclusively, new re-conceptualizations of the citizens abroad failed to re-incorporate them into the nation, state strategies have not prioritized financial flows but political issues and, rather than capitalizing on migrant transnational networks overseas, the state implemented a top-down, state-led model on diverse migrant organizations that largely backfired. Moreover, I argue that full extra-territorial citizenship has not materialized yet not because of governments’ reluctance but because the political elites’ and society’s strong attachment to territorial notions of entitlements have re-territorialized the debate.

Do you want to know more? See my forthcoming article in International Migration Review: “Redrawing the Contours of the Nation-State in Uruguay? The Vicissitudes of Emigration Policyin the 2000s”.

One thought on “Uruguay: Tiny Country, Big Population Problems

  1. I believe the government calls the emigrant diaspora Department 20. Rather than states Uruguay is made up of departments and has 19 within its borders. Rather than patria peregrine they have chosen Departamento 20 as the designation for the diaspora. There is a web site to reach out to the diaspora, it is; http://www.d20.org.uy/
    Even the Ministry of Foreign Relations discusses it on its website; http://www.mrree.gub.uy/frontend/page?1,inicio,ampliacion-ppal,O,es,0,PAG;CONC;73;3;D;iii-encuentro-mundial-de-los-consejos-consultivos-del-uruguay-en-el-exterior-3284;4;PAG;

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