Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

It’s Time to Give Uruguay Some Respect

Uruguay is building an army of talented expats -- and not just in soccer.

Pablo Porciuncula / AFP / Getty Images
Pablo Porciuncula / AFP / Getty Images
Pablo Porciuncula / AFP / Getty Images

You can smoke pot legally! The president wears sandals and drives an '87 Beetle! You might meet a former Guantánamo detainee there! Uruguay has made a lot of news lately, at least for a country the size of Florida with only a fifth of its population. It punches well above its weight on the soccer field, too -- and it's probably going to get even better.

Uruguay is full of paradoxes and potential. For starters, it's a country at once united and divided. Though its national identity is somewhat more nebulous than that of neighbors Argentina and Brazil -- it began as a buffer state carved out of bits of each -- its people are far more united behind their team. Many Argentines would prefer another title for their club to another World Cup for the national team. Meanwhile, a significant minority of Brazilians is hoping that their World Cup run lasts only three games.

There is no such ambivalence in Uruguay. After its team came in fourth in the 2010 World Cup, tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of people lined the entire length of the road from Montevideo's airport -- a full 30 kilometers along the coast into the heart of the capital -- to celebrate its triumphant return. And for the match in São Paulo, which sits fewer than 1,000 miles from Montevideo, the stands will undoubtedly be filled with tens of thousands more.

You can smoke pot legally! The president wears sandals and drives an ’87 Beetle! You might meet a former Guantánamo detainee there! Uruguay has made a lot of news lately, at least for a country the size of Florida with only a fifth of its population. It punches well above its weight on the soccer field, too — and it’s probably going to get even better.

Uruguay is full of paradoxes and potential. For starters, it’s a country at once united and divided. Though its national identity is somewhat more nebulous than that of neighbors Argentina and Brazil — it began as a buffer state carved out of bits of each — its people are far more united behind their team. Many Argentines would prefer another title for their club to another World Cup for the national team. Meanwhile, a significant minority of Brazilians is hoping that their World Cup run lasts only three games.

There is no such ambivalence in Uruguay. After its team came in fourth in the 2010 World Cup, tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of people lined the entire length of the road from Montevideo’s airport — a full 30 kilometers along the coast into the heart of the capital — to celebrate its triumphant return. And for the match in São Paulo, which sits fewer than 1,000 miles from Montevideo, the stands will undoubtedly be filled with tens of thousands more.

But Uruguay has also had big divisions. Despite the country’s small size, the mostly white Uruguayans who take in shows at the gleaming Teatro Solís opera house in Montevideo live their lives light years away from the ragged poverty among people of mixed European, African, and indigenous descent in slums and rural areas. Some of that contrast is still represented on Uruguay’s football team. Playmaker Diego Forlán has said he faced discrimination as a young player because he came from the wealthy Montevideo neighborhood of Carrasco. At the same time, centerback José María Giménez was growing up in a town poor enough to host a UNICEF program.

This is changing, however. The poverty rate in Uruguay has dropped by half since 1990. Inequality, which rose in the late 1990s and stayed high through much of the subsequent decade, is finally coming down. Uruguayan children can expect to spend at least 12 years in school, two years more than their counterparts in Brazil and one more than in Argentina. They all have laptops, too. And there’s wifi at the gas stations.

The only problem is that these youngsters, like their soccer idols, will probably have to leave Uruguay to realize their potential. Every player on the national team plies his trade outside the country, and about a fifth of all Uruguayans live abroad. Indeed, Uruguay does an excellent job of preparing its citizens for jobs that only exist elsewhere. The national university is strong in biosciences, but the pharmaceutical industry is tiny. Training for engineers is also quite good, but there are few big projects for them to work on. As a result, many of the most talented Uruguayans scatter to the four corners of the globe. It’s not until they reassemble from their distant destinations — as at the World Cup — that their true potency is on show.

Daniel Altman is the owner of North Yard Analytics LLC, a sports data consulting firm, and an adjunct associate professor of economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business. Twitter: @altmandaniel

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