The National Catholic Review
The smallest country in Latin America also has its highest literacy rate.
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Who ever thinks of Uruguay? One of the smallest countries in Latin America, it receives scant attention in the media. Much about Uruguay, however, is noteworthy. Uruguayan Bishop Luis del Castillo, right, visited America House and pointed out, for example, that his homeland has a 97 percent literacy rate. “We had universal free education as early as 1880,” he said, “and the school system extends even to remote rural areas.” He added that the state university is also free. “You can get a degree in law, engineering, medicine and even a veterinarian degree.” On the down side, however, he noted that the quality of public education has been deteriorating over the past few decades on both the high school and the university level.
   
As to religious vocations, they are declining, and therefore the role of the permanent deacon has taken on increased importance. This is particularly true of the administration of the sacraments of baptism and marriage. “In the diocese where I was before my retirement, of the 16 parishes four of them did not have a resident priest. Two,” he said, “were administered by a permanent deacon, and two were administrated by religious women.” He explained that “nuns have permission to preside at both the sacrament of baptism and the sacrament of marriage.”

Nuns, however, have an advantage over deacons when it comes to visiting families. “It’s much easier for a religious woman to visit a home at any time, especially when the husband is at work.” Uruguay does not yet, like neighboring Argentina, allow for gay marriages, but as of January 2008, it became the first country in Latin America to have a civil union law, the “ley de Union Concubinaria.” The law does not specify same-sex or opposite sex couples, so the latter too can enter into civil unions.

One contentious issue concerns the so-called expiry law, the “ley de la Caducidad.” Bishop del Castillo explained that in the mid-1980s, after the end of the brutal dictatorships in the 1970s and 1980s involving torture, disappearances and killings, the Uruguayan Congress passed the Caducidad law, which granted amnesty to military and law enforcement officials for criminal acts committed during the dictatorship era. Efforts by human rights groups to overturn the amnesty law led to a national referendum. “But a majority of the population voted to leave the law as it is,” he said, and so the amnesty remains in effect today. Nevertheless, a dictator from that period, General Gregorio Alvarez, who was found guilty of 37 counts of murder, received a sentence of 25 years in October 2009 and remains in prison today. Activists and international groups like Amnesty International continue their efforts to repeal the amnesty law.

A sensitivity also surrounds discrimination of the descendants of African slaves. “It’s nothing overt, but there is an underlying feeling, as in the movie, ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,' about interracial marriage," del Castillo said. Overall, though, he noted that Uruguay is one of the societies in which religious prejudice or racial attitudes based on color are less perceivable than in some of the other Latin American countries. Added to this favorable view is Bishop del Castillo’s observation that, according to Transparency International, Uruguay is the one the least corrupt nations in Latin America, “on a par with Chile, and this has meant a firm grounding in ethical conduct at every level, especially in business and politics. But,” he said, “we have to worry about it.” Nevertheless, its status as one of the least corrupt countries in an entire continent is in itself no small encomium.

Listen to an interview with Bishop Luis Del Castillo.

George M. Anderson, S.J., is a former associate of America.

Comments

Robert Asselin | 2/16/2011 - 11:50am
Wonderful man. He was instrumental in founding the Catholic University there, Uruguay's second univesity at the time.  And both USAID and St. Thomas University assisted in starting its MBA program. Uruguayans are cultured and hospitable; known and respected thoughout the hemisphere for their democratic instincts and history.