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URUGUAY: Former Sugar Cane Workers Look to Future With Hope

Raúl Pierri

BELLA UNION, Uruguay, Mar 28 2005 (IPS) - In the Las Láminas slum in this town in northern Uruguay, former sugar cane workers barely eke out a living making hand-made bricks and scavenging garbage.

The malnutrition and poverty levels in Bella Unión are among the highest in this South American country of 3.3 million, which is just pulling out of a severe economic crisis that peaked in 2002.

A visitor to Las Láminas, which is located near the town, sees lines of bricks drying under the fierce sun in this dusty, treeless shantytown that is home to 180 families.

Bella Unión and Las Láminas are located in the northern Uruguayan department (state) of Artigas, near the Brazilian border, and 615 km north of Montevideo, the capital.

The slum emerged around 14 years ago, when the local sugar industry – the main employer – began to collapse after the creation of the Mercosur (Southern Common Market) free trade bloc, in which Uruguay is a partner with Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. Local production found it impossible to compete with the flood of cheap sugar from just across the border in Brazil.

The great majority of the residents of Las Láminas were "cañeros" or sugar cane workers who now scrape by producing bricks, collecting and sorting trash, or finding seasonal work in bean and cornfields or orange plantations.

The soil in the area where the slum neighbourhood has cropped up is relatively infertile. There is no street lighting, or sanitation or running water in the ramshackle homes made of cast-off corrugated metal sheeting, cardboard, and plastic.

Children are the first to lead thirsty visitors to one of the eight public faucets scattered throughout the slum.

Only a few of the more fortunate residents have bicycles. Others have horse-drawn carts. But many of the people who live in Las Láminas must get around by foot, even when the rains flood the dirt tracks.

Sixty-six percent of the adult residents are unemployed, 30 percent have casual work, and only four percent have steady jobs.

Bella Unión, a town of less than 15,000, and the surrounding district has the highest infant mortality rate in Uruguay: 55.1 per 1,000 live births, compared to the national ratio of 15 per 1,000.

Basically all of the residents of the Las Láminas slum have intestinal parasites.

Ninety percent of children are or have been malnourished, 99 percent have anaemia, and 90 percent have either repeated grades, dropped out of school, or had to attend special education centres for the mentally disabled.

And among those who do finish primary school, many are 15 by the time they complete sixth grade.

Las Láminas also has high rates of teen pregnancy as well as premature births, and newborns tend to be low birth weight, with an average similar to that found in some African nations. Problems like cerebral palsy, visual and hearing impairments, and speech and development problems are all much more common here than in the population at large.

Needless to say, this neighbourhood appears to be light years away from reaching the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that were adopted by the international community – including Uruguay – at the United Nations Millennium Summit in 2000.

The number one MDG is to halve the proportion of the world’s population living on less than one dollar a day and suffering from hunger by the year 2015.

The irony is that Bella Unión drew heavy investment in agriculture in the last few decades before the 1990s, especially in cooperatives growing sugar cane and fresh produce.

By 1989, 60,000 tons of sugar a year, meeting 60 percent of Uruguay’s total sugar consumption, were produced on some 10,000 hectares of land around Bella Unión.

But the market was thrown open starting in the early 1990s. In addition, Brazil’s local currency, the real, was devalued in 1999. As a result, local sugar production found it impossible to compete with cheap imports. Today only 18,000 tons of sugar are produced on just 3,000 hectares of land. Rural workers also lost jobs in vegetable production, which shrank as well.

One of the first steps taken by Uruguay’s new leftist Broad Front government, headed by socialist President Tabaré Vázquez, after the Mar. 1 inauguration was to send a high-level delegation to Las Láminas to assess the dire social situation here and offer assistance in the face of an outbreak of hepatitis that has affected around 300 people so far.

"Welcome, ministers of hope" read a sign put up at the entrance to the neighbourhood, while another warned that "We hope the government of today will not forget tomorrow".

Health Minister María Julia Muñoz, Minister of Industry Jorge Lepra, and Deputy Minister of Livestock, Agriculture and Fishing, Ernesto Agazzi, met with local residents in the centre of Las Láminas.

The new government has promised to draw up a "reconversion plan" for agricultural producers in northern Uruguay, and to help increase the land planted in sugar cane from 3,000 hectares to perhaps 10,000 once again.

The Vázquez administration has also launched a 200 million dollar National Social Emergency Plan which is to provide comprehensive assistance to around 200,000 poor Uruguayans nationwide over the next two years, half of whom are considered "indigent" or living in extreme poverty, like the people of Las Láminas.

In the meantime, people like activist Walter ‘El Cholo’ González, a former guerrilla fighter, and his paediatrician wife María Elena Curbelo struggle day to day on behalf of Las Láminas.

"This is my impregnable stronghold," González jokes with local residents, who hug him as he arrives. The 63-year-old cañero has a long history of fighting for his ideals, which he has not abandoned.

"The biggest problem here, worse than any other, is the huge lack of work. Ninety-four percent of the residents of Las Laminas were cañeros, and now many of them are garbage scavengers," he told IPS.

"People here have a lot of hope with the new government, but they know things take time, that the changes won’t happen overnight," he added.

González began to harvest sugar cane in the northwestern department of Salto in the 1950s, where he met Raúl Sendic, a socialist leader who had come from Montevideo to provide legal and labour advice and assistance to the sugar cane workers.

González took part in the creation of the Union of Sugar Cane Workers of Artigas and in a historic protest march from northern Uruguay to the capital by cañeros who were demanding an eight-hour workday.

Later he joined the Tupamaros National Liberation Movement, an urban guerrilla group led by Sendic that was active in the 1960s and early 1970s, but was crushed before the 1973 coup d’etat that ushered in a 12-year dictatorship.

González was arrested, but he participated in a famous 1971 jailbreak from a Montevideo prison. He was thrown into jail again in 1975 and was not released until 10 years later, under an amnesty law enacted after Uruguay returned to democracy in 1985.

Since 1995 he has been helping his fellow cañeros in Bella Unión, organising several employment-generating projects: a community farm, a plan for recycling plastic bottles, and a rehabilitation programme for injured horses (many garbage-pickers rely on horse-drawn carts to ply their trade).

His wife, Dr. Curbelo, runs a clinic in Las Láminas, despite a severe health problem that forces her to get around on crutches. She not only takes care of the physical problems of the local residents, but provides assistance for their worries and anxieties as well.

It was Curbelo’s tenacity that enabled her to overcome her life-long health problems, political persecution during the 1973-1985 de facto military regime, and several years in exile.

"I have worked in Las Láminas for 10 years, and I can say that people really struggle hard here," Curbelo said in an interview with IPS. "We try to help them, but while respecting their desire to stay here. They don’t want to be relocated, because this is their home."

But although the new government’s promises have awakened hope in Las Láminas, no one is expecting a miracle or a free ride. The impoverished residents are only hoping for a chance for their hard work to translate into a better life.

One of their requests is for the materials to build cinder block houses, for which they would provide the labour, and which they would pay off slowly over the coming years.

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