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Last Updated: Wednesday, 12 January, 2005, 13:36 GMT
Uruguay fights emigration wave
Elliott Gotkine
By Elliott Gotkine
BBC correspondent, Uruguay

Uruguay used to be a favoured destination for immigrants looking to start a new life in the new world.

Montevideo (Photo by Elliott Gotkine)
Montevideo's beauty is not enough to persuade people to stay
But now, the reverse is true. Every year, thousands of people emigrate from Uruguay to start new lives abroad.

Most of them are young and highly qualified, looking to earn higher salaries in Europe and the United States.

So many people have left in recent years it is now estimated that up to one-fifth of all Uruguayans now live abroad.


The greeny-brown waters of the River Plate crash gently against the shore along the beach in the capital Montevideo.

People are on their lunch breaks - bikini-clad teenagers are taking in a bit of the sun, couples are walking their dogs. This has to be one of the most beautiful capital cities in South America.

So why are so many people leaving and what are they leaving behind?

For Fabiana Robuschi, a doctor at the city's Pereyra Hospital, it essentially comes down to money and job security.

The fair-haired 29-year-old is in the second year of her three-year residency in paediatrics.

She has been studying and training for 11 years and is one of the top doctors in her class.

Fabiana Robuschi (Photo by Elliott Gotkine)
Sometimes you put things into the equation and you ask yourself: How do I want to live my life?
Fabiana Robuschi
Yet she gets paid just $200 a month, she has almost no time to herself, and at the end of her residency, there's no guarantee of a job.

Little wonder, then, that she plans to emigrate to Europe, where she can earn 40 times as much.

"It's an economic exile," she says.

"I can't live in my country, where I grew up, where I know the streets, where my family lives."

She knows it will not be easy to say goodbye. She worries, for example, that she may not see her elderly grandparents again.

"That's the other side: You go and leave loads of things behind, lots of friends. It will never be the same in another place," she says.

"The thing is, sometimes you put things into the equation and you ask yourself: How do I want to live my life?"


Each year, thousands of Uruguayans reach the same conclusion as Fabiana - that if they want a bright future, they have to live abroad.

This is bad news for the country's economy, says Andrea Vigorito, an economics lecturer at the University of the Republic.

Uruguayan emigrants are skilled, and this makes easier for them to move
Andrea Vigorito,
University of the Republic
"Emigration is a problem for Uruguay because people who are moving are skilled and high-skilled workers. So it can be read as a loss of human capital," she says.

In a recent study she co-authored, she found that between 1996 and 2002 almost 100,000 people left Uruguay - 3% of the entire population.

This coincided with a lengthy and deep recession. The devaluation of the Uruguayan peso, meanwhile, devastated people's savings and salaries.

Many of those leaving joined friends and relatives who fled in the 1970s, to escape the country's repressive military junta.

"Once the first colonies of Uruguayans established themselves abroad, this creates networks that make it easier for the following waves to settle there," Ms Vigorito says.

"Also, Uruguayan emigrants are skilled compared to the Uruguayan population and to other Latin American emigrants, and this makes it easier for them to move and settle abroad."

It also means that the benefits of billions of dollars of government spending on providing good quality, free education are never felt in Uruguay.

And the loss of young emigrants is one reason why the country has the highest proportion of elderly people in the hemisphere.

Parents left behind

There's also a social cost.

Lydia Gumiel, president of a group of parents of emigres
Gumiel finds it helpful to talk to other parents of emigres
On a lazy afternoon in a suburb of Montevideo, parents of children who have emigrated are chatting, arguing and even crying around a rectangular table.

This is the weekly meeting of their association.

Together with a psychologist, they discuss the emotions they have been experiencing since their children left the country.

For people like Lydia Gumiel, the group's president, it has given her a renewed sense of belonging after her son, a helicopter pilot, emigrated more than 10 years ago.

"It was really hard because I didn't have what happens now, where all of us can talk about the same issue and tell each other our stories," she says.

"And if at first they arrive teary-eyed, later, we see that we are not alone - we are not the only people who have these problems. Many people do, and sometimes they have more serious problems than we do."

Campaign issue

The emigration problem itself has become so serious that it was a campaign issue in October's presidential elections.

Tabare Vazquez
Optimism about the Vazquez election might bring emigres back to Uruguay
The eventual winner was the left-leaning candidate Tabare Vazquez.

One of his rallies took place in Buenos Aires, in neighbouring Argentina - home to an estimated 300,000 Uruguayans.

He vowed to do all he could to stem the flow of emigrants and to encourage the return of those who have already left.

To do this, he needs Uruguay's brisk economic recovery to continue.

In 2004, the economy was expected to grow by 10%. And because of this, and optimism about Mr Vazquez's presidency, emigration was also expected to fall in 2004 and this year.

But For Fabiana Robuschi, it is too little too late.

And soon she'll be passing through Uruguay's main airport, on her way to starting a new life in Spain.

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