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Jun 28, 2014

Artigas' dream alive during World Cup

Tabare Barrios Dalmao, standing near the monument of his great-great-great grandfather, General Jose Artigas, says Uruguay will succeed at the World Cup because of their
Tabare Barrios Dalmao, standing near the monument of his great-great-great grandfather, General Jose Artigas, says Uruguay will succeed at the World Cup because of their "rebel spirit."

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay -- I visited the tomb of General Jose Artigas this morning, just as dawn broke over his hometown. A heavy blue fog covered the city, hiding the tops of buildings, so there was no dramatic segue from night to day. One minute you couldn't see, and the next you could, taking in the scene: an empty main plaza, with the enormous bronze Artigas riding his muscular bronze horse. One city worker, puffing clouds of condensed breath in the bone-chill of an early morning, swept the bricks around the monument. It was the time for ghosts. Many of them will be intersecting today -- Uruguay's first match since the suspension of Luis Suarez, which had rallied and angered the nation; yesterday's 41st anniversary of Uruguay's military coup; and, as always, the life story of Artigas, Uruguay's George Washington -- as both inspiration and warning.

From a wealthy, connected family, Artigas turned his back on privilege and moved to the plains of what is now Uruguay and Argentina, then ruled by Spain, working as a cowboy. He became a soldier, brave and feared, joining in the independence movement against the royal overlords, winning dramatic victories, laying siege to Montevideo, becoming a kind of South American William Wallace. Time and again, his allies betrayed his ideals for personal power or measured compromise. Time and again, he refused to negotiate away his principles, disappearing into the interior and returning to fight. His ultimate dream was for a single South American country, patterned after the United States: a homeland. His big dreams were parlayed for measurable political victories. His stubbornness left him weakened and bleeding support, and in 1820, he was betrayed and forced to live in exile in Paraguay. Eight years later, the fight he started resulted in Uruguayan independence and he became known as the founding father, just not of the nation he had fought to create.

He never returned to Uruguay.

Thirty years after his exile, in 1850, the legend says Artigas felt himself slipping away and asked to be put back on top of a horse so he could die as he had lived, in the saddle. Who knows whether that's true, since it sounds like a creation myth -- but even if it's a myth, the saddle story is instructive, because it shows how he is remembered.

The Uruguayan dictatorship built the mausoleum, moving his bones to a politically important place, stealing the symbol of Artigas. The walls of the tomb are covered with important dates from his life, but with none of his famous quotes about liberty, because a dictatorship chiseling those words would have been crying out against its own rule.

Once more, Artigas' dreams had been used for someone else's gain.

General Jose Artigas' remains are kept in a mausoleum underground, just beneath his above-ground monument in Plaza Independencia.
General Jose Artigas' remains are kept in a mausoleum underground, just beneath his above-ground monument in Plaza Independencia.

The knockout round starts soon, and all four teams playing today are from Latin America, as are two of the teams playing tomorrow. Seven of the 16 teams that advanced are from Latin American countries, which is perfect, since this World Cup has always been, both geographically and thematically, Latin American. The headlines from Brazil's preparations to host offered, much like the life story of Artigas, a distillation of the region's past: corruption, class divisions and crime, state violence and a feeling that the love of the people was twisted by their leaders for a murky, disingenuous gain.

Viewed through the lens of outside intervention, from Cortes to Monroe to Kissinger, those headlines were themselves political. One night, I met Hugo Chavez's ex-wife at a softball field in rural Venezuela, watching the United States play Portugal. She described the attacks on the host nation as part of a broader attack against the various organizations that have formed recently, such as the Union of South American Nations six years ago, people still fighting to realize a version of Artigas' dream. "All the nations of Latin America are joining in a union, to be strong, to be respected by the world," Marisabel Rodriguez said. "That's why Brazil was so highly criticized before the World Cup."

She wasn't surprised at any of this, because all over the world, but especially in Latin America, soccer is a proxy for politics. The Mexican team is controlled by the nation's main television network, Televisa, which has also been seen as a mouthpiece for the nation's political powers. Brazil's citizens have been outraged at how their love for a sport was used as a vehicle for corrupt politicians and construction companies. Honduras' brief appearance was a distraction for a country stifled with a climbing murder rate and little rule of law. That nation is inching closer to war with El Salvador over a maritime border, a war that was last fought in 1969, known as the Football War, because a World Cup qualifier was the match that lit the flame.

This World Cup has seen a national team used by the president of Colombia to energize his re-election campaign, and by political activists of Chile to symbolize their continued exorcism of Augusto Pinochet. The president of Uruguay has condemned FIFA for its treatment of Suarez, and in the streets of Montevideo, fans see conspiracies everywhere, connecting unseen mafias with television dollars and a globalized world where a small country like theirs has no power or influence. The players are playing to win games for themselves and their fans, and often for much more.

These are the stories this blog was created to tell, along with the other side of the region: the joy, love and optimism that always coexists with the more obvious, negative headlines. For the past three weeks, I've traveled around Latin America, visiting all of the seven countries playing in the second round. These dispatches have been designed to take you on that journey too, not to decode a complicated and contradictory place, but to catch flashes of understanding.

One of those flashes is stuck in my mind this morning.

We ate dinner in Medellin, a Colombian town supposedly reborn after the cocaine violence of Pablo Escobar, and a local reporter told us we couldn't wander around this area, which looked peaceful, full of running children and families. We asked why, and he explained. Rival drug gangs were fighting a war for territory; they had drawn invisible boundaries around the city, and crossing one of those boundaries meant nearly certain death. The thing about that story I'll remember is the reaction of my photographer and translator, Leo, who is from Argentina and has traveled all over South and Central America as a journalist. He looked stunned, as if a region he'd always called home was suddenly foreign and unknowable, even to him.

Tonight, I'll board a long flight home after watching the two matches. I woke up early to write. Blue fog made the streets and harbors of Montevideo invisible from my hotel window. The city shrugged off the night before, the delivery trucks chugging below, shifting gears. Down to the left, somewhere in the blue haze, hid the grave of Jose Artigas, his remains buried with his hopes and still unrealized dreams.

Uruguay will face Colombia, without star Luis Suarez, in the round of 16 on Saturday.
Uruguay will face Colombia, without star Luis Suarez, in the round of 16 on Saturday.

Yesterday I called Artigas' closest living relative, his great-great-great grandson, Tabare Barrios Dalmao, who is president of an association formed to keep track of the general's living relatives. He wanted to meet at the statue and, together, we walked down into the cold, quiet mausoleum, with two soldiers standing guard on either side of the wooden box holding the general's remains. Dalmao's words echoed in the marble tomb. On his right hand, he wore a small silver ring with the initials "J.A." As president of the association, he has the honor of being caretaker of the one family heirloom left: the general's ring, which is now on Dalmao's hand.

"We are very, very poor," he said, and then pointed to the veins on wrist. "We are very rich in the blood. It's a treasure."

He's 69, retired from the national navy of Uruguay, and seems happier in the past than the present, loving to visit old battlefields, writing history lectures on classic buildings, leading the Artigas association. He is related to an Incan princess, too, he says, loving the hope promised by genealogy. The blood in his veins suggests something, that perhaps what once was might be again, but more than that: the hope that the plans of Artigas are not dead, just unfinished. The success of Latin American teams in the World Cup, he says, is a "mystery," and it also seems like a sign.

"Slowly, slowly," Dalmao said, "the countries are joining. With other ideas, not the same social ideas Jose had."

When he left, he picked up his plastic grocery bag with all the supplies he will need to watch Uruguay's match: coffee and mate. He wore a watch cap and an olive drab sweater, his hair gray, with white at the temples and nape, balding on top. Choosing his words carefully, always aware that he, a common sailor, is now the voice for a great general, he said that Uruguay cannot be beaten, no matter what large forces oppose them.

"It's a crime what FIFA did to Suarez," the closest living link to Artigas said. "With the fall of Suarez, we doubled our efforts. It's more sure now that we will win. Because we have a natural rebel spirit."