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Visitor from South America's most democratic nation arrives as election campaigns heats up


MONTEVIDEO -- Uruguay is lauded as the most democratic nation in South America, and its people pride themselves on their involvement in politics in peaceful and respectful ways.

That's from Mariel Doyenhart, who arrived in Montevideo, Minn., from her home in Montevideo, Uruguay, exactly as the U.S. presidential campaign began to heat up and grainy, political attack ads began to take over our television sets.

Her only surprise has been how tame the campaigning seems to be, in particular on the local level. The night after she watched President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney debate, Doyenhart joined the audience at the Hollywood Theatre in downtown Montevideo as school board, mayoral and state legislative candidates debated.

"People were really friendly,'' said Doyenhart. "The candidates agreed on most things. It was good to see the local politics happening.''

Doyenhart, 23, is an English teacher at the Bi-National Institute in Montevideo, Uruguay. The Institute and her trip here are supported by The Partners of the Americas, a nonprofit, Washington, D.C.-based group. It receives U.S. State Department funding to promote people-to-people exchanges between the two countries.

Montevideo, Minn., and Montevideo, Uruguay, have a sister-city relationship dating to an exchange of flags in 1905.

Doyenhart has been teaching English for five years. She is on the verge of earning a degree in communications, with an emphasis on political communication. That makes her an interested observer of political dialogue, but her visit here has focused on improving her language skills rather than campaign strategies.

There's just not that much new to be seen. "Political campaigns have become homogenous around the world,'' said Doyenhart.

Political campaigns in Uruguay also feature attacks on the opponent while trying to celebrate the persona of the party's favored candidate. "Campaigns more and more are distancing from ideas and public policies and focusing on people,'' said Doyenhart.

She noted that the relatively mild presidential campaigning she witnessed here may reflect the fact that Minnesota is not considered a battleground state. There would be no safe haven in Uruguay. "During this time, a month away from elections it would be crazy, much more intense,'' she said.

Of course, that might also be because there is no avoiding the polls in Uruguay. Voting is mandatory. There's no doubt that the requirement plays a role in how candidates campaign in Uruguay, she said.

Unlike the U.S., Uruguayan voters do not cast ballots for individual candidates of different parties. A voter must select a slate of candidates from one party or the other, said Doyenhart.

She spent eight days visiting the Montevideo area and giving 16 different presentations to students on life in Uruguay. Also on her agenda are visits to classrooms at the University of Minnesota in Morris, St. Catherine's University in St. Paul, and at a Spanish language immersion school in the Twin Cities.

Due to her work at the Bi-National Institute, she was already familiar with the long-standing relationship between the two sister cities. She knew very well that a statute of South American liberator Jose Artigas stands over this North American town's Main Street, and that the city holds a celebrated collection of Uruguayan art.

Doyenhart said her visit to Montevideo showed her just how much rural Minnesota is like her home country. "Uruguay couldn't have wished for a better sister city. I realized that after visiting this place,'' Doyenhart told a small audience Wednesday at the Clean Up the River Environment office in Montevideo.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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