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Big-time welcome for Montevideo, Minn., mayor in sister city

Montevideo Mayor Debra Lee Fader visits the famous Love Fountain on Montevideo, Uruguay’s main avenue, 18 de Julio. Submitted

MONTEVIDEO — Jose Mujica has six bullet wounds and the memory of 14 years in prison to tell the story of his path to public office.

Ana Olivera spent 11 years in exile overseas before she was able to return home and run for office.

Mujica, the president of Uruguay, and Olivera, the mayor of its capital city, were among the Uruguayan office holders who rolled out the red carpet for Debra Lee Fader, mayor of Montevideo, Minn.

“It was just a trip of a lifetime,’’ said Fader. She quickly added that she was treated like royalty during her 10-day stay in December in the South American country.

She was a featured guest on one of the country’s largest radio stations. Her photo and the story of her visit made the pages of the country’s largest newspapers, as well as those in some neighboring South American countries.

Why the attention for a small-town mayor whose path to office came without any of the battle scars known by her hosts?

Her Uruguayan hosts value the sister-city relationship between the two Montevideos, and the opportunities for cultural, trade and scientific exchanges it offers.

“These people take it very seriously and we need to give back 100 percent to them,’’ said Fader.

Her visit to Uruguay showed her just how much this area can benefit by doing so. “There’s so much we can do out here to be a gateway to cultural and educational exchanges,’’ she said.

Her visit to Uruguay was the first by a mayor from Montevideo, Minn., since the late Jack Mills made trips in 1972 and 1976. The sister-city relationship dates to an exchange of flags in 1905.

In 1949, school children in Montevideo, Uruguay, collected their pennies and had an 11-foot statue of Jose Artigas cast in bronze and shipped more than 5,000 miles to Minnesota. The statue towers over Main Street, Montevideo, where the community’s Fiesta Days’ summer celebration of continues to celebrate the long-standing relationship.

Montevideo is currently home of one of the largest collections of Uruguayan art and memorabilia in the United States.  

The Washington, D.C.-based Partners of the Americas helped sponsor Fader’s trip. The work that made it possible began during the Fiesta Days celebration in June 2011. Fader welcomed the visiting counsel of Uruguay to her city by singing the Uruguayan national anthem in Spanish. Dr. Nury Bauzan responded by arranging for an official invitation from Mayor Olivera.

Television and newspaper reporters were on hand last month when Olivera awarded Fader the distinction of being an “illustrious visitor.’’ Media stories followed about the rural Minnesota community of fewer than 6,000 people and its unique relationship with a metropolitan area of nearly 2 million people.  

Fader has personal photos to show of her visit with the country’s president and his wife, Lucia Topolansky. President Mujica is known as the “poorest president in the world’’ for donating 90 percent of his salary to charity. He lives simply and promotes a sustainable model for development.

His bullet wounds — and time in prison — are the legacy of being a guerilla fighter in opposition to the military regime that once ruled Uruguay.

The Uruguay that Fader visited last month is very much a model of democracy; and it’s one that can offer instruction to our own, she said. She was impressed by how well the government functions despite a spectrum of political parties and apparent differences far greater than seen here.

A political conservative, Fader also said it was eye-opening for her to see how successfully Uruguay manages a national health care system and offers free education through college to all of its citizens.

She found the capital city to be as majestic and beautiful as it is well-ordered and safe.

She stayed with host families, and kept a busy schedule of meetings, interviews and tours. She made it to Punta del Este — lauded as the Riviera of South America — but had time enough only to step on the beach and have her photo taken.

She attended an event celebrating the works of Uruguayan photographer Federico Estol. She handed out copies of his book “Hello Montevideo’’ produced during his visit here in 2010.

Newly re-elected as mayor, Fader said she will be placing new emphasis on promoting the relationship between the two Montevideos. She wants to introduce the best of what she saw in Uruguay, while keeping open the doors for Uruguayans who appreciate what they find in Minnesota. More than 60 Uruguayans — many of them students in the Youth Ambassadors program — have visited Montevideo, Minn., in the last three years.

The next Uruguayan visitor to Montevideo can expect to find a welcome akin to what Fader found. “We tried our best to roll out the red carpet for them,’’ she said of previous visits. “I tell you what, the next time they come it will be even better.’’

Tom Cherveny

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

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