Agustina Valls’ phone is ringing off the hook.
“It started as a trickle when the pandemic first hit Argentina, but now we’re getting over 20 calls a day,” she said from her office in Uruguay’s luxury beach resort of Punta Del Este.
Valls runs a thriving business guiding well-off Argentinians through the red tape of acquiring Uruguayan residence – a skill she learned arranging her own residency application after marrying a Uruguayan lawyer last October.
“The pandemic hit us like a sledgehammer – we are suddenly drowning in people wanting to come here,” said her husband Diego Torres.
About 15,000 to 20,000 Argentinians are estimated to have moved to Uruguay since the pandemic began in March – a number equivalent to about 0.6% of Uruguay’s population of 3.5 million.
And Uruguay is encouraging the flow. South America’s smallest nation not only lowered the minimum value of property foreigners must acquire to obtain tax residency from $1.7m to just $380,000 earlier this year, but also passed a new law offering arrivals a 10-year “tax holiday”.
Mariana, who asked to use a pseudonym, is typical of the Argentinians moving to Punta del Este.
“We already owned a summer apartment here and I came in search of new professional horizons last November,” said the 52-year-old marketing consultant now working in Uruguay’s buoyant film services industry.
“But when the pandemic struck in March, my husband and my two sons joined me permanently. My sons are taking their university courses online from here just as they would in Argentina.”
Once known as “the Switzerland of South America”, because of its high quality of life and its former banking secrecy laws, Uruguay has now become its New Zealand.
Its population is only 66% the size of the Kiwi state, but both countries have seen fewer than 2,000 cases and coronavirus deaths in double digits. Thanks to a large testing and contact tracing program, most of Uruguay’s schools, restaurants and sports clubs have remained open throughout the pandemic.
In stark contrast, Uruguay’s neighbors, Argentina and Brazil, currently rank third and fourth worldwide in the daily number of reported new cases, according to WHO figures.
With its wide beaches, luxurious mansions and expensive nightclubs, Punta del Este has for decades been the summer home of South American millionaires – and a smattering of wealthy Europeans.
“About 100 Europeans arrived on private jets as soon as the pandemic started in Europe and only started flying back home around June-July when the virus panic abated,” said local realtor Juan Carlos Sorhobigarat, whose houses list at up to $6.5m.
Argentinian surfer Jona Mela, 33, has ensconced himself at the summer home a friend lent him on Solanas beach. Mela, who usually runs surfing and yoga retreats in Bali, México, Brazil and El Salvador, is now hosting them in Uruguay.
“My friends in Argentina are constantly writing me to ask how they can come here,” Mela says. “Apart from a refuge from the pandemic, what they mostly want is peace.”
Uruguay has long offered a calm contrast to the deep social divisions and political animosity in its giant neighbouring countries. Uruguay ranks 21st in Transparency International’s “corruption perceptions index”. By contrast, Argentina and Brazil rank 66 and 106, respectively.
Uruguay’s income per capita is the highest in Latin America, at $16,230 a year in 2019, compared to only $11,200 in Argentina.
The country can also boast legal marijuana, legal abortion, gay marriage and – in contrast to the staunch Catholicism of its neighbours – a society so secularized that Christmas and Easter are referred to as ““Family Day” and “Tourism Week”.
Its efforts to contain the coronavirus were helped by a relatively small population, but it also extensive public health coverage and almost 100% access to running water.
Jaime Miller heads Uruguay XXI, a government agency in charge of attracting foreign investment. “Why we’re so successful against the pandemic? Because the government called in the scientists and respected their advice. People saw that and in turn respected the government’s recommendations to wear masks and socially distance without it ever having to be mandated,” he said.
Warming to his theme, he continued: “We have a solid democracy with economic rules that don’t change with every new president, unrestricted press freedom, no corruption, a government-run fast internet across the whole country, powered by 100% renewable energy, a solid public health system, transparency, respect for the institutions and a strong respect for science.”
It is a boast that in the mouth of an official from many other countries would probably sound presumptuous. But in the case of Uruguay, it may well be true.