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History of Uruguay

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History of Uruguay


Foreign relations


The history of Uruguay.


  • Colonization 1
  • Struggle for independence 2
  • The "Guerra Grande" 1839-1852 3
  • Social and economic developments up to 1890 4
  • 20th century 5
    • Modernization 5.1
    • World War II 5.2
  • Economic distress 6
  • Tupamaros guerrillas 7
  • Dictatorship 8
  • Recent history 9
  • See also 10
  • References 11
  • Bibliography and further reading 12
    • Historiography 12.1
  • External links 13


Uruguayan Indians Drawing from Hendrick Ottsen journal, 1603.

The only documented inhabitants of Uruguay before European colonization of the area were the Charrua, a small tribe driven south by the Guaraní of Paraguay. Examples of ancient rock art have been found at Chamangá.

The Portuguese first explored the region of present-day Uruguay in 1512-1513.[1][2][3] A Spanish expedition led by Juan Diaz de Solis arrived in what is now Uruguay in 1516, but the people's fierce resistance to conquest, combined with the absence of gold and silver, limited settlement in the region during the 16th and 17th centuries. Uruguay became a zone of contention between the Spanish and the Portuguese empires. In 1603 the Spanish began to introduce cattle, which became a source of wealth in the region. The first permanent settlement on the territory of present-day Uruguay was founded by the Spanish in 1624 at Soriano on the Río Negro. In 1669-71, the Portuguese built a fort at Colonia del Sacramento. Spanish colonization increased as Spain sought to limit Portugal's expansion of Brazil's frontiers.

Montevideo was founded by the Spanish in the early 18th century as a military stronghold; its natural harbor soon developed into a commercial center competing with Buenos Aires. Uruguay's early 19th century history was shaped by ongoing fights between the British, Spanish, Portuguese, and colonial forces for dominance in the La Plata basin. In 1806 and 1807, the British (enemies of Spain in the Napoleonic Wars) launched the British invasions of the Río de la Plata. Buenos Aires was invaded in 1806, and then liberated by forces from Montevideo led by Santiago de Liniers. A new and stronger attack in 1807 aimed to Montevideo first, which was occupied by a 10,000-strong British force. The British forces were unable to invade Buenos Aires a second time, and Liniers demanded the liberation of Montevideo in the terms of capitulation. The British gave up their attacks over Spanish territories when the Peninsular War turned Britain and Spain into allies against Napoleon.

Struggle for independence

José Gervasio Artigas, as depicted by Juan Manuel Blanes.

In 1811, José Gervasio Artigas, who became Uruguay's national hero, launched a successful revolt against Spain, defeating Spanish forces on May 18 in the Battle of Las Piedras. In 1814 he formed the Liga Federal (Federal League) of which he was declared Protector.

The steady growth of influence and prestige of the Federal League frightened the Portuguese government, which did not want the League's republicanism to spread to the adjoining Portuguese colony of Brazil. The perceived threat was even greater because since 1808 the Portuguese court had been seated in Rio de Janeiro, having fled Europe in the wake of the occupation of Portugal by Napoleon's forces. In August 1816, forces from Brazil invaded the Eastern Province, with the intention of destroying the Protector and his revolution. The Portuguese forces, thanks to their numerical and material superiority, occupied Montevideo on January 20, 1817, and finally after struggling for three years in the countryside, defeated Artigas in the Battle of Tacuarembó. In 1821, the Eastern Province of the Río de la Plata (present-day Uruguay), was annexed by Brazil under the name of Província Cisplatina. In response, the Thirty-Three Orientals led by Juan Antonio Lavalleja declared independence on August 25, 1825 supported by the United Provinces of the Río de la Plata, present-day Argentina.

This led to the 500-day Cisplatine War. Neither side gained the upper hand, and in 1828 the Treaty of Montevideo, fostered by Britain, gave birth to Uruguay as an independent state. The nation's first constitution was adopted on July 18, 1830. For the remainder of the 19th century, under a series of elected and appointed presidents, Uruguay saw interventions by — and conflicts with — neighboring states, political and economic fluctuations, and large inflows of immigrants, mostly from Europe.

The "Guerra Grande" 1839-1852

Manuel Oribe.
Fructuoso Rivera.

The political scene in Uruguay became split between two parties, the conservative Blancos ("Whites") and the liberal Colorados ("Reds"). The Colorados were led by Fructuoso Rivera and represented the business interests of Montevideo; the Blancos were headed by Manuel Oribe, who looked after the agricultural interests of the countryside and promoted protectionism. The two groups took their names from the color of the armbands that they wore; initially, the Colorados wore blue, but when it faded in the sun, they replaced it with red. The Uruguayan parties became associated with warring political factions in neighbouring Argentina. The Colorados favored the exiled Argentinian liberal Unitarios, many of whom had taken refuge in Montevideo, while the Blanco president Manuel Oribe was a close friend of the Argentine governor Juan Manuel de Rosas. Oribe took Rosas's side when the French navy blockaded Buenos Aires in 1838. This led the Colorados and the exiled Unitarios to seek French backing against Oribe and on June 15, 1838, an army led by the Colorado leader Rivera overthrew the president, who fled to Argentina. The Argentinian Unitarios formed a government-in-exile in Montevideo and, with secret French encouragement, Rivera declared war on Rosas in 1839. The conflict would last thirteen years and become known as the "Guerra Grande" (the "Great War"). In 1840, an army of exiled Unitarios attempted to invade northern Argentina from Uruguay but they had little success. Two years later, an Argentinian army overran Uruguay on Oribe's behalf. They seized most of the country but failed to take the capital. The siege of Montevideo, which began in February 1843, would last nine years and capture the world's imagination. Alexandre Dumas, père compared it to a new Trojan War. The besieged Uruguayans called on resident foreigners for help and a French and an Italian legion were formed. The latter was led by the exiled Giuseppe Garibaldi, who was working as a mathematics teacher in Montevideo when the war broke out. Garibaldi was also made head of the Uruguayan navy. He was involved in many famous actions during the war, notably the Battle of San Antonio, which won him a worldwide reputation as a formidable guerrilla leader. The Argentinian blockade of Montevideo was ineffective as Rosas generally tried not to interfere with international shipping on the River Plate. But in 1845, when access to Paraguay was blocked, Britain and France allied against Rosas, seized his fleet and began a blockade of Buenos Aires, while Brazil joined in against Argentina. Rosas reached peace deals with Great Britain and France in 1849 and 1850 respectively. The French agreed to withdraw their legion if Rosas evacuated Argentinian troops from Uruguay. Oribe still maintained a loose siege of the capital. In 1851, the Argentinian caudillo Justo José de Urquiza turned against Rosas and signed a pact with the exiled Unitarios, the Uruguayan Colorados and Brazil against him. Urquiza crossed into Uruguay, defeated Oribe and lifted the siege of Montevideo. He then overthrew Rosas at the Battle of Caseros on February 3, 1852. With Rosas's defeat and exile, the "Guerra Grande" finally came to an end. Slavery was abolished in 1852.

Social and economic developments up to 1890

After the "Guerra Grande" there was a steady rise in the number of immigrants, above all from Italy and Spain. The number of immigrants had risen from 48% of the population in 1860 to 68% in 1868. In the 1870s, a further 100,000 Europeans arrived, so that by 1879 about 438,000 people were living in Uruguay, a quarter of them in Montevideo.[4]

In 1857, the first bank was opened; three years later a canal system was begun, the first telegraph line was set up, and rail links were built between the capital and the countryside. The Italians set up the Camera di Commercio Italiana di Montevideo (Italian Chamber of Commerce of Montevideo) which played a strategic role in trade with Italy and building up the Italian middle class in the city.

The economy saw a steep upswing after the "Guerra Grande", above all in livestock raising and export. Between 1860 and 1868, the number of sheep rose from three to seventeen million. The reason for this increase lay above all in the improved methods of husbandry introduced by European immigrants.

Montevideo became a major economic centre of the region. Thanks to its natural harbour, it became an entrepot for goods from Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. The towns of Paysandú and Salto, both on the River Uruguay, also experienced similar development.

20th century


José Batlle y Ordóñez, president from 1903 to 1907 and again from 1911 to 1915, set the pattern for Uruguay's modern political development. He established widespread political, social, and economic reforms such as a welfare program, government participation in many facets of the economy, and a plural executive. Some of these reforms were continued by his successors.

Around 1900 infant mortality rates (IMR) in Uruguay were among the world's lowest, indicating a very healthy population. By 1910, however, the IMR leveled off, while it continued to drop in other countries. The leading causes of death – diarrheal and respiratory diseases – did not decline, indicating a growing public health problem.[5]

During World War I, Uruguay sided against Germany and broke off diplomatic relations. It did not play a role in the combat operations.

In 1930, Uruguay was chosen as the site of the first Football World Cup. Although the field was much smaller than the competitions of today, the event provided national pride when the home team won the tournament over their neighbors Argentina.

World War II

Senor Montero de Bustamante, Uruguayan Chargé d'Affaires in the United Kingdom, speaking at a 1943 ceremony to name a Royal Air Force Spitfire fighter funded by Uruguayan donations.

On December 13, 1939 the Battle of the River Plate took place off the coast of Uruguay between British forces and the German "pocket battleship" Admiral Graf Spee. After a 72-hour layover in port of Montevideo the captain of the Graf Spee, believing he was hopelessly outnumbered by the British, ordered the ship to be scuttled. Most of the surviving crew of 1,150 were interned in Uruguay and Argentina and many remained after the war. A German Embassy official in Uruguay said his government has sent an official letter stating its position as to whether Germany claims ownership of the vessel. The German claim would be invalid because early in 1940 the Nazi government sold salvaging rights to the vessel to a Uruguayan businessman who was acting on behalf of the British government. However, any salvaging rights would have expired under Uruguayan law.[6] By 1940 Germany had threatened to break off diplomatic relations with Uruguay.[7] Germany protested that Uruguay gave safe harbor to the HMS Carnarvon Castle after it was attacked by a Nazi raider.[8] The ship was repaired with steel plate reportedly salvaged from the Graf Spee.[9]

On January 25, 1942 Uruguay broke diplomatic relations with Nazi Germany, as 21 American nations did the same (except for Argentina).[10] In 1945, it formally joined the Declaration by United Nations.

Economic distress

In the late 1950s, partly because of a decrease in demand in the world market for agricultural products, Uruguay began having economic problems, which included inflation, mass unemployment, and a steep drop in the standard of living for Uruguayan workers. This led to student militancy and labor unrest. In 2002 the price of the Uruguayan peso dropped drastically after Argentine citizens withdrew massive amounts of money from Uruguayans banks in result of bank deposits being frozen in Argentina.

Tupamaros guerrillas

An urban guerrilla movement known as the Tupamaros formed in the early 1960s, first robbing banks and distributing food and money in poor neighborhoods, then undertaking political kidnappings and attacks on security forces. Their efforts succeeded in first embarrassing, and then destabilizing, the government.

The US Office of Public Safety (OPS) began operating in Uruguay in 1965. The US OPS trained Uruguayan police and intelligence in policing and interrogration techniques. The Uruguayan Chief of Police Intelligence, Alejandro Otero, told a Brazilian newspaper in 1970 that the OPS, especially the head of the OPS in Uruguay, Dan Mitrione, had instructed the Uruguayan police how to torture suspects, especially with electrical implements.


President Juan María Bordaberry. President Bordaberry brought the Army in to combat the guerrillas of the Movement of National Liberation (MLN), which was led by Raúl Sendic. After defeating the Tupamaros, the military seized power in 1973. Torture was effectively used to gather information needed to break up the MLN and also against trade union officers, members of the Communist Party and even regular citizens. Torture practices extended until the end of Uruguayan dictatorship in 1985. Uruguay soon had the highest per capita percentage of political prisoners in the world. The MLN heads were isolated in improvised prisons and subjected to repeated acts of torture. Emigration from Uruguay rose drastically, as large numbers of Uruguayans looked for political asylum throughout the world.

Bordaberry was finally removed from his "president charge" in 1976. He was first succeeded by Alberto Demicheli. Subsequently a national council chosen by the military government elected Aparicio Méndez. In 1980, in order to legitimize their position, the armed forces proposed a change in the constitution, to be subjected to a popular vote by a referendum. The "No" votes—against the constitutional changes totalled 57.2% of the votes, showing the unpopularity of the de facto government, that was later accelerated by an economic crisis.

In 1981, General Gregorio Álvarez assumed the presidency. Massive protests against the dictatorship broke out in 1984. After a 24-hour general strike, talks began and the armed forces announced a plan for return to civilian rule. National elections were held later in 1984. Colorado Party leader Julio María Sanguinetti won the presidency and, following the brief interim Presidency of Rafael Addiego Bruno, served from 1985 to 1990. The first Sanguinetti administration implemented economic reforms and consolidated democratization following the country's years under military rule. Nonetheless, Sanguinetti never supported the human rights violations accusations, and his government did not prosecute the military officials who engaged in repression and torture against either the Tupamaros or the MLN. Instead, he opted for signing an amnesty treaty called in Spanish "Ley de Amnistia."

Around 180 Uruguayans are known to have been killed during the 12-year military rule from 1973-1985.[11] Most were killed in Argentina and other neighbouring countries, with only 36 of them having been killed in Uruguay.[12] A large number of those killed, were never found and the missing people have been referred to as the "disappeared", or "desaparecidos" in Spanish.

Recent history

Modern Montevideo

Sanguinetti's economic reforms, focusing on the attraction of foreign trade and capital, achieved some success and stabilized the economy. In order to promote national reconciliation and facilitate the return of democratic civilian rule, Sanguinetti secured public approval by plebiscite of a controversial general amnesty for military leaders accused of committing human rights violations under the military regime and sped the release of former guerrillas.

The National Party's Luis Alberto Lacalle won the 1989 presidential election and served from 1990 to 1995. President Lacalle executed major economic structural reforms and pursued further liberalization of trade regimes, including Uruguay's inclusion in the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR) in 1991. Despite economic growth during Lacalle's term, adjustment and privatization efforts provoked political opposition, and some reforms were overturned by referendum.

In the 1994 elections, former President Sanguinetti won a new term, which ran from 1995 until March 2000. As no single party had a majority in the General Assembly, the National Party joined with Sanguinetti's Colorado Party in a coalition government. The Sanguinetti government continued Uruguay's economic reforms and integration into MERCOSUR. Other important reforms were aimed at improving the electoral system, social security, education, and public safety. The economy grew steadily for most of Sanguinetti's term until low commodity prices and economic difficulties in its main export markets caused a recession in 1999, which continued into 2002.

The 1999 national elections were held under a new electoral system established by a 1996 constitutional amendment. Primaries in April decided single presidential candidates for each party, and national elections on October 31 determined representation in the legislature. As no presidential candidate received a majority in the October election, a runoff was held in November. In the runoff, Colorado Party candidate Broad Front candidate Tabaré Vázquez.

The Colorado and National Parties continued their legislative coalition, as neither party by itself won as many seats as the 40% of each house won by the Broad Front coalition. The formal coalition ended in November 2002, when the Blancos withdrew their ministers from the cabinet, although the Blancos continued to support the Colorados on most issues.

Batlle's five-year term was marked by economic recession and uncertainty, first with the 1999 devaluation of the Brazilian real, then with the outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease (aftosa) in Uruguay's key beef sector in 2001, and finally with the political and economic collapse of Argentina. Unemployment rose to close to twenty percent, real wages fell, the peso was devalued and the percentage of Uruguayans in poverty reached almost forty percent.

These worsening economic conditions played a part in turning public opinion against the free market economic policies adopted by the Batlle administration and its predecessors, leading to popular rejection through plebiscites of proposals for privatization of the state petroleum company in 2003 and of the state water company in 2004. In 2004 Uruguayans elected Tabaré Vázquez as president, while giving the Broad Front coalition a majority in both houses of parliament. The newly elected government, while pledging to continue payments on Uruguay's external debt, has also promised to undertake a crash jobs programs to attack the widespread problems of poverty and unemployment.

In 2009, former Tupamaro and agriculture minister José Mujica, was elected president, subsequently succeeding Vázquez on March 1, 2010.

See also


  1. ^ Bethell, Leslie (1984). The Cambridge History of Latin America, Volume 1, Colonial Latin America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 257. [3]
  2. ^ Newen Zeytung auss Presillg Landt (in ancient german and portuguese) Newen Zeytung auss Presillg Landt
  3. ^ Oskar Hermann Khristian Spate. The Spanish Lake. Canberra: ANU E Press, 2004. p. 37. [4]
  4. ^ Michael Goebel, "Gauchos, Gringos and Gallegos: The Assimilation of Italian and Spanish Immigrants in the Making of Modern Uruguay 1880–1930," Past & Present, Aug 2010, Vol. 208 Issue 1, pp 191-229
  5. ^ Anne-Emanuelle Birn, et al. "The infant mortality conundrum in Uruguay during the first half of the twentieth century: an analysis according to causes of death," Continuity & Change, 2010, Vol. 25 Issue 3, pp 435-461
  6. ^  
  7. ^ White, John W. (June 20, 1940). "Minister Ready to Ask for His Passports if Any Local Nazi Leaders Are Deported".  
  8. ^ White, John W. (December 10, 1940). "Nazis Protest Aid to Raider's Victim. Object in Uruguay to Giving Carnarvon Castle 72 Hours to Mend Battle Scars".  
  9. ^ "Search For Raider".  
  10. ^ Hulen, Bertram D. (January 22, 1942). "Actual Rupture Is Left to Congress of Each Signatory".  
  11. ^ "New find in Uruguay 'missing' dig.".  
  12. ^ "Uruguay dig finds 'disappeared'.".  

Bibliography and further reading

  • Albes, Edward. Montevideo, the city of roses (Pan American Union, 1922) online; 29pp well-illustrated
  • Finch, M. H. J. A Political Economy of Uruguay since 1870 (London, 1981)
  • Freixinho, Nilton. "International Relations in South America Nineteenth Century A Case Study: The Independence and Sovereignty of Uruguay," in Peacekeeping 1815 To Today (1995) pp 612–19; ISBN 0-662-62062-3 online
  • Goebel, Michael. "Gauchos, Gringos and Gallegos: The Assimilation of Italian and Spanish Immigrants in the Making of Modern Uruguay 1880–1930," Past and Present (August 2010) 208(1): 191-229 doi:10.1093/pastj/gtp037
  • Knarr, James C. Uruguay and the United States, 1903–1929: Diplomacy in the Progressive Era (2012) 224pp online review
  • Oddone, Juan Antonio. "The Formation of Modern Uruguay, c.1870–1930", in Leslie Bethell ed., The Cambridge History of Latin America, v, c.1870 to 1930 (Cambridge U.P., 1986),
  • Panizza, Francisco. "Late Institutionalisation and Early Modernisation: The Emergence of Uruguay’s Liberal Democratic Political Order", Journal of Latin American Studies (1997) v 29
  • Rock, David, and Fernando López-Alves. "State-Building and Political Systems in Nineteenth-Century Argentina and Uruguay", Past and Present, no. 167 (May 2000).
  • Viana H. História do Brasil: período colonial, monarquia e república (Melhoramentos, 1994)
  • Weinstein, Martin. Uruguay: The Politics of Failure (Greenwood, 1975)


  • Bresciano, Juan Andrés. "L'Immigrazione Italiana in Uruguay Nella Piu Recente Storiografia (1990-2005)." ["Italian immigration to Uruguay in the most recent historiography, 1990-2005"] Studi Emigrazione, June 2008, Vol. 45 Issue 170, pp 287–299
  • Rial, Juan, and Jaime Klaczko. "Historiography and Historical Studies in Uruguay." Latin American Research Review (1982) 17#3 pp. 229–250 in JSTOR

External links

  • Uruguayan Government Portal
  • U.S. State Department Background Note: Uruguay
  • The Economic History of Uruguay from EH.NET's Encyclopedia
  • Information about Uruguay
  • Uruguay History
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