Uruguay was a part of the colonial empire of Spain in the Americas until the early 1800s. After a brief period of Portuguese rule, Uruguay became an independent nation in 1828. Its Spanish past influences many aspects of Uruguayan culture. Spanish is the official language of Uruguay. The country’s formal name in Spanish is República Oriental del Uruguay.

A small country about the size of the state of Oklahoma, Uruguay is heavily urbanized. More than 90 percent of all Uruguayans live in urban areas, and more than 40 percent live in the capital city. Most of Uruguay’s people are of European descent.

Tourism plays a major role in Uruguay’s economy. The country’s picturesque beaches attract visitors from all over the world. Agriculture also is an important economic activity, especially the raising of livestock.

Land and Resources

The Uruguay River, which forms the country’s western border, joins the Paraná River at the Atlantic Ocean, forming an estuary between Uruguay and its neighbor to the south, Argentina. This giant estuary, called the Río de la Plata (Spanish for “Silver River”), is 200 km (120 mi) wide at its mouth. The Paraná-Uruguay drainage system is the largest in South America after that of the Amazon River. The Río Negro is the principal river of the country’s interior, although only its lower portion is deep enough for access by ship.


Natural Resources

Hydroelectricity from the nation’s rivers is responsible for about 75 percent of Uruguay’s energy production. The principal hydroelectric power plant is Salto Grande on the Uruguay River. Two other plants are in operation on the Río Negro, and another, on the Brazilian border, was constructed during the 1980s. The electric power industry is under the control of the government. The country also imports natural gas from neighboring Argentina via a pipeline completed in the late 1990s.

Plants and Animals

Flowering plants in Uruguay include myrtle, mimosa, rosemary, and scarlet-flowered ceiba. Indigenous hardwood trees include urunday, lapacho, carob, quebracho, jacaranda, willow, and acacia. Palms flourish in the southeast and in the valleys. In the coastal area, pine and eucalyptus trees have been planted to prevent erosion. Poplar, cypress, oak, cedar, mulberry, and magnolia trees are also found around the country.

Common mammals found in Uruguay include otter, wild hog, fox, wildcat, armadillo, anteater, and various rodents. Such mammals as the puma, rhea (American ostrich), tapir, and seal were relatively abundant when the Spanish first visited Uruguay in the 16th century. Today they are scarce.

Waterfowl include the swan, stork, crane, white heron, and duck. Other birds are the vulture, burrowing owl, partridge, quail, wild turkey, parakeet, lapwing, cardinal, and hummingbird. The principal reptiles are lizards, tortoises, rattlesnakes, and a viper called the víbora de la cruz. Caimans thrive in the upper waters of the Uruguay River. There are many species of large spiders.


Uruguay’s population is 3,494,382 (2009 estimate). The average population density is 20 persons per sq km (52 per sq mi). The population is concentrated near the Atlantic coast, and only 7 percent of the population is rural. Migration from farms to cities and the resulting crowded urban conditions have been serious social and economic problems.

Principal Cities

Religion and Language


Culture and Art


Important writers of the 20th century were essayist José Enrique Rodó; novelists and short-story writers Juan Carlos Onetti, Carlos Martínez Moreno, and Mario Benedetti; and poet Julio Herrera y Reissig. Other significant Uruguayan authors of the century include Carlos Reyles, a writer of realistic psychological novels; Horacio Quiroga, one of Latin America’s finest short-story writers; Julio Herrera y Reissig, a complex symbolist poet; and Alberto Zum Felde, a historian and literary critic. Uruguay has also produced many talented women writers, including Delmira Agustini, Juana de Ibarbourou, Sara Bollo, Éster de Cáceres, Sara de Ibáñez, and Orfila Bardesio. Florencio Sánchez, Latin America’s best-known dramatist, wrote realistic plays of national problems at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century. See Latin American Literature.



Cultural Institutions

The principal museums include the National Historical Museum, the National Museum of Fine Arts, and the Museum of Natural History, all in Montevideo. The Museo del Indo y del Gaucho, in Tacuarembó, has collections of Native American and gaucho art, weapons, and implements.

Sports and Holidays

Other popular sports in Uruguay are polo-introduced by the British-tennis, boxing, golf, water sports of all kinds, and automobile and boat racing. Because of the mild climate, outdoor sports are popular year-round.

An annual festival known as Carnival Week, typically held in February, draws huge crowds to Montevideo for parades, masquerades, music, and dancing. This festival’s biggest celebrations take place on the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. Another important holiday, La Semana Criolla, is observed during the week before Easter and features rodeos and other traditional activities. Uruguay’s Independence Day is celebrated on August 25.


Uruguay has a large middle class that developed during the 20th century. A primary factor in this transformation was the large number of white-collar jobs generated by the government. These jobs afforded many people slow but steady upward social mobility, but they also created a considerable income gap between the urban and rural populations.

Agriculture, specifically raising animals such as sheep and cattle, is still of primary importance to the economy, although manufacturing is growing in significance. Most businesses are privately owned, but the government operates the state railways, electrical power and telephones, and the official broadcasting service. In 2007 budget figures showed $6.2 billion in revenue and $6.2 billion in expenditures.


Only 8 percent of the land is devoted to crops, although the area under cultivation is increasing. The most important crops are cereal grains, including wheat, corn, rice, oats, barley, and rye. Crops used to produce oils, such as sunflower seeds, linseed (flaxseed), and peanuts, make up the second most important group of crops. Other profitable products are sugarcane, sugar beets, and citrus fruits.

Forestry and Fishing

Manufacturing and Mining

Mineral production in Uruguay is comparatively unimportant to the economy. The principal mining activity is the quarrying of sand and clay. There is also some gold mining.

Currency, Banking, and Trade

Foreign trade plays an important role in the economy of Uruguay. In 2007 exports were valued at $4.5 billion and imports at $5.6 billion. The country’s main trading partners are Argentina, Brazil, and the United States. Textiles, meats, fish, rice, and hides are the most important exports. Imports include raw materials for manufacturing, fuel and lubricants, food products, plastics, chemicals, prescription medicines, construction materials, machinery, and cars and trucks.

Uruguay is a founding member of several trade groups, including the Latin American Integration Association (LAIA) and the Southern Cone Common Market (known by its Spanish acronym, Mercosur). The LAIA, which encompasses all of the countries in South America except Suriname, Guyana, and French Guiana, works toward increasing regional integration and trade. Mercosur, which also includes Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay and is headquartered in Montevideo, focuses on establishing duty-free trade between members.



In 1973 the National Congress was dissolved after a military takeover. The government was ruled by a national security council composed primarily of high-ranking military officers. All local governments were dissolved and replaced with officials appointed by the central government. This system lasted until general elections were held in 1984, paving the way for a return to civilian rule the following year.



Political Parties

During most of the 19th century the two parties were little more than the personal followings of their founders and of their successors. As European immigrants brought more radical ideas to Uruguay, the Colorado Party became associated with the more liberal urban population while the Blanco Party typified the conservative and traditionalist elements of the rural population.

By the 1930s there were few significant differences between the two parties, however. Both Colorados and Blancos had divided into several factions, and the political divisions among these factions were far more important than any division between the parties themselves. By the 1990s both the Colorados and the Blancos were considered politically conservative.

The Communist Party became legal in Uruguay in 1985. A leftist coalition, known as the Broad Front (or Progressive Encounter), grew in popularity in the 1990s. The Broad Front included the Communist and Socialist parties and replaced the Colorados as the party of the left. In 1999 the Broad Front won the most seats of any party in the National Congress. In 2004 the party captured the presidency, signaling the end of the 180-year dominance of the two original parties.

Local Government


Health and Welfare



International Rivalry During the Colonial Period

A crisis occurred in the colony after French emperor Napoleon imprisoned Spanish king Ferdinand VII and invaded Spain in 1808. After French troops captured the last royalist stronghold in Spain in 1810, a group of leading citizens in Buenos Aires rejected the authority of the viceroy and established a caretaker government to rule over the colony in the name of King Ferdinand. In reality, many of the leaders of the new government were determined to make the colony independent of Spanish rule. Buenos Aires was unable to establish its influence over several outlying areas, including Uruguay, where the Spanish viceroy had moved his court. In 1810 and 1811, Uruguayan revolutionaries, led by General José Gervasio Artigas, joined in the revolt against Spain. The Spanish governor was driven from Montevideo in 1814.

In 1816 the Portuguese in Brazil-perceiving that the newly emancipated territory, known as the Banda Oriental del Uruguay (Eastern Shore of Uruguay), was weak after its struggle with Spain-invaded the territory, ostensibly to restore order. The Portuguese conquest was completed in 1821, when the Banda Oriental was annexed to Brazil. However, the so-called Immortal 33, a group of revolutionaries led by Juan Antonio Lavalleja, began fighting the Brazilians and driving them from the countryside. In 1825 representatives from the Banda Oriental’s provincial legislature declared the territory’s independence. Argentina intervened on Uruguay’s behalf, and war broke out between Brazil and Argentina. British mediation brought about a peace treaty, by which both Brazil and Argentina guaranteed Uruguay’s independence. As a result, the República Oriental del Uruguay was established in 1828; its first constitution was adopted in 1830.

However, Uruguay has never been entirely free of the influence of its neighbors. During much of the 19th century, the warring factional leaders ( caudillos) appealed to either Argentina or Brazil for help against each other, and civil war was frequent until 1872. The followers of José Fructuoso Rivera, the country’s first president (1830–1835 and 1839–1845), appealed to Brazil for support. The followers of Manuel Oribe, the country’s second president (1835–1838), turned to Argentina. Uruguay’s traditional political parties, the Blancos and the Colorados, emerged from these two factions.

Independence and Civil War

Between 1865 and 1870 Uruguay was allied with Brazil and Argentina in a war against Paraguay. In the War of the Triple Alliance (1865–1870), Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay fought Paraguay’s attempts to establish its influence in Uruguay. Although the allies won the war, both sides suffered heavy losses. Bitter fighting continued between the Blancos and the Colorados until 1872, when they agreed to divide the country into spheres of influence as a first step toward peaceful coexistence. Foreign interventions tapered off after the War of the Triple Alliance, and the improved political conditions, which developed as the result of the agreement between the parties, led to social and economic progress. The last decades of the 19th century were years of relative peace.

The era of peace was interrupted by the murder of President Juan Idiarte Borda of the Colorado Party in 1897. After Idiarte’s assassination, the Blancos and the Colorados concluded another territorial agreement. This agreement preserved Blanco strength within only a limited area. European immigration increased after 1880 as settlers were attracted by the prospects of peace and fertile soil. Most of these immigrants adopted Colorado ideas. The election of José Batlle y Ordóñez to the presidency in 1903 caused the Blancos to fear the agreement would be discarded because the Colorado Party now held a large majority of votes. Another civil war broke out, and it ended with the defeat of the Blancos. The interparty agreement was ended by the new government. The Blancos were granted amnesty, however.

Early-20th-Century Domestic and Foreign Issues

Batlle’s moderately socialist program included the establishment of many government-owned businesses, some of which were monopolies. His program also promoted retirement and medical-aid programs; free education; extensive labor legislation; and public health measures. Much of this program was put into effect by Batlle’s successors. Batlle never succeeded in establishing a policy of agrarian reform because rural landowners had sufficient power in the legislature to block such reforms.

In 1917, during World War I, Uruguay broke off relations with Germany and leased German ships, seized in the harbor of Montevideo, to the United States. In that year a new constitution, dividing the executive authority between the president and the national administrative council and providing for the separation of church and state, was promulgated. Uruguay joined the League of Nations in 1920.

In 1933 President Gabriel Terra, who had taken office in 1931, demanded that the Uruguayan constitution be amended to allow the president wider powers. His demands brought threats of revolution, and he thereupon established a dictatorship with the cooperation of Luis Alberto de Herrera, the Blanco Party leader. The two men ruled together in a mild dictatorship in which all government positions and spoils were divided among their followers. A new constitution adopted in 1934 made this agreement law and curtailed individual liberties.

General Alfredo Baldomir, the leading Colorado, began the restoration of democratic government. He was elected president in 1938. A new constitution adopted in 1942 provided for a single president, no special status for either party, and the full restoration of liberties. During World War II (1939–1945), Uruguay severed diplomatic, financial, and economic relations with the Axis powers. In 1945 the country joined the United Nations (UN).

Postwar Decade

In retaliation against the Uruguayan policy of granting asylum to Argentine political refugees, Argentine dictator Juan Perón imposed travel and trade restrictions on Uruguay. The government, in protest, severed diplomatic relations with Argentina in 1953.

Meanwhile, declining wool prices and curtailed meat exports had led to increasing unemployment and inflation. To ease the economic situation, Uruguay entered into trade agreements during 1956 with the People’s Republic of China and other Communist countries. The economy continued to deteriorate, however.

In 1958, after 93 years of Colorado government, an overwhelming majority elected the Blancos to power, partly as a reaction to the prolonged economic recession. The new government initiated economic reforms; it was faced, however, with leftist agitation and consequent labor unrest, and it charged that Uruguay was being made a base of international communism.

Political Deterioration

Trying to halt Uruguay’s rampant inflation, Pacheco immediately instituted wage and price controls. Labor disputes erupted, and Pacheco declared a state of emergency in June 1968 and again in June 1969. During these states of emergency, constitutional guarantees were suspended, student demonstrators were shot, hundreds of suspected dissidents were imprisoned, and the police began to use torture during interrogations.

A group of student revolutionaries, the Tupamaros (a name taken from Tupac Amarú, the last emperor of the Inca people), responded with an urban guerrilla campaign. They kidnapped and later released a number of foreign diplomats and businessmen, robbed several banks, freed political prisoners from the jails, and assassinated a number of police officials. From June 1968 until March 1969, Uruguay remained under modified martial law. In June 1969 a fact-finding visit by Nelson Rockefeller, who was then governor of New York State, was met by violent demonstrations. Pacheco imposed a modified state of siege.

In the 1971 elections the Colorado candidate, Juan María Bordaberry, and the Blanco candidate were virtually tied. In 1972 the Electoral Court proclaimed Bordaberry president and he began a five-year term. Meanwhile, violence by the Tupamaros had escalated, and kidnappings and killings became common. In April 1972 Congress declared a state of internal war and suspended constitutional guarantees; some 35,000 police and military searched for guerrilla hideouts. The state of war was lifted in July, but constitutional guarantees were further suspended until 1973. Bordaberry soon came under pressure both from the Blancos and from dissident factions of his own party. Labor groups reacted to the government’s stringent economic and social policies with strikes throughout 1972. Inflation soared, and the currency was devalued ten times in that year.

Military Takeover

This arrangement led to a conflict with Congress. Bordaberry dissolved the legislature, replacing it with a 25-member appointed Council of State dominated by the military. The Communist-led National Labor Confederation (CNT) responded with a general strike, which was broken by the government after violent confrontations. The unions lost their independence and the CNT was banned.

In the following years the military extended its control to most of the country’s institutions. In 1976 Bordaberry canceled elections scheduled for that year, but the military deposed him and named a new national council. Aparicio Méndez, a former minister of public health, was selected president for a five-year term.

The military regime maintained intense political repression during its period of control. More than 1 in 1,000 Uruguayans were held as political prisoners and there was widespread torture. In 1980 the regime attempted to legitimize itself by obtaining approval for a new constitution that would give the armed forces a permanent supervisory role over the government. That constitution was overwhelmingly rejected in a popular referendum. In 1981 General Gregorio Alvarez was installed as president for a term expiring in 1985.

Alvarez restored political rights to some politicians. However, all the left-wing parties and the most popular leaders of the traditional parties remained banned. During the next three years popular opposition to the regime, intensified by an economic downturn, became increasingly open. This opposition culminated in a demonstration by 400,000 Uruguayans in Montevideo in late 1983 and a general strike in early 1984.

Civilian Government

Presidential elections were held in late 1984, with the armed forces exercising veto power over the choice of nominees. The winner was a moderate, Julio María Sanguinetti of the Colorado Party. An amnesty covering all members of the military accused of human rights violations from 1973 to 1985 was granted in 1986 and upheld by referendum in 1989. Controversy over these crimes and the subsequent amnesty continues to influence the country’s politics.

In 1989 Luis Alberto Lacalle of the Blancos was elected president. Economic stagnation and rising inflation soon prompted him to implement an austerity program and to announce plans to privatize state-run companies. In protest, labor leaders called a series of general strikes. Former president Julio María Sanguinetti, a candidate for the Colorado Party, won the 1994 presidential election. In legislative elections the Broad Front, a leftist coalition that included Communists, Socialists, and former Tupamaro guerrillas, for the first time able to campaign legally and openly, made significant inroads against the more traditional Blanco and Colorado parties.

Recent Events

Batlle’s presidency oversaw one of the worst economic crises in Uruguay’s history. During his tenure nearly a third of Uruguayans were at the poverty level and unemployment ranged from 13 to 20 percent. Tens of thousands of young people were forced to emigrate to seek work.

In the presidential elections of October 2004, the coalition led by candidate Tabaré Vázquez captured about 51 percent of the vote, avoiding a runoff. The election brought the left to power for the first time in Uruguay’s history. The Blanco Party candidate won more than 30 percent of the vote but the candidate of the Colorado Party won only 10 percent. The Popular Participation Movement, founded by former Tupamaros, many of whom had been jailed and tortured or forced into exile during the military dictatorship, won more votes than any other party in the Broad Front coalition. The Broad Front coalition also captured both houses of the Congress.

The victory of the left in Uruguay appeared to confirm a growing trend in Latin America in which voters have chosen leftists or populists over moderates and conservatives. Since 1998, the left has won presidential elections in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. Like the coalition in Uruguay, all have campaigned on platforms that rejected the free-market policies of the International Monetary Fund, which have been supported by various United States administrations. See also Globalization.

Several of the new leftist governments, such as Argentina and Chile, have also initiated investigations of past human rights violations carried out under Operation Condor in the 1970s and 1980s. Operation Condor was a joint effort of several right-wing regimes in the hemisphere that resulted in the disappearance and torture of tens of thousands of left-wing activists. With the election of Vázquez, Uruguay also made prosecution of human rights violations a top priority. In November 2006 a Uruguayan judge issued arrest warrants for former president Bordaberry and a top aide in the murders of two legislators and two suspected Tupamaros guerrillas.

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