We're always looking for ways to make better. Have an idea? See something that needs fixing? Let us know!

Uruguay: Historical Setting
Country Study > Chapter 1 > Historical Setting


When Spaniards discovered the territory of present-day Uruguay in 1516, they found only a rolling prairie populated by groups of Indians living in primitive conditions. When confronted by the Spaniards, the Indians fiercely defended their freedom and their independent way of life. their continued ferocious resistance to Spanish conquest, combined with the absence of gold and silver, discouraged settlement in this region during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Colonization by Spain began to increase, however, when Portugal showed an interest in expanding Brazil's frontiers to the Río de la Plata Estuary in the late seventeenth century, the eastern side, or bank, so called because the territory lies to the east of the Río Uruguay, which forms the border with Argentina and flows into the Río de la Plata.

The conquistadors imported cattle, which were well suited to the region, with its abundant pastureland, temperate climate, and ample water supply. Cattle soon became the main source ofwealth and consequently the main attraction of the region, and the territory was opened up by hardy pioneers and gauchos, or cowboys, whose wide-ranging way of life contributed in no small part to the spirit of independence that has long characterized Uruguay. Montevideo was founded by the Spanish in the early eighteenth century as a military stronghold. The Spanish fleet used its natural harbor, which soon developed into a commercial center competing with Buenos Aires, the Argentine capital established on the opposite shore of the Río de la Plata.

The move to independence began, as elsewhere in Latin America, in the early nineteenth century. Uruguay's revolt against Spain was initiated in 1811 by José Gervasio Artigas, a gaucho chieftain who became a hero of the independence movement. Artigas is known to Uruguayans as the father of Uruguayan independence, although his attempt to gain autonomy for the country within the boundaries of a regional federation was unsuccessful. Independence was not finally and formally achieved until 1828, following a war between Brazil and Uruguayan patriots supported by Argentina. British diplomatic mediation ended the conflict and resulted in the recognition of the OrientalRepublic of Uruguay (República Oriental del Uruguay) as an independent state. Nevertheless, civil wars, invasions, and foreign intervention continued to disrupt the nation's development until the end of the nineteenth century.

The two political parties that have dominated Uruguayan political life since independence were born in these early years of instability, although at that time they were little more than feuding bands of gauchos. The issue that provoked the initial major confrontation was federalism versus unitary rule. In 1838 the federalist sympathies of General Manuel Oribe (president, 1835-38) led to a revolt by the forces of General José Fructoso Rivera (president, 1830-35), who again became president following the defeat of Oribe and his followers. Oribe's forces, supported by merchants, landowners, and the high clergy, became known as Blancos in reference to the white (blanco) hatbands they wore to distinguish their own men from the enemy on the field of battle. Rivera's forces, representing more liberal urban elements, were distinguished by red (colorado) hatbands and thus were designated Colorados. The political linesdrawn in the 1830s evolved into two rival parties: the Colorado Party (Partido Colorado), which identified itself as the defender of Uruguayan sovereignty and as the champion of the common man and liberalism, and the National Party (Partido Nacional, usually referred to as the Blancos), which stood for order and conservatism and declared itself protector of the faith.

During the last three decades of the nineteenth century, a period that included fifteen years of military rule, there were frequent confrontations and clashes between the Colorados and the Blancos and among competing rival factions of the Colorados. A growing gulf between the capital city and the interior contributed to a solidification of the previously somewhat amorphous ideologies of the two parties as the Colorados recruited urban immigrant groups, especially laborers, and the Blancos represented more conservative rural elements.

Political stability came about in the first two decades of the twentieth century largely through the efforts of the dominant figure in the Colorado Party. José Batlle y Ordóñez (president, 1903-07, 1911-15) brilliantly promoted the social,economic, and political modernization of the country until his death in 1929, guiding a social transformation that reordered virtually every aspect of national life. His programs included the establishment of a comprehensive social welfare program, the encouragement of domestic industry, the improvement of working conditions, the expansion of education, and the separation of church and state.

Batlle y Ordóñez's Colorado successors did not uniformly or consistently share his commitment to economic and social reform, but progress toward political, social, and economic modernization nevertheless continued. Between 1946 and 1956, Luis Batlle Berres (president, 1947-51), a nephew of Batlle y Ordóñez, was the leading political figure. Espousing neo-Batllism, he attempted to further industrialize the economy, develop its agricultural sector, and expand the state apparatus, as well as to renew social progress. But the process came to a halt in the mid-1950s as a result of economic difficulties and ended with the triumph of the National Party (the Blancos) in 1958, after more thanninety years of Colorado government.

During the eight Blanco administrations (1958-67), instruments of state-directed economic policy were dismantled, relations with the International Monetary Fundwas formed.

In 1967 the Colorados regained power, but President Jorge Pacheco Areco (1967-72) enforced a limited state of siege throughout most of his tenure. He applied a price- and wagefreeze policy to fight inflation, banned leftist groups, and called in the military to repress the Tupamaros, whose acts of urban terrorism posed a major national security threat. In 1972 Pacheco's successor, President Juan María Bordaberry Arocena (1972-76), supported by the military, declared a state of "internal war," closed the General Assembly, persecuted theopposition, banned unions and leftist parties, and curtailed civil liberties. The military dictatorship that he instituted also implemented a neoliberal, monetarist, economic policy that sought to reverse years of capital flight and economic stagnation by increasing exports and controlling inflation. Although it scored some economic successes, the military suffered a defeat in 1980 after submitting an authoritarian constitution to a plebiscite. From then on, civil political leaders returned to the political scene, and in 1984 the majority of the political parties and the military agreed to call for elections in November 1985, thus allowing for a transition to democracy.

Data as of December 1990

Last Updated: December 1990

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Uruguay was first published in 1990. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

Uruguay Main Page Country Studies Main Page

Section 6 of 167


Click any image to enlarge.

National Flag

($U) Uruguayan New Peso (UYU)
Convert to Any Currency


Locator Map