Uruguay


Map of Uruguay

Uruguay is a small South American country that lies between Argentina and Brazil. The country Area is 187,000 sq. km. or roughly 73.000 sq. mi., and population a bit more than 3 million people (3,374,074).

Considering that about 1 in 2000 persons in the world are from Uruguay, I am typically the first Uruguayan that most people meet. Therefore, I am asked many questions about Uruguay's place in the world and cultural background. The complete version of my speech is more or less the contents of this page. This is an original work of Facundo Mémoli that I have slightly updated over time.

  1. History
  2. Political Outlook
  3. People
  4. Culture
  5. Environment

Uruguay is worth a visit. The premiere beach resort in South America is Punta del Este. This is a fancy and very expensive place. There are many other impressive beaches in Uruguay that are more affordable and less developed. Montevideo, the capital city is a lively and quite charming city. About 2 million people live in the metropolitan area. What I like most about Montevideo are the sunsets in Fall and Spring.

History

The only inhabitants of Uruguay before European colonization of the area were the Charrúa Indians, a small tribe driven south by the Guaraní Indians of Paraguay. The Spanish discovered the territory of present-day Uruguay in 1516, but the Indians' fierce resistance to conquest, combined with the absence of gold and silver, limited settlement in the region during the 16th and 17th centuries. The Spanish introduced cattle, which became a source of wealth in the region. 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 Argentina's capital, 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 Argentina Brazil-Uruguay region. In 1811, José Gervasio Artigas, who became the Uruguay's hero, launched a successful revolt against Spain. In 1821, the Provincia Oriental del Rio de la Plata, present-day Uruguay, was annexed to Brazil by Portugal. The Provincia declared independence from Brazil in August 25, 1825 (after numerous revolts in 1821, 1823, and 1825) but decided to adhere to a regional federation with Argentina.

The regional federation defeated Brazil after 3-year fight. The 1828 Treaty of Montevideo, fostered by the United Kingdom, gave birth to Uruguay as an independent state. The nation's first constitution was adopted in 1830. The remainder of the 19th century under a series of elected and appointed presidents saw interventions by -and conflicts with- neighboring states, political and economic fluctuations, and large inflows of immigrants, mostly from Europe. Jose Batlle y Ordoñez, 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.

By 1966, economic, political, and social difficulties led to constitutional amendments, and a new constitution was adopted in 1967. In 1973, amid increasing economic and political turmoil, the armed forces closed the Congress and established a civilian military regime. A new constitution drafted by the military was rejected in a November 1980 plebiscite. Following the plebiscite, the armed forces announced a plan for return to civilian rule. Elections were held in 1984, which marked the uruguayan return to democratic life.

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Political Outlook

Three parties dominate political life in Uruguay, Colorado, Nacional, and Frente Amplio. Colorado and Nacional party share the right wing of the political spectrum with imperceptible differences for the outside observer, Colorado party holds a more conservative attitude in some issues. Frente Amplio (Broad Front) is a broad coalition of left wing forces, its average position is similar to that of european socialdemocracies. Political life is still affected by the stigma of José Batlle y Ordoñez who in the first decades of the century laid the basis of a socialist welfare state. A strong welfare system as well as numerous state owned companies date back to this time. State owned companies and governement expenditure account for more that 60% of the nation's GDP. Between 1984 and 2004 the Nacional party and the Colorado party alternated in government.

In national elections held in 1984; Colorado Party leader Julio Maria Sanguinetti won the presidency and served from 1985 to 1990. The first Sanguinetti administration implemented economic reforms and consolidated democratization following the country's years under military rule. 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 Cone 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 has 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 Jorge Batlle, aided by the support of the National Party, defeated Frente Amplio candidate Tabare Vazquez.

Batlle's 5-year term began on March 1, 2000. The Colorado and National Parties continued their legislative coalition, as neither party by itself won as many seats as to control the congress. President Batlle's priorities included promoting economic growth, increasing international trade, attracting foreign investment, reducing the size of government, and resolving issues related to Uruguayans who disappeared during the military government. Batlle's government accomplished little of these goals. In 2002 a bank run wiped out more than half of the country's financial system setting the stage for a severe economic crisis. As a result, the national output shrank by more than 25% and the poverty rate more than doubled.

By the time of the 2004 elections, the approval ratings of the Colorado and Blanco party were at all time lows. In what is regarded as a historical milestone, Frente Amplio's candidate Tabare Vazquez was elected president by a wide margin. Frente Amplio also made significant gains in congress, senate, and local governments. Vazquez's ambitious agenda included reforming social security, education and health care, as well as diversification of the economic base and trade partners. As Vazquez's term nears completion no major reforms have been implemented. Nonetheless, growth has averaged at an impressive 9% per year, and poverty indicators show a healthier picture.

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People

By decades Uruguayans took proud on being a society in which the extremes of wealth and poverty found in most other South American countries didn't exist. This has changed in recent years as economical stagnation and shortsighted political leadership managed the country in a succession of crisis. Currently about a quarter of Uruguayans lives under the poverty line, unemployment rate are steadily over 8%, and the daily struggle for life is a common reality to many families.

Uruguayans have a strong belief in social justice, and it is a considered a duty of the society to take care of their unfavored members. Public health coverage is available to every citizen, and besides endemic resource scarceness, life expectancy, infant mortality rate, and most health indicators are good (comparable to USA).

A great deal of emphasis is placed on education. Uruguay has the best-educated workforce on the continent. People enjoy easy access to a good education, compulsory for nine years and free through post-graduate studies. The literacy rate is 97% (the same as in USA), one of the highest in South America, as it is the number of students enrolled in high school. Universidad de la República, founded in 1849, is the largest University in the country, with more than 60.000 students enrolled, and plays an important role in the social and political life of the state. The public education systems has undergone serious deterioration in the last years.

Hot social issues includes unemployment, emigration, human rights, economic reform, Health and education system reform, and corruption.

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Culture

Uruguay may be a small country but it has impressive artistic and literary traditions. International acclaim has greeted artists such as Pedro Figari, a painter of bucolic scenes, and José Enrique Rodó, arguably the nation's greatest writer. Another famous painter is Joaquín Torres-García, founder of the Universal Constructivism school. In the last half of the past century a diaspora of Uruaguayan writers spread the world, with high rank exponents like Juan Carlos Onnetti, Eduardo Galeano, and Mario Bennedetti. Theater is popular and playwrights such as Mauricio Rosencof - a former Tupamaros founder tortured by the military government in the 1970s - are prominent in cultural life. The country's musical and dance traditions came from European immigrants and African slave descendants, the better known styles are folk songs, murga, tango and camdombe; in the las decades a variation of salsa, cumbia, have gained increasing number of adepts. The most popular interepreters in the country are Jaime Roos, Ruben Rada, and, Bola Ocho.

Football (soccer) is a national obsession. The first World Championship was held to cellebrate the 100th anniversary of Uruguay independence and Uruguay was world champion in 1930 and 1950. The 1950 final was against Brazil, in the Mracaná Stadium in Río de Janeiro and is remembered as an epic moment in the life of the country.

A majority of the population in Uruguay identify themselves as agnostics or atheists. Religious issues are seldom a matter of talk and churchgoing, even among those that identify as members of a religious group, is rare. Uruguayans who profess a religion are almost exclusively Roman Catholic. Other religions have made small inroads: There is a small Jewish community in Montevideo, several evangelical Protestant groups, traces of Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church. Afro-Brazilian religious expressions, generically known as Umbanda, are the fastest growing in the country, the name of Iemanjá (the sea goddess) is known to almost all Uruguayans.

Uruguayans are voracious meat eaters and the parrillada (beef platter) is a national standard. Another standard is chivito, a tasty and substantial steak sandwich with all the trimmings. Typical snacks include olímpicos (club sandwiches) and húngaras (spicy sausage wrapped in a hot dog roll). Mate, a local version of a tea which is sipped thru a metal straw, is quaffed in enormous quantities. Clericó, a mixture of white wine and fruit juice, and medio y medio, part sparkling wine and part white wine, are popular, and the beer is pretty good.

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Environment

Uruguay - the smallest Hispanic country in South America - is boxed into the eastern coast of South America by Brazil to the north and Argentina to the west. To the south is the wide estuary of the Río de la Plata, while the Atlantic Ocean washes its eastern shore. For the most part, the country's undulating topography is an extension of that in southern Brazil, and includes two lowly ranges - the Cuchilla de Haedo and the Cuchilla Grande. The terrain levels out west of Montevideo, while east of the capital are impressive beaches, dunes and headlands. Five rivers westward across the country and drain into the Rio Uruguay.

The country's consists mostly of grasslands, with little forest except on the banks of its rivers and streams. In the southeast, along the Brazilian border, are lingering traces of palm savanna. Wild animals are scarce, although avestruz (a bird-like ostrich), yacar e (a crocodile-like reptile) and capincho (a very big rodent, highly appreciated for its meat) can still be seen in areas near major tributaries. The climate is temperate, even in winter, and frosts are almost unknown. Winter (June to September) temperatures range from 10 to 16C (50 to 61F), while summer (December to March) temperatures are between 21 to 28C (70 to 82F). Rainfall, evenly distributed throughout the year, averages about 1m (3ft) over the entire country.

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