It was the meddling British who used their cartographic skills to delineate the country that would become Uruguay in the early 19th century, as a buffer zone between the two regional giants, Argentina and Brazil. The result was a country stuck in the shadows of gargantuan neighbours whose influence has played a major role throughout this country’s history.
At the turn of the 20th century Uruguay was one of the region’s richest countries. Its wealth resulted from fertile land and high demand for its principal exports: beef and wool. The remnants of these glory days are etched into the streets of the capital, Montevideo, where crumbling neoclassical townhouses line the streets, reminding inhabitants of the opulence of days gone by.
Photo: Stefan Boness / Panos
With this wealth flourished a liberal political tradition and a stability that earned Uruguay the moniker ‘The Switzerland of Latin America’. Unlike in much of the rest of Latin America, the Catholic Church and landed élites were relatively weak forces as the state began to take shape. It pushed ahead with progressive reforms and was the first country in the region to legalize divorce (1913), grant female suffrage (1931), and create a welfare state. It was a land of plenty and took to this role with brio, staking a claim on the international stage and twice winning the football World Cup (in a bona fide example of poetic justice it trounced Argentina and Brazil in the 1930 and 1950 finals).
But in the 1950s demand for Uruguay’s exports dropped, unemployment grew and social unrest gained momentum. Trade unions clashed with governments and the revolutionary leftwing guerrilla group Tupamaros emerged. In 1973 the military took control. Twelve years of repressive social policies ensued, during which Uruguay accumulated the largest number of political prisoners per capita in the world. Torture often led to death, with an estimated 160 ‘disappeared’ at the hands of the junta.
With the restoration of democracy in 1986 came attempts to restore democratic freedoms and the battered economy. Power alternated between the country’s traditional (and very similar) political parties: Blanco and Colorado. Both were committed to following neoliberal measures by the book, pushing through reforms that favoured foreign investors and privatizing much of the public sector.
When the financial crisis that struck Argentina in 2002 spilled over, however, it led to recession and to deeper debts to the IMF. The peso collapsed, poverty proliferated and many younger Uruguayans emigrated in search of work. The popularity of the Government plunged, as did trust in the neoliberal model. The existing political duopoly was challenged by the Broad Front, a coalition encompassing members of the centre and far left headed by Tabaré Vásquez, and this triumphed in the 2004 elections.
Vásquez has overseen a recovery in Uruguay and aligned himself to the so-called ‘pink tide’ of leftwing countries dominating Latin American politics. Attempts to deal with the country’s bloody recent history are also being addressed. Although an amnesty law prohibiting the prosecution of members of the armed forces for human rights abuses remains in place, a reinterpretation of the law has led to the detention and trial of high-ranking officials, including former Presidents Juan María Bordaberry and Gregorio Álvarez. New life is being blown into the ailing welfare state, and Uruguay is again taking the lead in pushing forward progressive reforms. The country’s sandy beaches and hilly plains are bustling with visitors from increasingly far-off destinations who have come to experience its famed buena onda (good vibe) and many of those who left are returning to find that something similar to ‘the golden years’ are back.
|Leader||President Tabaré Vásquez|
|Economy||GNI per capita: $5,310 (Argentina $5,150, United States $44,970)|
|Monetary unit||Peso Uruguayo|
|Main exports||Meat, rice, leather, wool, dairy products. Tourism remains strong despite the fall in number of Argentine visitors. The newly constructed Botnia pulp mill is the largest foreign investment in the country’s history and set to contribute 1.6% to GDP annually.|
|People||3.4 million, with about 1.4 million living in the capital Montevideo. Due to a low birth rate (0.4%), high life expectancy and the migration of younger Uruguayans to Spain and Argentina, the population is quite mature. People per square km 19 (UK 246)|
|Health||Infant mortality rate 11 per 1,000 live births (Argentina 14, US 6). Universal free healthcare system.|
|Environment||Water pollution from the meat packing/tannery industry threatens the nation’s water supply. Air pollution is an environmental concern caused by Uruguay’s industries and an energy plant in neighbouring Brazil. It’s still too early to determine the environmental impact of the Botnia pulp mill but Argentina claims it will pollute the river and its surrounding area.|
|Culture||86% of the population is of Spanish or Italian origin, about 6% of African origin and 8% mestizo (mixed race).|
|Religion||Roman Catholicism is the predominant religion, accounting for 66%, while a third of those in the capital identify themselves as atheist.|
Human Development Index: 1990 0.806; 2005 0.852 (Argentina 0.869, US 0.951).
Country ratings in detail
|Income distribution||Boasts one of the largest middle classes in the region, yet 18% of the population still live below the poverty line. Extreme poverty is absent. The situation should improve with the recent introduction of personal income tax. 1997 ★★|
|Literacy||98% Education is free for all from primary to university level, but compulsory education extends to primary school only and drop-out levels after this point are high (48% amongst low income households.) Public school standards are slipping. 1997 ★★★★★|
|Life expectancy||76 years (Argentina 75, US 78). 1997 ★★★★|
|Freedom||There is no censorship or political repression. Freedom of the press is enjoyed. 1997 ★★★★★|
|Position of women||The situation is improving although women still earn significantly less than their male counterparts and abortion remains illegal. 1997 ★★★|
|Sexual minorities||Homosexuality is legal and anti-discrimination laws apply. In 2007 Uruguay became the first country in Latin America to legalize civil unions on a national scale, although gay marriage remains illegal.|
|New Internationalist assessment||After a difficult start Tabaré Vásquez has managed to maintain unity within the ruling coalition and is enjoying popularity. The Broad Front paid off the remainder of the debt to the IMF in 2006 and reintroduced direct income tax, which had been absent for 40 years. Vásquez is attempting to tread a thin line between keeping the superpower in the North happy and maintaining alliances with his leftist colleagues in Latin America. A MERCOSUR member, in 2007 Uruguay joined the Bank of the South, a new regional bank intended to replace the IMF, while also holding talks with the US over trade and investment agreements.|