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.