Uruguay

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Income distribution

Uruguay stands out in Latin America for its relatively egalitarian society and high income per capita. Extreme poverty is almost non-existent. Its middle class is the largest on the continent and represents more than 60% of its population. The Covid-19 pandemic induced recession in 2020, but the economy has largely recovered since.

Literacy

With education compulsory for primary school students, and free at all levels through to university, Uruguay has one of the highest literacy rates in the world, at 98.77%

Life expectancy

The current life expectancy is 75.5 years for men and 81 for women. The country has one of the lowest maternal mortality rates in the region.

Position of women

Uruguay has ratified all international commitments regarding gender equality and rights, and 25% of seats in parliament are held by women. Women have been protected through legal rights and government programmes, but still don’t have the same job opportunities as men and earn an average of 31% less.

Freedom

Since the end of the dictatorship in 1985, the country has recovered all the freedoms curtailed by the military, with a vibrant and diverse press and broadcast media, respect for human rights, freedom of assembly and religious tolerance for all faiths. Black Uruguayans still face marginalization, however.

LGBTQI+

Uruguay has the most advanced LGBTQI+ rights in Latin America. Same-sex civil unions have been legal since 2008, and same-sex marriage since 2013. Laws to prevent discrimination due to sexual orientation or gender identity allow same-sex adoption and undo previous employment discrimination.

Politics

Though the right wing has now returned to government, Uruguay remains a multi-party democracy. The president acts as head of both state and government, while legislative power is vested in the General Assembly, and the judiciary remains independent. General elections are held every five years, following lively media debates among candidates and a high level of participation.

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At a glance

Leader:

President Luis Lacalle Pou

Economy:

GNI per capita: $18,030 (Argentina $11,620; UK $48,890)

Monetary unit:

Uruguayan Peso: (1 UY Peso: $0.025)

Main exports:

Soybeans, milk, rice, maize, wheat, barley, beef, sugar cane, sorghum, oranges.

Population:

3.4 million. Annual growth rate: 0.27%. People per km2 19.5 (Argentina 16.5; UK 280)

Health:

Under-5 mortality 7.6 per 1000 live births (Argentina 6.9; UK 4.2). HIV prevalence: 0.6%. Good free national health service, maternity benefits and extensive subsidized health care. Life expectancy: 75.5 years (men); 82 years (women).

Environment:

Uruguay covers an area of 176,215 km2 , featuring mostly rolling plains and low hill ranges with a fertile coastal lowland. It has 660km of coastline along the River Plate estuary and the Atlantic Ocean. Agriculture has led to a loss in biodiversity, but the country is still one of the most sustainable worldwide due to its surplus of renewable energy, also exported elsewhere; its willingness to promote the use of electric vehicles; and its support of the Global Methane Pledge. It has a temperate climate year-round.

Culture:

Long tradition of high quality performing arts and award-winning literature. The best time to visit is during carnival in February, when crowds dance candombe.

Religion:

Roman Catholic 42%, Protestant 15%, other 6%, agnostic 3%, atheist 10%, unspecified 24% 

Language:

Spanish

Human development index:

0.809 (Argentina 0.842; UK 0.929)

Wedged between two regional giants, Uruguay has had little choice but to assert itself through the beautiful game. After hosting the inaugural football World Cup in 1930 and beating its western neighbour Argentina in the final, ‘La Celeste’ repeated the feat against Brazil 20 years later.

South America’s second-smallest state is thought to have been inhabited over 10,000 years ago. The native Charrúa, Guaná and Guenoa peoples had almost disappeared by the time of the country’s independence, as a result of diseases and extermination.

The first European explorers were likely the Portuguese in 1512. Three years later, Spanish forces’ first, short-lived venture ashore inaugurated three centuries of competing conquests by imperial and neighbouring powers.

Between 1807 and 1830 Montevideo was occupied in turn by British, Spanish, Argentine, Portuguese, and Brazilian forces. National hero José Artigas won a decisive victory against the Spanish in 1811, as well as warding off invasions by the above-mentioned neighbours, more than a century prior to their soccer clashes.

A woman sips traditional mate infusion

 

His small army, which included a battalion of freed African slaves, was supported by poor rural workers after he initiated a programme of agrarian reforms. However, his plans threatened landed elites, who subsequently forced him into exile.

Juan Lavalleja and other patriots continued the struggle. Uruguay became independent in 1828. After decades of instability and civil war, it became the first Latin American country to establish a welfare state, following reforms instigated by President José Batlle y Ordóñez in 1903.

Uruguay also dramatically increased literacy by introducing compulsory primary education and free tuition, including at university level. Batlle passed laws allowing women to initiate divorce proceedings, augmenting the rights of children born out of wedlock, and reducing the political influence of the Roman Catholic church.

Simultaneously, a liberal political climate produced a generation of important cultural figures. This planted the seeds of success for a later generation of writers including Eduardo Galeano, whose seminal historical account Open Veins of Latin America sold over a million copies following its 1971 publication.

Horses grazing by palm groves in Rocha
A procession honouring a sea goddess

 

World War Two instigated a period of prosperity, with European nations eagerly buying the country’s meat, wool and other agricultural products. But from the 1950s, the economy began a decade of deterioration. This led to fierce student protests and trade union activity, followed by a government crackdown. The revolutionary Marxist urban guerrilla movement Tuparamos clashed with the army, with the latter winning out after a brutal campaign of state repression. The military then seized power in a 1973 coup, ruling until 1985 while jailing the world’s highest proportion of political prisoners.

It took another two decades for the progressive Frente Amplio (Broad Front) coalition to beat the traditional Blanco and Colorado parties. Tabaré Vázquez, who became president in 2005, supported social programmes and investigated hundreds of disappearances, murders, and other crimes which had taken place under the military regime.

Walking the streets of the capital Montevideo, as well as people sipping national drink mate from a gourd using a metal straw, you might also encounter the pungent smell of cannabis. The drug has been enjoyed legally in Uruguay since decriminalization under José Mujica, a former Tupamaro leader who spent 12 years in prison, before being elected president in 2010. Described as the world’s ‘humblest head of state’ for his frugal lifestyle, he also legalized same-sex marriage. A rightwing coalition narrowly won the 2019 presidential election, but Uruguay remains distinctive in Latin America for the robustness of its democracy since the end of military rule.

This article appears in our January/February 2024 issue: Climate Capitalism. Subscribe to read.