Leader: President Julio Maria Sanguinetti
Economy: GNP per capita US$2,490
Main imports: Petroleum, machinery, transport equipment
Main exports: Meat, wool, clothing, cereals, leather
People: 3 million
Culture: 85-90% of population is mainly of Spanish and Italian origin. About 5% is black, Few original indigenous people (the Charruas), remain: they were almost entirely wiped out during conquest and colonisation by Spain. About 5-10% is mestizo (mixed race)
Religion: Two-thirds Roman Catholic, but Church and State are separate and the country has strong anti-clerical traditions
Language: Spanish. Other European languages spoken
Health: Infant mortality per 1,000 live births: 38 (1983)
Percentage of population with access to clean water: 84% (1975)
Sources: IDB, World Bank, State of the World's Children
ARRIVING in Montevideo is like entering a time warp into the 1950s. Most of the architecture is from that period - the country's post-war economic boom faded in the mid-Fifties and growth since then has been slow. Yet since democracy was restored earlier this year after almost 12 years of repressive military rule, the capital has regained some of its old glories. Political, intellectual, and artistic life is intense, with a wealth of lively magazines and cultural activities. Many people who were imprisoned, banned, or exiled, are now publicly active again. Actors and writers who were on black lists can be seen and read once more.
Yet the new freedoms remain fragile as long as the deeper development problems remain. Since independence in the nineteenth century, Uruguay has largely lived off its fertile land, exporting beef and wool. Early this century Jose Batlle leader of the urban-based Colorado Party, ended the cycle of civil war between his group and the rural landowning Blanco Party, and laid the foundations of a welfare state. These reforms were viable when there was high demand for beef and wool, during and just after both world wars. With the extra money coming in, it was possible to redistribute wealth without putting the landowners' noses out of joint.
But after 1955 economic stagnation set in. For a time the two traditional parties were able to survive the downturn. Then in the 1960s things changed. The economic squeeze led to rising social unrest and the birth of the Tupamaros, a group of revolutionary urban guerillas.
The military began increasingly to move into politics, finally taking power in a military coup in 1973. The right-wing dictatorship ushered in a period of vicious repression and pursued monetarist economic policies. People lost their jobs and the foreign banks, rather than the industrialists or landowners, reaped the benefits. The foreign debt climbed to its current level of US$4.5 billion, equivalent to more than four times the value of annual exports.
People's discontent grew over the 1980-84 period. And this, coupled with the debt crisis and the deepening recession, finally persuaded the army to allow a return to democracy. President Sanguinetti's centre-right Colorados won the elections. The other parties, the Blancos and the Broad Front left-wing coalition, wanted more far-reaching reforms in the economy, although they have promised to support Sanguinetti in building the new democracy.
But no one knows how long it will be before the soldiers march in again, since the military clearly still thinks it has the right to intervene in politics. Uruguayans may think differently. They feel at home with democracy - as can be seen in the way they keep up a lively attack on President Sanguinetti: his bushy eyebrows are a favourite target for the political cartoonist.