Country Profile


Country profile

Where is Uruguay? While many countries have lions or eagles as their national symbols, Uruguay’s coat of arms (see below) shows a fortress on top of a mountain, scales, a horse and a cow – representing strength, justice, freedom and abundance.

When you realize that the mountain – actually Monte-video’s Cerro – is just a hill 140 metres high, you begin to understand Uruguay’s true geopolitical strength, a small enclave surrounded by Argentina and Brazil, respectively 15 and 45 times bigger. Since January 1995, following the globalizing trends, Uruguay has joined its giant neighbours and Paraguay in a 200-million-people-strong single market, the Mercosur.

Twelve years of harsh military rule from 1973 onwards made a mockery of the symbols of justice and freedom in the national coat of arms and left deep scars. In 1986 Parliament passed an amnesty law (endorsed by referendum in 1988) forgiving military personnel charged with human-rights violations. The same law committed the judiciary to keep investigating about 120 cases of ‘disappeared’ people. Yet no judges have been allowed to investigate for fear the country might be ‘destabilized’.

Nevertheless, during these last 12 years the judiciary has recovered much of its former prestige, especially since independent judges sent to prison a former Finance Minister and other government officials on corruption charges.

For the most part Uruguay has recovered the democratic freedoms it lost during the bitter years of military rule. Civil institutions such as unions, political parties and non-governmental organizations work independently and without constraint. But the military still keeps some control of telecommunications, not allowing local ‘free’ radio stations and giving over wavelengths only to ‘respectable people’.

Uruguay, once renowned for its stability, had a two-party political system from its independence in the 1820s: power alternated between the Blanco and Colorado parties. The Colorado’s Julio Maria Sanguinetti won the 1984 election and was chosen for the presidency again in 1994, while the Blanco Party ruled from 1990 to 1995, with Luis Alberto Lacalle as President.

In the post-military era the two traditional (and almost indistinguishable) parties have been challenged by the Broad Front, a coalition of leftist groups including socialists and communists formed in 1971 and banned during the military era. The Broad Front has controlled the municipality of Montevideo since 1989 and has increased national support by entering an alliance with the Christian Democrats called the ‘Progressive Encounter’: in the 1994 polls they won 29.8 per cent of the vote, just 1.4 per cent behind Sanguinetti.

The cow in the coat of arms is perhaps the most problematic emblem of all, reflecting a golden age of abundance that is out of date by at least 40 years. Free-market policies have left the country with a constant foreign-trade deficit. While the military pursued the extreme monetarist policies of Milton Friedman, economic liberalization and privatization have continued apace in the last decade, particularly since the Government signed a secret structural-adjustment pact with the World Bank in 1989.

The economy seems finally to be picking up, though unemployment stands at 13 per cent and many people mourn the loss of the welfare state they once enjoyed. But Uruguayans remain confident they will find a democratic solution to their problems.

Roberto Elissalde


[image, unknown] LEADER: President Julio Maria Sanguinetti.

ECONOMY: GNP per capita $4,660 (Australia $18,000).
Monetary Unit: Peso Uruguayo (9.80 pesos = $1.00).
Main exports: Meat, wool, cereals, leather, (tourism is also important).
Main imports: Oil, chemicals, metal manufactures (mainly transport units).

PEOPLE: 3.2 million.

HEALTH: Infant mortality 19 per 1,000 live births (Ireland 6 per 1,000). Percentage of population with access to clean water: 83% (1990-95).

CULTURE: 85-90% of population is of Spanish, Basque and Italian origin. About 5% is of African origin. About 5-10% is mestizo (mixed race). The indigenous people (the Charrúa, the Chaná and the Guarani) were almost entirely wiped out during colonization by Spain and later by the criollos, American descendants of Europeans.
Religion: There is no predominant religion though the largest minority practises Catholicism. Afro-Brazilian cults are strong and growing steadily. Agnosticism is important in big cities, especially Montevideo.
Language: Spanish.

Sources World Development Indicators 1996, World Bank, 1996; The World Guide 1997/1998; Social Watch No. 1, 1997, The State of the World’s Children 1997.

Previously profiled January 1986


[image, unknown] INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
No extreme poverty. Welfare state, once good relative to Latin America, is being dismantled.
1986 [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
[image, unknown] LITERACY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
97%. Fairly well developed state-education system and a growing private one.
1986 [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
[image, unknown] SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
A big trade deficit and heavily dependent on oil imports.
[image, unknown] [image, unknown]
[image, unknown] FREEDOM [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
During the last 12 years the country has recovered its liberal tradition.
1986 [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
[image, unknown] POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Inequalities continue but things are changing: every year more women reach important positions.
[image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
[image, unknown] LIFE EXPECTANCY
[image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
73 years. Compares with Canada (78) and its neighbours Argentina (73) and Brazil (67).
1986 [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]


[image, unknown] NI ASSESSMENT [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
The Sanguinetti Government has followed every IMF and World Bank ‘suggestion’: liberalization and privatization have deprived thousands of Uruguayans of a job or a decent retirement. Sanguinetti’s main aim is to prevent the left-wing Broad Front winning the next election.

NI star rating

[image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
[image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
[image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
[image, unknown] [image, unknown]
[image, unknown]

[image, unknown] Contents

New Internationalist issue 296 magazine cover This article is from the November 1997 issue of New Internationalist.
You can access the entire archive of over 500 issues with a digital subscription. Get a free trial »

Subscribe   Ethical Shop