There is little to report about early man in the area of South America now known as Uruguay. There was no real development of a civilisation other than small tribes who, by all accounts were pretty fierce and gave the early European explorers a tough time.
The Portuguese are said to have arrived around 1512, but the Spanish led by Juan Diaz de Solis were the first to make themselves felt in about 1516. At first the Spanish and Portuguese contested the region but the first real permanent settlement was a Spanish Franciscan mission which was established at Villa Soriano in 1624.
Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo, was established by the Spanish around 1723 and quickly grew into a major city and port. The Spanish had wrestled the area from the Portuguese and the next few years were marked by ongoing battles between the Spanish, Portuguese and the British. The British gave up their interests at the end of the Peninsula war and subsequent battles by the two remaining powers were centred on competition between Buenos Aires and Montevideo.
Like all South American countries of the period, the people of the region wanted independence from their colonial masters and in 1811 José Gervasio Artigas launched a revolt against Spain. In 1814 he formed the Federal League but Portuguese forces from neighbouring Brazil invaded the region in 1816 and by 1821 the area was annexed to Brazil as the Província Cisplatina.
That was never going to be the end of the matter and a group called the Treinta y Tres Orientales or Thirty-Three Orientals led by Juan Antonio Lavalleja took on the Empire of Brazil and declared independence on 25th August 1825. This in turn led to the 500 day Cisplatine War between December 1825 and 27th August 1828 and the signing of the Treaty of Montevideo at which Brazil and Argentina recognised independent Uruguay.
Political parties were quickly established in the new nation; on one side were the Blancos (Whites), the forerunners of the right-wing National Party of today and who represented the interests of the agricultural community. On the other side the Colorados (Reds), known today as the liberal centre-right Colorado Party looked after the interests of the business community. The two parties took sides in a developing split in Argentina and the subsequent “Guerra Grande” a civil war which was fought on Uruguayan soil and which lasted 13 years from 1839 – 1852 attracted foreigners from far and wide including Spanish, Portuguese, British, French and Italians. It even drew in Giuseppe Garibaldi who was one of those instrumental in the unification of Italy but at the time was exiled from Italy and fought courageously on the side of the Colorados.
After the “Great War” Uruguay became an attractive destination for the Spanish and Italians, the economy improved and Montevideo became a major economic centre on the mouth of the River Plate.
Since 1830 when a new constitution came into force the political pendulum has swung between the Colorados and the Nationals. From the end of the “Great War” in 1852 and the turn of the century the country had 36 changes of President in 48 years. The Colorados took the position 29 times and completely dominated the country from 1865, with the Nationals winning six times and with one independent, Juan Antonio Lavalleja (September – October 1853) of Thirty-Three Orientals fame.
Apart from the high turnover of Presidents it was also a turbulent period. A Triple Alliance formed between Brazil, Argentina and the Uruguayan President Venancio Flores went to war with Paraguay (1864 – 1870) which led to the deaths of nearly half a million people.
Towards the end of the Presidency of Lorenzo Batlle y Grau (1868 – 1872) a civil war broke out after an insurrection by the Nationals, a peace agreement was signed in 1872 but in 1875 the military took power and dominated until 1886.
Colonel Lorenzo Latorre was President twice (1876 – 1879 & 1879 – 1880) and was known as the Dictator but he made improvements to the economy and educational standards. He resigned in 1880 declaring Uruguay ‘ungovernable’!
The Colorados also dominated the first half of the 20th Century, taking every Presidential election up to 1959. But even during that period there was turmoil; Colorado leader José Batlle y Ordóñez was elected president in 1903 but faced a revolt by the Blancos known as the Saravian Revolution (After the National’s leader Aparicio Saravia) which lasted eight months. The Peace of Aceguá was signed on 24th September 1904 and it ended the last civil war in Uruguay’s history.
Batlle had two terms in office and instigated major welfare reforms but also interfered in the economy and imposed tariffs on foreign goods as well as nationalising some companies.
Gabriel Terra was another elected Colorado President (1931 – 1938) but after his election he suspended Congress, abolished the constitution and merged state powers with the Presidency. Some semblance of democracy was restored when Alfredo Baldomir was elected President in 1938, although in 1942 he instigated a coup, dissolving parliament and putting in place emergency powers. But Baldomir did give up power in 1943 at the end of his Presidency.
During the Second World War Uruguay was witness to one of the greatest naval battles of the war, the Battle of the River Plate in which the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee was bested by a lighter British force. The ship was eventually scuttled on 17th December 1939 and although Uruguay remained neutral until 1942 when it broke off diplomatic relations with Nazi Germany, it abandoned its neutrality and joined the Allied cause in 1945.
The 1950s saw a period of economic decline and a worldwide drop in demand for agricultural products leading to a sharp drop in living standards. A terrorist group, the Tupamaros emerged in the early sixties. They robbed banks and businesses and redistributed it to the poor. But what started as a powerful cause disintegrated into terrorism and assassinations thus weakening its popular cause. By 1972 the military had hunted down and successfully killed most of the terrorists.
In March 1972 Juan María Bordaberry was elected President but he used the military to dissolve the General Assembly and ruled by decree. He was the first of a string of military backed dictators to rule Uruguay until 1984. In 1980 the military drafted a new constitution which was rejected in a referendum and, following civil unrest and strikes, the military agreed to a return to civilian rule with national elections being held in 1984; Colorado Party leader Julio María Sanguinetti was elected President.
Since 1984 the Colorado Party support has started to slip. In 1984 they had won 41 of 99 seats in the General Assembly but in 1989 that had slipped to 30 seats in the new Chamber of Deputies. By 2004 their support had dropped to 10 seats in the 99 seat Chamber of deputies and the centre-left to left wing Broad Front was the winner for the first time, electing Tabaré Vázquez as President and taking 53 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and 17 of the 30 seats in the Senate. The Broad Front won again in 2009 with 50 seats and the election of a former Tupamaros activist, José Mujica, as President. The National Party won in 1989 and has consistently taken around 30 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, emerging as the main opposition to the Broad Front.
Broad Front President José Mujica has been described as the “world’s humblest President” because of his simple lifestyle and the donation of 90% of his Presidential salary to poor people. Despite their left-wing leanings, Uruguay’s economy has grown steadily under the Broad Front and the country is enjoying a period of stability after a turbulent past.
The President and Vice President are elected on the same ticket by popular vote for one five year term.
The bicameral parliament has a Chamber of Senators or Camara de Senadores with 30 members elected by popular vote to serve five year terms. The Chamber of Representatives or Camara de Representantes has 99 members elected by popular vote to serve five year terms.
The Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) 2016 places Uruguay at 21st out of 176 countries with a CPI 2016 score of 71 (where 100 is least corrupt).