Uruguay: History and Fun Facts

February 19, 2020

Paul Kay


Uruguay provides travelers with stunning natural beauty and intriguing history. Add friendly people and engrossing culture and you have a must-see sport to add to your South American literary. Here’s some history and fun facts to prepare you for your visit.

History

Uruguay’s vast history includes indigenous people, Spanish colonial rule and struggles and success of democracy.

Native People

Uruguayans remember General Artigas. But Uruguay has a long history before the Spanish came. The earliest traces of humans found in Uruguay date back more than 10,000 years. They include the hunter-gatherer cultures of the Catalanense and Cuareim, which originated in Brazil.

Spanish Colonialism

Spain claimed Uruguay shortly after Portugal established their claim to Brazil. In 1516, a Spaniard named Juan Díaz de Solís reached Uruguay as the first European. Spain colonized most of South America, looking for gold and silver and any other treasure they could plunder. When Spain took Argentina and Portugal claimed Brazil, Uruguay found itself in the middle. Neither country showed much interested in Uruguay because it lacked gold, silver and other important trade items.

Charua Indians originally inhabited Uruguay and resisted the Spanish. But they didn’t deter Spain. In 1624, Jesuits founded the first permanent Spanish settlement in Uruguay at Villa Soriano on the Río Negro. The colonial power brought cattle to the region. The herds later became a major boost to the economy.

Lighthouse, Colonia Del Sacramento, Uruguay

 Colonia del Sacramento

Since the Portuguese controlled Brazil, they established Colonia del Sacramento on the northern bank of the Río de la Plata, on the opposite coast from Buenos Aires. Spain was not happy about this and worked to limit the expansion of the Portuguese into Uruguay. They captured Colonia del Sacramento and forced the Portuguese back into Brazil.

In 1750, the Treaty of Madrid established Spanish control over what was called Banda Oriental. This territory east of the Uruguay River and north of Río de la Plata comprises the Uruguay of today. Cattle was very important to the region. By 1800, more than 10,000 people lived in Montevideo and another 20,000 in the rest of the province. Out of these, about 30 percent were African slaves. African slavery prominently figures in South American history. I’ve written about African slavery in Brazil in my Brazil History post and in my post about why there are so many Japanese that life in Brazil.

Independence

Statue of General José Gervasio Artigas in Plaza Independencia, Montevideo, Uruguay

 Statue of General José Gervasio Artigas in Montevideo

Uruguayans rebelled against Spanish rule in 1811. They fought behind leader José Gervasio Artigas. Fighting continued for years. At one point, Brazil annexed Uruguay. In 1828, Uruguay finally gained independence. The country approved a constitution in 1830.

Soon after Uruguay became independent, two major political parties became bitter rivals. As with many democracies, the split was between the conservatives and liberals. The Blancos (Whites) were conservative and the Colorados (Reds) were liberal.

Fructuoso Rivera by Baldassare Verazzi, Uruguay

 Fructuoso Rivera by Baldassare Verazzi

The first president of Uruguay, Fructuoso Rivera, led the Colorados, which represented business interests of Montevideo.

Manuel Oribe by Manuel Rosé, Uruguay

 Manuel Oribe by Manuel Rosé

The eventual second president, Manuel Oribe, led the Blancos, which promoted the agricultural interests and farmers and ranchers.

In 1839, a civil war broke out between Blancos and Colorados. The Colorados took control of Uruguay in 1852. From 1865 to 1870, Uruguay joined Brazil and Argentina in a war against Paraguay, called the Paraguayan War or the War of the Triple Alliance. It proved to be the bloodiest war in Latin America's history. When Paraguay lost, it barely survived as a nation.

In the latter part of the 19th century, the population of Uruguay significantly increased when immigrants came to raise sheep and cattle. By 1900, the population of Uruguay had risen to one million.

José Batlle y Ordóñez served as president from 1903 to 1907 and again from 1911 to 1915. He led the Colorado party and nationalized companies and created a welfare system. The same was happening in Brazil at the same time.

In 1905, Uruguay abolished income tax for lower income citizens, and schools were established in every city. The government introduced unemployment benefits in 1914. In 1915, the eight-hour workday was introduced. Batlle knew he needed to form a coalition with the Blancos. A new constitution allowed a nine-person council consisting of six Colorados and three Blancos. This split executive model lasted until 1933, when President Gabriel Terra assumed dictatorial powers amidst the Great Depression. During the Second World War, Uruguay remained neutral, unlike Brazil who fought against Germany.

Post WWII

After the war, the price of wool fell, and the Uruguayan economy suffered. In the 1960s a Marxist guerilla movement called the Tupamaros began operating in Uruguay. The army seized power in a coup in 1973. This military dictatorship ruled for 11 years.

Dollarization with Uruguayan Banknotes and American Bills, Uruguay

 Uruguayan Banknotes and American Bills

In the early 1980s Uruguay suffered another economic crisis. One source of instability was the growing dollarization of the economy. The military rule included deregulating the banking sector to reduce inflation. When this occurred, the United States dollar (mostly from Argentine real estate investment) flowed into Uruguay. Uruguayan banks, in turn, loaned U.S. dollars to private companies and ranchers. Deregulating the banking sector put the Uruguayan peso to “float” against the dollar. The value of a peso decreased by more than 300 percent. Uruguayan loans based in pesos tripled. Inflation soared to an annual rate more than 60 percent. Uruguay faced a recession and a domestic debt crisis at the same time.

In 1985, Uruguay finally returned to civilian rule, and banking rules were reestablished. Prosperity returned to Uruguay until 1999, when a new recession began that lasted until 2002. During this period, there was a massive withdrawal of funds from Uruguay. More than one-third of the country’s deposits were removed, resulting in five bank insolvencies. the problem again was lax banking regulation. Uruguay learned its lesson; banking regulations regained importance. Recovery was slow and steady.

Today

Uruguay stands out in Latin America for its high income per capita, low level of inequality and poverty, and the near absence of extreme poverty. Uruguay has managed to attain a high level of equal opportunities in terms of access to basic services, such as education, running water, electricity and sanitation. In July 2013, the World Bank classified Uruguay as a high-income country.

GDP per Capita Argentina Brazil Paraguay Uruguay

Although small in comparison with Brazil, the GDP per capita in Uruguay is almost twice that of Brazil.

Fun Facts

Here are some fun facts about Uruguay’s tourism, sport and energy development.

Tourism

Tourism now accounts for seven and a half percent of Uruguay's GDP and eight percent of employment opportunities for the locals. Hotels and beaches in Punta del Este, the top seaside resort in Uruguay, attract visitors from around the world. Cultural attractions include Colonia del Sacramento, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and Montevideo, Latin America's southernmost capital city.

Sport

Soccer Fans Uruguay

 Uruguayans are crazy for soccer

Uruguayans excel at football (soccer). They won Olympic gold medals in the men’s events in 1924 and 1928. The Uruguay national football team won two FIFA World Cups. They beat Argentina in 1930 while hosting the inaugural event. Uruguay upset Brazil in 1950 on Brazil’s home turf.

South American Population

These accomplishments are particularly impressive considering that Argentina and Columbia are 10 times larger in population and Brazil is about 50 times larger.

Energy

Uruguay leads in renewable energy. Almost 95 percent of electricity in Uruguay comes from renewable resources. Uruguay has shifted dramatically away from petroleum-based generation. Electricity is generated by wind and water. Uruguay has made big strides in recent years; renewable sources were just 40 percent of energy in 2012. With an energy surplus, Uruguay sells excess electricity to its neighbors.

With lovely landscapes, an interesting history and beautiful people and culture, Uruguay should rank at the top of your list for international travel destinations.

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