History of Uruguay

History Of Uruguay

In 1516, the death of Spanish explorer Juan de Solis, at the hands of indigenous tribes, while exploring the River Plate basin – coupled with the apparent absence of appreciable mineral deposits – discouraged further expeditions until the following century. Fierce opposition from the two main groups inhabiting what is now Uruguay – the Charrua and the Guarani – plagued would-be colonists for the next 300 years, before they were finally subdued, mainly through the combined effects of large-scale killings and imported disease. Parts of the territory were settled by the Spanish in the 1620s and the Portuguese in the 1680s; as a result, Uruguay became a major bone of contention between these rival European powers. The Spanish prevailed in the early 18th century, after the establishment of a settlement at San Felipe de Montevideo (which eventually became the Uruguayan capital) in 1726. With a fine natural harbor, Montevideo soon assumed an important role in the region, as both a commercial center and a Spanish naval base. Moreover, an intense rivalry developed between the city and Buenos Aires, which lay on the opposite bank of the Rio de la Plata basin. In 1776, Buenos Aires was chosen as the capital of the newly established Spanish Viceroyalty of Rio de la Plata, which governed a territory including Montevideo.

The final split between the two cities was triggered in 1808, by the overthrow of the Spanish King Ferdinand VII by Napoleon, in favor of the latter’s brother, Joseph. Soon afterwards, the military governor of Montevideo, Javier Elio, successfully lobbied to allow him control of the city independent of Buenos Aires, while paying nominal subservience to King Ferdinand. In 1810, the criollos of Buenos Aires – descendants of Spanish families who had emigrated to South America – unseated the Spanish Viceroy. But in the interior, in the region known as the Banda Oriental, most of the population backed the new regime in Buenos Aires and rallied to a regional military commander, Jose Artigas, in opposition to Elio. Although Artigas’ nine-year military campaign was ultimately unsuccessful – he was eventually exiled to Paraguay, where he died in 1850 – it laid the seeds of Uruguayan independence. Artigas himself is now recognized, along with Bolivar, Zapata and others, as one of the founding fathers of the independent nations of South America. His example and the political momentum it had created inspired others, notably Juan Antonio Lavalleja, whose ‘Liberation Crusade’ finally led to the 1825 declaration of independence by the political representatives of the Banda Oriental and the formal creation of the Uruguayan state in 1828. Throughout much of this early 19th-century period, the future Uruguay was occupied by Portuguese troops from neighboring Brazil (who finally defeated Artigas); interventions – military and otherwise – by its larger neighboring powers were to become a recurrent feature of Uruguay’s political history.

A principal and, in many ways, parallel characteristic of Uruguay’s domestic politics is the deep schism between the two major political parties, both of which can trace their origins to the early years of independence. The liberally inclined Colorado Party and the right-wing National Party are commonly known as ‘Reds’ and ‘Whites’ or Blancos (by virtue of their once distinctive hatbands, rather than the color of their politics). The conjunction between internal and external forces became apparent during the Great War of 1843-52, which centered on the siege of Montevideo, then under Colorado control, by Blanco forces. The war, which was eventually won by the Colorados, established the pattern whereby Argentina and Brazil became the guarantors of Uruguayan independence, with the intervention of global powers on occasion – Britain and France in the 19th century, the USA in the 20th century.

Over time, the Colorado Party has come to be dominated by the Batlle family, one of the great modern political dynasties. Under the progressive Colorado administrations of José Batlle y Ordonez between 1903 and 1915, Uruguay established Latin America’s first welfare state, gave women the vote and abolished both the death penalty and the link between church and state.

In 1933, in the first of a series of interventions in domestic politics during the 20th century, the military took power. Between 1951 and 1966, following the introduction of a new constitution, Uruguay was governed by an unusual form of collective leadership known as ‘collegiate government’. This lasted until 1966, after which economic difficulties led to an increase in labor unrest and the emergence of the Tupamaros guerrilla movement. In 1973, the military once again took charge and remained in power until 1985; by which time, the Tupamaros had been defeated and all left-wing political activity outlawed. In a pattern common to other Latin American dictatorships of the era, hundreds of alleged opponents of the regime disappeared (presumed murdered); their fate is now being investigated by a government commission established in 2000. Dr Julio Sanguinetti of the Colorados held the presidency from 1985 until the presidential and congressional elections in November 1989, when the Blancos, under the banner of the Partido Nacional, achieved a majority in the National Assembly and their candidate, Luis Alberto Lacalle Herrera, was victorious in the presidential race. The new government adopted the South American trend in economic policy by selling off some state-owned businesses, reducing government spending and attracting foreign investment. It has also joined the Mercosur trading bloc with its neighbors.

The Uruguayan left has experienced a mammoth resurgence since the mid-1990s. A leading light has been the massively popular Tabare Vazquez, Mayor of Montevideo until 1994, whose combination of radical politics and pragmatic problem solving greatly improved the quality of life in the capital, and such factors resulted in his surprise election (taking over from Batlle) as President in October 2004. Tabare Vazquez is associated with the leftist coalition, Frente Amplio (Broad Front), which, in conjunction with dissident Blancos and other smaller groups, created the Encuentro Progresista (EP), which fought several exceptionally close elections in the 1990s. However, the November 1994 presidential and legislative elections were both won by the Colorados and Sanguinetti returned for a second term of office. Sanguinetti retired before the next presidential poll in November 1999, which was won by yet another member of the Batlle clan, Jorge Luis. The simultaneous National Assembly elections saw the leftist EP returned as the largest single party but excluded from office by an alliance of Colorados and Blancos.

But now Tabare Vazquez from the Frente Amplio coalition has been elected as president, becoming the first leftist leader to become the Uruguayan head of state. On being elected, Vazquez vowed to alleviate poverty and to build better relations with Uruguay’s neighbors, Brazil and Argentina. It is thought that Uruguay’s 2002 economic crisis and a disenchantment with free-market policies may have influenced this dramatic political shift. Uruguayans have pinned their hopes for the future on this left-wing policy-maker; time will tell how Vazquez responds.

Key words: history of uruguay, uruguay, history.

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