From New World Encyclopedia
República Oriental del Uruguayno
Oriental Republic of Uruguay
Flag of Uruguay Coat of arms of Uruguay
MottoLibertad o muerte (Spanish)
"Liberty or Death"
AnthemNational Anthem of Uruguay
"Himno Nacional de Uruguay"
Location of Uruguay
(and largest city)
34°53′S 56°10′W
Official languages Spanish
Ethnic groups  88% White, 8% Mestizo, 4% Black, Amerindian (Practically nonexistent)[1]
Demonym Uruguayan
Government Presidential republic
 -  President José Mujica
 -  Vice President Danilo Astori
Independence from Empire of Brazil 
 -  Declaration 25 August 1825 
 -  Recognition 28 August 1828 
 -  Constitution 18 July 1830 
 -  Total 176,215 km² (90th)
68,037 sq mi 
 -  Water (%) 1.5%
 -  2009 estimate 3,494,382[1] (131st)
 -  2002 census 3,399,236 
 -  Density 19.8/km² (195th)
51.4/sq mi
GDP (PPP) 2011 estimate
 -  Total $52.111 billion[2] 
 -  Per capita $15,469[2] 
GDP (nominal) 2011 estimate
 -  Total $49.423 billion[2] 
 -  Per capita $14,671[2] 
Gini (2009) 42.4[3] (medium
Currency Uruguayan peso ($, UYU) (UYU)
Time zone UYT (UTC-3)
 -  Summer (DST) UYST (UTC-2)
Internet TLD .uy
Calling code [[++598]]

The Oriental Republic of Uruguay, or Uruguay, is a country located in the southern cone of South America. It is bordered by the nations of Brazil and Argentina, as well as by the Uruguay River, the River Plate (Río de la Plata) estuary, and the South Atlantic Ocean. At 68,000 square miles (176,220 square kilometers), it is the second-smallest nation on the continent, after Suriname, and is slightly smaller than the U.S. state of Washington. It has a population of 3.4 million and is known to be one of the most politically and economically stable nations in South America.

Its geographic position as a small, wedge-shaped country between the two major powers of Brazil and Argentina has long determined its role as a buffer state. Both South American giants have periodically vied for control of Uruguay, and both have failed. Culturally, Uruguay is closest to Argentina. It shares a common language and many social customs as well, though it also has deep ties with Brazil. Uruguay’s border with Brazil, while less populated, reflects a very interesting cultural fusion from which arose a new language, a blend of Spanish and Portuguese called portuñol. Linguists have studied this language at length.

Uruguay is also unique in South America as the only country in the region in which the Roman Catholic Church does not exercise overweening power. This arose from the social and political reforms in the early twentieth century under President José Batlle y Ordóñez, who ordered the expropriation of church properties and the strict separation of church and state. This provides for a respect for religious freedom and diversity nurturing a character of open–mindedness, for which Uruguayans are known.


Plains of Uruguay

The landscape features mostly rolling plains and low hill ranges (cuchillas) with a fertile coastal lowland, most of it grassland, ideal for cattle and sheep raising. The highest point in the country is the Cerro Catedral (Mount Cathedral) at 1,685 feet (514 meters).

Uruguay is a water-rich land. Prominent bodies of water mark its limits on the east, south, and west, and even most of the boundary with Brazil follows small rivers. Lakes and lagoons are numerous, and a high water table makes digging wells easy.

Satellite photo of Uruguay

Three systems of rivers drain the land: rivers flow westward to the Río Uruguay, eastward to the Atlantic or tidal lagoons bordering the ocean, and south to the Río de la Plata. The Río Uruguay, which forms the border with Argentina, is flanked by low banks, and disastrous floods sometimes inundate large areas. The longest and most important of the rivers draining westward is the Río Negro, which crosses the entire country from northeast to west before emptying into the Río Uruguay. A dam on the Río Negro at Paso de los Toros has created a reservoir—the Embalse del Río Negro—that is the largest artificial lake in South America. The Río Negro's principal tributary and the country's second most important river is the Río Yí.

The climate in Uruguay is temperate, but fairly warm, as freezing temperatures are almost unknown. The predominantly flat landscape is also somewhat vulnerable to rapid changes from weather fronts, as well as to the pampero, a chilly and occasionally violent wind blowing from the north from the pampas plains in Argentina and west down from the Andes separating Argentina and Chile.


The only inhabitants of Uruguay before European colonization of the area were various tribes of hunter-gatherer Native Americans, the most well known being the Charrua Indians, a small tribe driven south by the Guarani Indians of Paraguay. The name "Uruguay" comes from Guaraní the language, meaning "river of the painted birds."

The Spanish discovered the territory of present-day Uruguay in 1516, but the Indians' fierce resistance to conquest, combined with the absence of gold and silver, limited settlement in the region during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Spanish introduced cattle, which became a source of wealth in the region. Spanish colonization increased as Spain sought to limit Portugal's expansion of Brazil's frontiers.[4]

The future capital, Montevideo, was founded in the early eighteenth century and became a rival to Buenos Aires, across the Río de la Plata. Montevideo, however, was considered a military center for the Spanish empire, while Buenos Aires was a commercial center. The meaning of Montevideo is "the mountain that can be seen," referring to the highest point or hill, El Cerro, located to the west of the main metropolitan area and working harbor.

In the early ninteenth century, independence movements arose across South America, including Uruguay (then known as the Banda Oriental del Rio Uruguay, or “East Bank of the Uruguay River”). Uruguayan territory was contested between the nascent states of Brazil and Argentina. Brazil annexed the area in 1821 under the name of Provincia Cisplatina, but a revolt began in 1825, after which Uruguay became an independent country through the Treaty of Montevideo in 1828. Since then, Uruguay has performed the role of a buffer state between the two contesting South American powers.

The original population of Charrúa Indians was gradually decimated over three centuries, culminating in 1831 in a mass killing at Salsipuedes, led by General Fructuoso Rivera, Uruguay's first president. The few remaining Charrúas were dispersed and a viable Charrúa culture became a thing of the past, although many Uruguayans today are mixed race descendants as a result of extensive Charrúa-Spanish intermixing during colonial times.

In the latter part of the nineteenth century, Uruguay participated in the War of the Triple Alliance against Paraguay.

Uruguay then experienced a series of both elected and appointed presidents and saw conflicts with neighboring states, political and economic fluctuations and modernization, and large inflows of immigrants, mostly from Europe. Advancement came in the early 1900s during the administration of President José Batlle y Ordóñez. It advanced as a nation with a complex welfare system; for the first half of the twentieth century, Uruguay was on par with European nations.

The Uruguayan economy relies largely on agricultural exports. The two world wars brought prosperity as Uruguayan beef and grain went to feed a war-ravaged Europe. World food prices dropped precipitously following the end of World War II, which triggered years of decline for the Uruguayan economy. By the 1960s, the stable social system began to break down as the economy spiraled downward. The government began losing popular support as students, workers and lower-class families felt the pain of an economy unable to adapt to a post-agricultural world economy.

The Tupamaros, a radical leftist group, responded to the crisis with violence, which triggered government repression that ended with the suspension of individual rights by the president, Jorge Pacheco Areco, and his successor, Juan María Bordaberry. Finally, in 1973, the army seized power, ushering in eleven years of military dictatorship in what was once one of the region's most stable democracies. Democracy was finally restored in 1984 with the election of Julio María Sanguinetti.


Map of Uruguay

Uruguay's first constitution was adopted in 1830, following the conclusion of a three-year war in which Argentina and Uruguay acted as a regional federation. Sponsored by the United Kingdom, the 1828 Treaty of Montevideo built the foundations for an Uruguayan state and constitution. Attempts to reform the 1830 constitution in 1966 led to the adoption of an entirely new document in 1967. A constitution proposed under a military revolution in 1980 was rejected by a vote of the entire electorate.

The Constitution of 1967 created a strong presidency, subject to legislative and judicial controls. The president is both head of state and head of government, and of a pluriform multi-party system. Executive power is exercised by the government. Legislative power is vested in both the government and the two chambers of the General Assembly of Uruguay. The Judiciary is independent of the executive and the legislature. The president is elected by popular vote for a five-year term, with the vice president elected on the same ticket. Thirteen cabinet ministers, appointed by the president, head executive departments.

The Supreme Court is the nation’s highest judicial body. It is composed of five justices who are elected by the general assembly. The judicial system also includes appeals courts, various lower courts, justices of the peace, and a military justice system. For most of Uruguay's history, the Colorado, Blanco and National parties (centrist to conservative) alternated in power. The elections of 2004, however, saw the victory of the Encuentro Progresista-Frente Amplio-Nueva Mayoría, or Broad Front coalition, a grouping of various leftist parties. Their leader, Tabaré Vázquez Rosas, was elected president by an absolute majority on the first ballot and his party won majorities in both houses of parliament.


The armed forces are constitutionally subordinate to the president through the minister of defense. By offering early retirement incentives, the government has trimmed the armed forces to about 14,500 for the army, six thousand for the navy, and three thousand for the air force. As of February 2005, Uruguay's contributions amounted to 44 percent of the total United Nations peacekeeping troops sent by the region (2,486 soldiers and officers in 11 UN peacekeeping missions). As of August 2006, Uruguay had nearly 1,150 military personnel deployed to Haiti in support of MINUSTAH; its other major PKO troop deployment was in the Congo.[4]

International Relations

Uruguay traditionally has had strong political and cultural links with its neighbors and with Europe. With globalization and regional economic problems, its links to North America have strengthened. Uruguay is a strong advocate of constitutional democracy, political pluralism, and individual liberties. Its international relations historically have been guided by the principles of non-intervention, multilateralism, respect for national sovereignty, and reliance on the rule of law to settle disputes. Uruguay's international relations also reflect its drive to seek export markets and foreign investment. It is a founding member of MERCOSUR, the Southern Cone "Common Market" also composed by Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. As of December 2006, Venezuela was in process of becoming MERCOSUR's fifth full member, while Chile, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru are associate members.

Uruguay is a member of the Rio Group, an association of Latin American states that deals with multilateral security issues (under the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance). Uruguay's location between Argentina and Brazil makes close relations with these two larger neighbors and MERCOSUR associate members Chile and Bolivia particularly important. Usually considered a neutral country and blessed with a professional diplomatic corps, Uruguay is often called on to preside over international bodies. Uruguay is a member of the Latin American Integration Association (ALADI), a trade association based in Montevideo that includes 10 South American countries plus Mexico and Cuba.[4]


Montevideo at night

Uruguay's economy is characterized by an export-driven agricultural sector, a well-educated workforce, high levels of social spending, as well as a developed industrial sector. After averaging an annual growth of five percent from 1996-1998, the country suffered a recession from 1999 to 2003 as a result of the economic difficulties of two of its main export partners, Argentina and Brazil. Despite the severity of the trade setbacks, Uruguay's financial indicators remained more stable than those of its neighbors, a reflection of its national fiscal policies earning a solid reputation among investors and its investment-grade sovereign bond rating—one of only two in South America. In recent years Uruguay has shifted most of its attention towards developing the commercial use of IT technologies, and has become the leading exporter of software in Latin America. Its main industries are food processing, electrical machinery, transportation equipment, petroleum products, textiles, chemicals and beverages.

While some parts of the economy appeared to be resilient, the major exports of beef took a severe blow when Mad Cow disease was discovered in the Uruguayan herds, disqualifying it from almost every international market during 2001. This downturn began a series of severe financial shocks leading to a 20 percent rise in unemployment, a fall in real wages, the devaluation of the peso, and a 40 percent rise in Uruguayans below the poverty level. These worsening economic conditions played a part in turning public opinion against the free-market economic policies adopted by previous administrations in the 1990s, and leading to popular rejection of a proposed privatization of the state petroleum company in 2003 and state water company in 2004. The newly elected Frente Amplio government, while pledging to continue payments on Uruguay's external debt, has also promised to undertake crash job programs to attack the widespread problems of poverty and unemployment that have befallen the nation since 2001.[5]

Uruguay's export commodities are meat, rice, leather products, wool, fish and dairy products, with its export partners of the United States 23.2 percent, Brazil 13.5 percent, Argentina 7.8 percent, Germany 4.2 percent, and Mexico 4.1 percent. Uruguay imports machinery, chemicals, road vehicles and crude petroleum from Brazil 21.3 percent, Argentina 20.3 percent, Russia eight percent, U.S. 6.7 percent, Venezuela 6.3 percent, China 6.2 percent, and Nigeria 5.9 percent.[6]

A 2006 estimate of the per capita GDP was $10,700.


Beach at Maldonado

Uruguayans share a Spanish linguistic and cultural background, even though approximately one-fourth of the population is of Italian origin. Other nationalities comprising the 94 percent of its population of white European descent, are British, Germans, French, Swiss, Russians, Portuguese, Poles, Bulgarians, Hungarians, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Estonians, Latvians, Dutch, Belgians, Croatians, Greeks, Scandinavians, Irish, and Armenians. The remaining six percent are of African or Asian descent.

Uruguay's population has grown slowly throughout its history, reaching the one million mark early in the twentieth century. In that century, the rate of population growth declined steadily however, despite significant amounts of immigration, and virtually halted in the 1950s. A July 2006 estimate put the population of Uruguay at just under 3.5 million. A major contributor to the slow population growth rate was Uruguay's low, and declining, crude birth rate. This relatively low birth rate was usually ascribed to Uruguay's prosperity and the widespread availability of contraception. Given the secularization of Uruguayan society at the beginning of the twentieth century, the influence of the Roman Catholic Church was minor. The total fertility rate in 1990 was 2.4 children born per woman.

Advances in medicine have resulted in longer life expectancy. Estimates in 1990 placed life expectancy for males at 70 years and that for females at 76 years. Because Uruguayans were living longer, the median population began to age. By the census year of 1963, demographers already were beginning to worry that the rising proportion of the population in retirement might overstrain the country's social security system. The 1975 and 1985 censuses confirmed the acceleration of this aging trend. The trend was aggravated as net immigration, which had characterized Uruguay in the early twentieth century, gave way to net emigration and the exodus in particular of young, well-educated Uruguayans.[7]

Uruguay is distinguished by its high literacy rate (97.3 percent), large urban middle class, and relatively even income distribution. During the past two decades, an estimated 500,000 Uruguayans have emigrated, principally to Argentina and Brazil and a smaller group to the United States and Europe. As a result of the low birth rate, high life expectancy, and relatively high rate of emigration of younger people, Uruguay's population is quite mature. There is a sense within the youth of the nation that they must leave to use their technical and business skills in the more dynamic economies located to the North.

Nearly half of Uruguay's people live in the capital and largest city, Montevideo.


The culture of Uruguay is rich, reflecting the amalgam between people of European, African and Indigenous origins dating back to the sixteenth century.

Despite its small size, Uruguay has made significant contributions to the arts in Latin America. Interwoven into much of Uruguay’s folk music, art and drama is the gaucho, the nomadic, free-spirited horseman and cowhand who roamed the pampas from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century. Carved mate gourds, a traditional Uruguayan handicraft, often show scenes of gaucho life.


Uruguay’s greatest literary figure is the essayist Jose Enrique Rodo (1872-1917), who greatly influenced Latin American thought. His best-known work, Ariel (1900), expresses the importance of upholding spiritual values against materialistic ways of life. Writing during the same period was Horacio Quiroga (1878-1937), who is considered a master of the short story. Florencio Sanchez (1875-1910) composed plays dealing with social problems that are still performed today. Juan Zorrilla de San Martín (1855-1931) wrote epic poems about Uruguayan history. Juana de Ibarbourou (1895–1979) and Delmira Agustini (1866-1914) were also notable poets. Modern Uruguayan writers include Juan Carlos Onetti (author of No Man's Land and The Shipyard), novelist Mario Benedetti, social critic Eduardo Galeano, Mario Levrero and Jorge Majfud.


During the nineteenth century, Uruguayan painter Juan Manuel Blanes became well known for his depictions of historical events, and was the first Uruguayan to win widespread recognition. Post-Impressionist painter Pedro Figari achieved international fame during the early 1900s for his pastels of life in Montevideo and the countryside.


Uruguayans enjoy "tango music," which evolved alongside the well-known tango dance. Also popular is folk and waltz music, as well as local forms such as murga, candombe and milonga. Rock, jazz, pop and other Euro-American styles also enjoy great popularity in Uruguay.

Uruguay's annual Carnival is a major event, with many unique features distinguishing it from those of its neighbors.


Uruguay is South America's most secular country with the distinction of being home to the highest percentage of atheists and non-religious people in Latin America. It has no official religion and church and state are separate. Religious freedom is guaranteed. Sixty-six percent of Uruguayans are Roman Catholics; however, the influence of the Catholic Church is much less apparent on the social and political fabric of Uruguay than the nations of Brazil, Argentina or Chile.

Most Uruguayans baptize their children and marry in churches but less than half attend church on a regular basis. There is a small Jewish community in Montevideo (about one percent of the population) as well as several evangelical Protestant groups (about two percent). Macumba and Umbanda, religions of Afro-Brazilian origin, are the currently fastest-growing religions in Uruguay.

According to the U.S. State Department, approximately 850 families are practicing Buddhists. There is a Muslim population that lives primarily near the border with Brazil. The Unification Church is active in the country and has major property holdings, including a daily newspaper and an international hotel. There are also an estimated four thousand Bah’ai, concentrated mainly in Montevideo.

Many Christian groups perform foreign missionary work, and report no difficulties obtaining visas for religious work. Statistics indicated that there were an estimated eight hundred Mormon missionaries from other nations working in the country.


Spanish is the official language of Uruguay and is spoken by almost all of the population. English is common in the business world though it is a minority language, as are French and Italian. Other languages include Portuguese and Portuñol, a mixture of Spanish and Portuguese. Both are present in northern regions near the Brazilian border.


Uruguayans are known to eat a lot of meat. The parrillada (beef platter), chivito (a substantial steak sandwich), and pasta are the national dishes. The latter is due to Uruguay's many Italian immigrants who arrived in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Other Uruguayan dishes include morcilla dulce, a type of blood sausage cooked with ground orange peel and walnuts, and milanesa, a breaded veal cutlet. Snacks include olímpicos (club sandwiches), húngaras (spicy sausage in a hot dog roll), and masas surtidas (bite-sized pastries). Typical drinks include mate, tea, clericó (a mixture of white wine and fruit juice), and medio y medio (part sparkling wine and part white wine).


The most popular sport in Uruguay is soccer, and the country has earned many honors in that sport, including gold medals at the 1924 and 1928 Olympics and two World Cups. The first football world championship was celebrated in Montevideo in 1930.

Rugby, basketball and diving are also popular.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Error on call to template:cite web: Parameters url and title must be specifiedCentral Intelligence Agency. . The World Factbook.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Uruguay. International Monetary Fund. Retrieved October 2, 2011.
  3. Gini Index. World Bank. Retrieved March 2, 2011.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 U.S. Department of State. December 2006. Background Notes: Uruguay. Retrieved March 24, 2007.
  5. Country Profile: Uruguay. BBC News Online (March 13, 2007). Retrieved March 24, 2007.
  6. Uruguay – CIA World Factbook.
  7. Uruguay: Country Studies –Federal Rsearch Division, Library of Congress. Fertility, Mortality, and Population Growth. Retrieved May 24, 2007.

Sources and further reading

  • Hudson, Rex A. and Sandra W. Meditz. 1992. Uruguay: A Country Study. Area Handbook Series, 550-597. Washington, DC: Federal Research Division, Library of Congress. ISBN 0844407372
  • Weinstein, Martin. 1975. Uruguay: The Politics of Failure. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0837178452
  • Weinstein, Martin. 1988. Uruguay, Democracy at the Crossroads (Westview Profiles). Boulder, CO: Westview Press. ISBN 0865312907

External links

All links retrieved May 3, 2023.


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