History Files

The Americas

South American States


Modern Uruguay
AD 1825 - Present Day

Located in South America, the Oriental Republic of Uruguay borders Brazil to the north, with Argentina filling its entire border to the west, divided from it by the Rio de la Plata (the 'river of silver'). To the east this pocket-sized state (in South American terms, at least) looks out over the South Atlantic. The capital and largest city is Montevideo, which was founded in 1724 as a military stronghold.

The colonial administrator of Rio de la Plata at the time, Bruno Mauricio de Zabala (1717-1734), felt forced to create it in order to hold back Portuguese encroachment from Brazil. The country's name comes from a Guarani word meaning 'river where the birds live' (although other interpretations exist). The addition of 'oriental' is due to its eastern location within the Americas, and its position east of the river.

The first Europeans arrived in the region around 1516, when the Spanish navigator, Juan Diaz de Solis, was killed by the indigenous people whilst exploring the Rio de la Plata. That local resistance was strong, so colonisation in the 'Eastern Strip' (the later Uruguay) was limited until the first permanent Spanish Colonial settlement was founded in 1624.

Then a new Portuguese settlement prompted closer Spanish interest, as they sought to limit the expansion of Brazil. Until 1825, Uruguay remained part of the Spanish colonies, administered first from Peru and then from Rio de la Plata. The first efforts towards independence had been made as early as 1811, with Spanish power shown to be weakening by the 1807 occupation of Montevideo by Great Britain.

Then, in a period in which Spanish power in the Americas fragmented very rapidly, fighting broke out between Spain, Brazil, and Argentina. The Uruguay section of Rio de la Plata was seized by Brazil and renamed the Cisplatine region, but it was almost immediately lost again. During further fighting in 1825-1827 the Cisplatine took its chance to break away from the United Provinces of South America on 25 August 1825 (Independence Day), establishing itself as the independent republic of Uruguay by 1828 when, with backing from Great Britain it was finally recognised. A constitution was established in 1830 under the president, Fructuoso Rivera.

Modern Uruguay has a population of around 3.2 million people, with a little over thirty-four percent of that total living in the capital city. It is reputed to be South America's most honest country, along with Chile, and is fully secular, with no official religion. Its stability has earned it the nickname 'the Switzerland of South America'.

A period of economic and political turmoil gripped the country in the 1970s, in particular thanks to left-wing urban guerrilla attacks in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The government of the day suspended the constitution and launch a period of repressive military rule which lasted until 1985. Since the full restoration of democracy, successive governments have liberalised the economy. Colonial towns, beach resorts, and a year-round mild climate have all contributed to a growing tourist industry.

Torres del Paine, Chile

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from The British Invasion of the River Plate 1806-1807: How the Redcoats Were Humbled and a Nation Was Born, Ben Hughes (Pen & Sword Book Ltd, 2014), from Chronological Tables 1830-1971, Uruguayan House of Representatives (1971, in Spanish), and from External Links: United Nations Population Division, and Wikitravel: Uruguay, and BBC Country Profiles, and The 'Philosopher president' of Uruguay (Times Higher Education).)

1825 - 1827

King John VI of Portugal, under pressure from Britain, recognises the independence of Brazil. War breaks out almost immediately between the Argentine confederation and Brazil. During this the Spanish region of Cisplatine breaks away, establishing itself as the independent nation state of Uruguay (full independence is confirmed in 1830).

Juan Manuel de Rosas
Juan Manuel de Rosas gained control of Buenos Aires in 1829, following Uruguay's split from Argentine control, in a period of deep unrest in the South American states


The political situation in Uruguay becomes complicated when two factions emerge; the conservative 'whites' (Blancos) and the liberal 'reds' (Colorados). Respectively, they represent countryside and city interests. Both parties become associated with the war in the Argentine confederation, with the Blanco president of Uruguay favouring the Argentine dictator, Manuel de Rosas. On 15 June and with secret French backing, the Colorados overthrow the president, Manuel Oribe, and he flees to Argentina.


Gabriel Antonio Pereira

Interim president.

1838 - 1839

Fructuoso Rivera

Former president, colonel, and leader of the Colorados.


Gabriel Antonio Pereira

Interim president. Later returned as president (1856-1860).


Manuel Oribe's supporters form a government in exile in Montevideo, and Rivera goes to war against him. The Great War lasts for thirteen years, outliving Rivera's second term of office and almost outliving Rivera himself.

Map of Montevideo
The city of Montevideo was founded between 1724 and 1726 by Bruno Mauricio de Zabala, a port city by nature which faces the Río de la Plata and which today consists of tree covered avenues, quiet neighbourhood streets, and green squares and parks

1839 - 1843

Fructuoso Rivera

Second term. Died 1854.

1842 - 1852

In 1842 an Argentine army overruns the country on Manuel Oribe's behalf, although the capital remains free. This is besieged from the start of 1843 and, when access to Paraguay is blocked for Great Britain and France, they declare war on Argentina and blockade its capital with assistance from Brazil.

In 1849 and 1850, Argentina agrees a peace deal with each of the two European powers. Argentine troops are withdrawn from Uruguay, although Oribe's own forces still maintain a loose siege.

In 1851 an Argentine faction opposes Manuel de Rosas in Argentina, defeats Oribe, and lifts the siege, nine years after it had begun. The following year, Rosas himself is overthrown at the Battle of Caseros on 3 February 1852, ending the war (and also slavery in Uruguay).

Battle of Caseros
The Battle of Caseros in February 1852 ended the career of Manuel de Rosas, shortly after Oribe's own defeat, as well as ending the occupation of areas of Uruguay's territory

1843 - 1852

Joaquin Suarez

Formerly Uruguay's first head of state (1828). Died 1868.

1852 - 1854

Following the end of the war and the governance of Joaquin Suarez and his so-called Defensive Government (thanks to the prolonged sieges of Montevideo), an interim president, General Venancio Flores, now governs the country until a representative head of state can be selected.

1863 - 1864

Amid renewed conflict between the Colorados and the Blancos, General Flores leads an armed uprising against the Blanco president, Bernardo Prudencio Berro. He has backing in the form of troops and weapons from Argentina, and overthrows the government in 1864. Paraguay uses this as a reason to declare war on Uruguay, having supported the deposed president.

1864 - 1868

Venancio Flores

Colorado military dictator. Assassinated 19 Feb.

1864 - 1870

As a result of Paraguay's declaration of war against Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay go to war against Paraguay in the War of the Triple Alliance (which is also known as the Paraguayan War or the Great War in Paraguay). It proves to be a long and costly affair, causing more casualties than any other South American war.

War of the Triple Alliance
The War of the Triple Alliance - so destructive for Paraguay - was one of the first to be recorded by the relatively new invention of photography

Paraguay is utterly defeated, losing almost half its territory. However, Uruguay doesn't do much better, losing about ninety-five per cent of its armed forces. Flores and Berro are assassinated on the very same day. The Colorados and Blancos, tired of the constant bloodshed, decide to split the country into two spheres of influence, with the Blancos taking the inland country areas. 'Skirmishes' such as the Revolution of the Lances in 1870-1872 still take place between them.

1903 - 1915

The reformist Jose Batlle y Ordonez (of the Colorado party) gives women the franchise and establishes a welfare state. He also dis-establishes the church and abolishes the death penalty during two successive terms as president. Uruguay is already heading towards becoming one of the most liberal and fair countries in South America.

1917 - 1918

In October 1917, Uruguay declares for the allies in the First World War against Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire, but plays no active role in the conflict.


After remaining neutral for the majority of the Second World War, Uruguay joins it late as an ally of the USA and Great Britain, making the agreement on 15 February 1945 in opposition against Japan and Germany (the latter of which is already teetering on the brink of defeat).

Japanese troops surrendering at Guadalcanal
Japanese evacuation from Guadalcanal was largely successful thanks to bombing attacks on the US fleet, with very few Japanese troops surrendering to the Allies, but it marked the beginning of a series of setbacks for Japan


The president, Jorge Pacheco, declares a state of emergency in the face of growing attacks by the Tupamaros guerrilla movement. Since the group's first involvement in crime in the early 1960s, it has grown into a Marxist force which kidnaps political figures and attacks the security forces, and it is beginning to destabilise the government.

1973 - 1984

The president cedes control of the country to the military in an attempt to end the Tupamaros movement. The plan works, and the guerrillas are crushed by the end of the year, but the military refuses to relinquish its hold on power. The imprisonment of opponents increases and Uruguayans flee the country in droves. The military 'elects' presidents to present a facade of legitimate rule before taking more direct control in 1981.

1981 - 1984

Gregorio Alvarez

Army C-in-C and dictator. Stood down.

1984 - 1985

Mass protests lead to the restoration of civilian rule in Uruguay, with elections and a new president following by 1985. Those responsible for human rights abuses are given amnesty. Uruguay settles into a period of progress and unity.

Uruguay 1984 protests
Two Uruguayan marines demonstrate the search of a vehicle and its occupant during the 1984 protests and subsequent election campaign, an unusual period of unrest for Uruguay

2002 - 2004

In May 2002 emergency measures are introduced, including tax increases, by President Batlle in an effort to prevent Argentina's 2001 financial crisis from spilling over the border. In August the government orders banks to close for almost a week to stop the mass withdrawal of savings. A general strike is held in protest at the economic crisis.

In April 2003 the World Bank approves loans worth more than $250m. In December voters in a referendum reject plans to open up the state oil monopoly to foreign investment. The uncertainty and turmoil of these two years results in a remarkable result in 2004's presidential elections. The victory of the left-of-centre Frente Amplio Coalition ends 170 years of Uruguayan government by the Blanco and Colorado parties.

2009 - 2014

Former leftist rebel-turned-moderate, José Mujica of the governing Broad Front, wins the presidential election. After taking office in 2010 he goes on to improve the country's liberal standing even further

His progressive reforms include overseeing the revocation of an amnesty law which had protected military officers from prosecution for crimes committed under military rule in 1975-1983; legalising abortion for all women; allowing abortions in the first twelve weeks of pregnancy; legalising same-sex marriage; and, perhaps most controversially, legalising the cultivation, sale, and consumption of marijuana for recreational use as a measure to counter drugs cartels.

Jose Mujica
José Mujica became known for his modest lifestyle, donating ninety percent of his salary to charities and preferring to live on the farm which was owned by his wife, just outside Montevideo

2015 - 2020

José Mujica's highly successful term of office comes to an end when he stands down at the end of that term and Tabaré Vázquez wins the contest to succeed him within the Broad Front. Then Vázquez wins that year's elections to gain a non-consecutive second term of office (the first term being between 2005-2010). He largely continues Mujica's highly progressive liberal governance.


Despite being diagnosed with lung cancer, Tabaré Vázquez completes his term of office before stepping down in March. He dies in December 2020. Following elections, his successor is the conservative Luis Lacalle Pou of the National Party, successors to the Blancos. His initial focus is on austerity and cutting costs rather than attempting to reverse the recent liberal progress which Uraguay has enjoyed.

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