Uruguayans share a Spanish linguistic and cultural background, even though approximately one-quarter of the population is of Italian origin. Most are Roman Catholic. Church and state are officially separated. Uruguay is distinguished by its high literacy rate, large urban middle class, and relatively even income distribution. The average Uruguayan standard of living compares favorably with that of most other Latin Americans. Metropolitan Montevideo, with about 1.4 million inhabitants, is the only large city. The rest of the urban population lives in about 20 towns. During the past two decades, an estimated 500,000 Uruguayans have emigrated, principally to Argentina and Brazil. As a result of the low birth rate and relatively high rate of emigration of younger people, Uruguay's population is quite mature.
Uruguay's early 19th century history was shaped by ongoing fights between the British, Spanish, Portuguese, and colonial forces for dominance in the Argentina-Brazil-Uruguay region. In 1811, Jose Gervasio Artigas, who became Uruguay's national hero, launched a revolt against Spain that resulted in the formation of a regional federation with Argentina. In 1821, Uruguay was annexed to Brazil by Portugal, but Uruguayan patriots declared independence from Brazil in 1825. With the support of Argentine troops and after 3 years of fighting, they defeated Brazilian forces.
The 1828 Treaty of Montevideo brought Uruguay independence, and the nation's first constitution was adopted in 1830. The remainder of the 19th century under a series of elected and appointed presidents saw interventions by, and conflicts with, neighboring states, political and economic fluctuations, and large inflows of immigrants, mostly from Europe.
Jose Batlle y Ordoņez, president from 1903 to 1907 and again from 1911 to 1915, set the pattern for Uruguay's modern political development. He established widespread political, social, and economic reforms such as a welfare program, government participation in many facets of the economy, and a plural executive. Some of these reforms were continued by his successors.
By 1966, economic, political, and social difficulties led to constitutional amendments, and a new constitution was adopted in 1967. In 1973, amid increasing economic and political turmoil, the armed forces closed the Congress and established a civilian-military regime. A new constitution drafted by the military was rejected in a November 1980 plebiscite. Following the plebiscite, the armed forces announced a plan for return to civilian rule. National elections were held in 1984; Colorado Party leader Julio Maria Sanguinetti won the presidency and served from 1985 to 1990.
The first Sanguinetti administration implemented economic reforms and consolidated democratization following the country's years under military rule. Sanguinetti's economic reforms, focusing on the attraction of foreign trade and capital, achieved some success and stabilized the economy. In order to promote national reconciliation and facilitate the return of democratic civilian rule, Sanguinetti secured public approval by plebiscite of a controversial general amnesty for military leaders accused of committing human rights violations under the military regime and sped the release of former guerrillas.
The National Party's Luis Alberto Lacalle won the 1989 presidential election and served from 1990 to 1995. President Lacalle executed major economic structural reforms and pursued further liberalization of trade regimes, including Uruguay's inclusion in the Southern Cone Common Market (MERCOSUR) in 1991. Despite economic growth during Lacalle's term, adjustment and privatization efforts provoked political opposition, and some reforms were overturned by referendum.
In the 1994 elections, former President Sanguinetti won a new term, which ran from 1995 until March 2000. As no single party had a majority in the General Assembly, the National Party joined with Sanguinetti's Colorado Party in a coalition government. The Sanguinetti government continued Uruguay's economic reforms and integration into MERCOSUR. Other important reforms were aimed at improving the electoral system, social security, education, and public safety. The economy grew steadily for most of Sanguinetti's term until low commodity prices and economic difficulties in its main export markets caused a recession in 1999.
The 1999 national elections were held under a new electoral system established by a 1996 constitutional amendment. Primaries in April decided single presidential candidates for each party, and national elections on October 31 determined representation in the legislature. As no presidential candidate received a majority in the October election, a runoff was held in November. In the runoff, Colorado Party candidate Jorge Batlle, aided by the support of the National Party, defeated Broad Front candidate Tabare Vazquez. Batlle's 5-year term began on March 1, 2000. The Colorado and National Parties continued their legislative coalition, as neither party by itself won as many seats as the 40% of each house won by the Broad Front coalition.
In his first weeks in office, President Batlle indicated that his priorities would include promoting economic growth, increasing international trade, attracting foreign investment, reducing the size of government, and resolving issues related to Uruguayans who disappeared during the military government.
The Constitution also provides for a bicameral General Assembly responsible for enacting laws and regulating the administration of justice. The General Assembly consists of a 30-member Senate, presided over by the vice president of the republic, and a 99-member Chamber of Deputies. In each house, the Broad Front has 40% of seats, the Colorado Party 33%, the National Party 22%, and New Space 4%.
The highest court is the Supreme Court; below it are appellate and lower courts and justices of the peace. In addition, there are electoral and administrative ("contentious") courts, an accounts court, and a military judicial system.
The government seeks export markets and foreign investment. Uruguay is a member of the Southern Cone Common Market (MERCOSUR) with Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay. It is an active proponent of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) process and is coordinator of the FTAA e-commerce group and subcoordinator of the agricultural subsidies group. Uruguay also is a member of the Rio Group, an informal group of Latin American states that deals with multilateral regional issues. It is a party to the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (Rio Treaty), the World Trade Organization, and the Latin American Nuclear-Free Zone. Uruguay's location between Argentina and Brazil makes close relations with these two larger neighbors and fellow MERCOSUR members particularly important.
An early proponent of the Enterprise for the Americas Initiative, Uruguay has participated in the follow-up process to the 1994 and 1998 Summits of the Americas. Uruguay is currently the responsible coordinator of the Strengthening Judicial Systems Initiative and a co-coordinator of the Science and Technology Initiative.
The Uruguayan Government cooperates with the United States on law enforcement matters such as regional efforts to reduce drug trafficking.
The U.S. Embassy in Uruguay is located at Lauro Muller 1776, Montevideo (tel: 598-2-203-6061 or 598-2 408-7777; fax: 598-2--408-8611). The mailing address for the embassy is UNIT 4500, APO AA 34035. The embassy also has an Internet web page at http://www.embeeuu.gub.uy/.
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