Located in southern South America, bordering the South Atlantic Ocean, between Argentina and Brazil, Uruguay is the second-smallest South American country (after Suriname). The country is slightly smaller than the state of Washington, with 176,215 km2, with 175,015 km2 of land and 1,200 km2 of water and 660 km of coastline.
The border countries are Argentina (580 km) and Brazil (1,068 km). Uruguay has a temperate climate with the temperatures for the January to March summer ranging from 17 to 28 degrees C, and during the remaining 7 to 9 months the temperatures range from 6 to 14 degrees C. Annual precipitation increases from south to north from 950 mm to 1250 mm.
The country has a mostly low-lying landscape. Cerro Catedral, located north of Maldonado department, is the country’s highest point at 514 meters high. Because of the absence of mountains, which act as weather barriers, there are seasonally high winds (the pampero blows north from the Argentine pampas), droughts, and floods. Uruguayan time is between 2-3 hours behind GMT and 2-3 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time in the USA.
The official name, Oriental Republic of Uruguay, comes from its geographic location to the east of the Uruguay River. This geographical reason as well as historical reasons caused the Uruguayans to be called “Orientals,” even though Uruguay is situated in the Western Hemisphere. The name “Uruguay,” comes from the Guarani (from Paraguay) language, meaning “river where the painted birds live”.
Uruguay is known for its liberal social laws and well-developed social security, health, and educational systems. It is one of the few countries in Latin America and the Caribbean where in the recent past the entire population has access to clean water. Recent issues about the quality of potable water in Maldonado have, however, been a concern.
Origins and language
Uruguayans can claim their origins primarily from Spain and Italy, from other European countries, Russia, and Argentina and Brazil. The size of the population has recently been stable at 3.5 million, with about half living in the capital city of Montevideo and its metropolitan area.
Uruguay is dependent on agricultural and beef production, and during the past few decades, has sought to be a logistics, political, and financial center for the region. There are no ethnic or religious conflicts and public safety rates are better than the regional average.
The official language, Uruguayan Spanish (or rioplatense Spanish), has some modifications to Spanish due to the considerable number of Italian immigrants. The immigrants spoke a mixture of Italian and Spanish known as ‘cocoliche’ and the population still frequently uses some of the words. English is common in the business world and its study has risen significantly in recent years, especially among the young. Other languages include Portuguese and Portuñol (a mixture of Spanish and Portuguese) and Brazilero. Both are spoken in the northern regions near the Brazilian border.
Uruguay is known for its secularism and has no official religion. About 65% of the citizens are Roman Catholics and a small percentage of others are Protestant or Jewish. The Macumba and Umbanda religions of Afro-Brazilian origin are currently the fastest-growing religions in Uruguay.
Uruguayans enjoy a broad range of music such as tango, folk, and waltz as well as local forms such as candombe, milonga and murga. Murga is composed of a chorus and percussionists and is most often performed on stages during the Carnival festival. Candombe is a drum-based musical style, and Milonga is tango-inspired music, both of which are recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Rock, jazz, pop and other Western musical genres also enjoy great popularity by the younger generation. During the festivals in Montevideo all of these musical genres are prevalent.
The cuisine takes advantage of the abundance of beef, and Uruguayans enjoy partaking in the practice of asado, which is a term used both for a range of barbecue techniques and the social event of having or attending a barbecue. Asado is also a standard word used for ‘barbecue’. An asado usually consists of beef alongside various other meats, which are cooked on a grill, called a parrilla, or an open fire.
Other dishes include chorizo (spicy pork sausage), chitterlings (intestines of pig or cow), sweet bread, chicken, chivito, (steak sandwich), and pasta. Typical drinks include mate, tea, clerico (a mixture of white wine and fruit juice), and medio y medio (part sparkling wine and part white wine). Mate, or yerba mate, is a very popular traditional South American caffeine-rich infused hot or cold drink made from dried, chopped, and ground yerba mate leaves.
After its independence in 1828, thousands of predominantly Italian and Spanish immigrants joined the small population of 75,000. Since World War II, the country has not had large entries of new arrivals and in the 1960s, Uruguayans for the first time emigrated en masse primarily to Argentina and Brazil because of an economic decline and the onset of more than a decade of military dictatorship. An economic crisis in the early 1980s and in 2002 has triggered more emigration, and now almost 600,000 Uruguayans, or more than 18% of the populations are living as diaspora.
Uruguay’s mandatory enrollments and provision of free primary through university education has contributed to the country’s high levels of literacy (about 98%) and educational attainment. One in three workers have technical or university training, and since 2002 young educated adults have sought better job opportunities by emigrating to countries such as the USA and Spain.
This has had a significant impact on the return on investment in education, and in combination with a low birth rate and difficult economic conditions, this has strained the country’s social health and security system and is creating an ageing population. Now, one of the priority areas for the government is to strengthen links with the Uruguayan diaspora and the impact of the international financial crisis, especially in Spain, has reversed the outward flow and influenced decisions to return to their home country.
The country is rich in marble, amethyst stone, and white stone. There is ongoing exploration for iron and other mineral resources. The extensive forestry and fishery resources and fertile land has engendered an economy that is largely driven by the export-oriented agricultural sector.
The strongest exporting industries have historically been beef and wool, and the timber refining and paper mills has caused forestry to become a growth industry in recent years. Due to major investments made in the 1990s, the most significant manufactured exports in Uruguay are plastic-based products. Following a mid-January announcement in 2014 that 20 oil deposits has been discovered in the northern region of the country, Uruguay’s state petrol company, ANCAP, stated that Uruguay’s plans to auction offshore oil licenses would be conditioned on global oil prices staying above US$ 60 per barrel.
Travel and tourism, largely emanating from neighboring countries, accounts for about 9.5% of the country’s GDP. Uruguay’s educated workforce and competitive wages has engendered interest from many global IT companies, many of which are located in the Zonamerica Business & Technology Park (zonamerica.com).
After averaging a growth rate of 5% annually during 1996–98, in 1999–2002 the economy had a major downturn, affected largely from the spillover effects of the economic problems of its neighboring countries, Argentina and Brazil. In four years, the real GDP fell by nearly 20%, with 2002 the worst year. Inflation and the unemployment rate rose, and a high external debt led to financial assistance from the IMF.
Uruguay restructured its external debt in 2003 without asking creditors to accept a reduction on the principal. Economic growth then averaged 8% annually during the period 2004-08. The 2008-09 global financial crises decelerated the growth rate to 2.9% in 2009. Nevertheless, the country managed to avoid a recession and keep positive growth rates, mainly through higher public expenditure and investment, and GDP growth exceeded 7% in 2010 and 2011. The 2012 GDP growth rate slowed to 3.7% in 2012 and was 4.4% in 2013 (56 billion US$).
Uruguay can be an expensive country to live in. There is little manufacturing and most finished goods are imported, all with high import taxes. The socialistic policies can make labor expensive, with mandatory taxes, health and accident insurance, retirement plans, vacation pay, and bonuses almost doubling the wage rate. More information about the cost of living can be found at numbeo.com/cost-of-living/country_result.jsp?country=Uruguay and nationmaster.com/country-info/stats/Cost-of-living/Local-purchasing-power
The terrain of three-quarters of the country is mostly rolling plains and low hills, ideal for cattle and sheep farming. The major export industries are agriculture (wheat, rice, barley, maize, sorghum, wood and wood products), livestock (meats, dairy, wool, and leathers), manufactured products (plastics, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, textiles, clothing, cellulose), software, logistics, and other services.
Uruguay is divided into 19 provinces (Departments). Montevideo, located at the southern tip of the country with an area of 530 square kilometers, has 60% of the population (1.4 million) and 80% of the industrial output of the country. It therefore is the political, governance, economic and cultural center of the country. The legal system is based on the Spanish civil code and laws passed by Parliament. There are special courts in the areas of civil, customs, bankruptcy, commercial, labor, criminal, and family issues.
Uruguay is a democratic republic with political party plurality and there are presidential, vice presidential, and parliamentary elections every five years. The President, Vice President and departmental governors are elected directly by citizens for a term of five years. The President is the head of state and of government, and the supreme commander of the armed forces.
Tabaré Vázquez won a runoff presidential election and began his second term as president on March 1, 2015. The Vice President serves as Chairman of the Congress and the Senate. The President cannot serve consecutive terms, but can be re-elected during other elections. The parliament is divided between the Senate and the House, with 30 senators and 99 house of representatives.
The past two elections favored the Broad Front middle-left political party that has sought to improve the people’s livelihood in the social sphere, optimize the distribution of wealth, help vulnerable populations, and promote education and health care reform.
The Southern Common Market (El Mercado Comun del Sur) or MERCOSUR (mercosur.int), originated in 1988 between Argentina and Brazil and expanded to include Paraguay and Uruguay in 1991 and Venezuela in 2006. Associate members, who have free trade agreements but are not part of the customs union, include Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. Mexico has been granted observer status in the bloc. MERCOSUR’s Secretariat and Parliament are located in Montevideo.
MERCOSUR is a customs union and trading bloc that includes a market of more than 266 million consumers (nearly half of Latin America’s total population) and a GDP of around $2.8 trillion. Its first years of existence were very successful, with trade among members growing nearly four-fold. MERCOSUR is progressing on trade and investment liberalization and is emerging as the most powerful trading bloc in all of Latin America.
Latin America’s large consumer base and its potential as a low-cost production platform for worldwide export appeal to both the European Union and the United States. It may incorporate all of South America into a South American Free Trade Agreement and link up with NAFTA. However, different trade agendas, various macroeconomic policy frameworks, and the economic problems of Argentina and Brazil are delaying plans for integration.
The small size of Uruguay’s population has enabled the attainment of one of the highest teledensity levels in South America that includes a 100% digitalization of the main lines. Although the telecommunications sector have been controlled by a state monopoly for some years, provisions have been made to introduce liberalization and to allow for entry of more firms into the cellular sector.
The national territory is well covered by telecommunications services that include landlines (29 per 100), prepaid and contract mobile services (105 per 100), Internet (broadband – 40% usage rate), and cable television. All telecommunications activities are regulated and controlled by URSEC (Unidad Reguladora en los Servicios en Comunicaciones), the communications industry regulatory body.
A brief political history
The indigenous inhabitants of Uruguay before European colonization of the area were the Charrua, a small tribe driven south by the Guaraní of Paraguay about 4,000 years ago. While searching for a route to the East Indies, in 1516 Spanish explorer Juan Diaz de Solis landed on the coast that is now known as Punta del Este and declared the land a Spanish colony.
He later discovered the Rio de la Plata and continued on to a little island called Martin García, where the Uruguay River meets the Rio de la Plata. At this time, Uruguay was simply known as the Banda Oriental, or Eastern Band, of colonies along the eastern edge of the Uruguay and De la Plata River. Later expeditions colonized Buenos Aires, leaving what is Uruguay completely abandoned until 1603, when Hernando Arias de Saavedra, a colonial governor, decided to place cattle there to breed in the wild.
The Spanish founded the first permanent settlement in the territory in 1624 at Soriano on the Río Negro. In 1680, the Portuguese, who occupied Brazil, founded Colonia del Sacramento. Since then, Uruguay became a zone of contention between the Spanish and the Portuguese empires and Colonia changed hands between the Spanish and Portuguese during almost 100 years of continuous struggles of ownership.
The Spanish founded the capital, Montevideo, in 1726 as a military stronghold. Its natural harbor developed into a commercial center that competed with Buenos Aires. In 1811, Jose Gervasio Artigas, who is Uruguay’s national hero, launched a revolt against Spain, which resulted in the formation of a regional federation with Argentina. Argentina refused to give Uruguay autonomy, and Artigas, declared Uruguay independent in 1815. A year later, Brazilians attacked and annexed Uruguay in 1821, and Artigas had to flee to Paraguay. Uruguay was then known as the Cisplatine Province.
Uruguayan patriots later declared independence from Brazil in 1825. The 1828 Treaty of Montevideo led to Uruguay’s independence, and the nation’s first constitution was adopted in 1830. At the time of independence, Uruguay had an estimated population of fewer than 75,000. The political scene in Uruguay became split between two parties: the conservative Blancos (Whites) headed by Manuel Oribe, representing the agricultural interests of the countryside; and the liberal Colorados (Reds) led by Fructuoso Rivera, representing the business interests of Montevideo.
The Uruguayan parties became associated with warring political factions in neighboring Argentina. The Colorados favored the exiled Argentine liberal Unitarios, many of whom had taken refuge in Montevideo while the Blanco president Manuel Oribe was a close friend of the Argentine ruler Manuel de Rosas. On 15 June 1838, an army led by the Colorado leader Rivera overthrew the president, who fled to Argentina. Rivera declared war on Rosas in 1839. The conflict would last thirteen years and become known as the Guerra Grande (the Great War).
Under a series of elected and appointed presidents, the rest of the 19th century saw interventions by, and conflicts with, neighboring states, political and economic fluctuations, and large inflows of European immigrants. Political stability was achieved in the first two decades of the twentieth century largely through the efforts of the dominant figure in the Colorado Party, José Batlle y Ordonez (president, 1903-07, 1911-15). He promoted social, economic, and political reforms that supported a statist tradition.
His programs included the establishment of a comprehensive social welfare program, the encouragement of domestic industry, the improvement of working conditions, the expansion of education, and the separation of church and state. Some of these reforms were continued by his successors, however, by 1966, economic, political, and social difficulties led to constitutional amendments, and a new constitution was adopted in 1967.
A Marxist urban guerrilla movement, the Tupamaros, launched in the late 1960s, led Uruguay’s president Juan María Bordaberry to “agree” to military control of his administration in 1973. 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 and Colorado Party leader Julio Maria Sanguinetti won the presidency and took office in 1985.
The Sanguinetti administration implemented economic reforms and established 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. The National Party’s Luis Alberto Lacalle won the 1989 presidential election and served from 1990 to 1995. President Lacalle instituted major economic structural reforms and pursued further liberalization of trade regimes, including Uruguay’s inclusion in the Southern 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, 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, which continued into 2002.
Colorado Party candidate Jorge Batlle, aided by the support of the National Party, won the 1999 election. During his term there was economic recession and uncertainty that was largely affected by the political and economic collapse of Argentina. Unemployment rose to close to twenty percent, real wages fell, the peso was devalued and the percentage of Uruguayans in poverty reached almost forty percent, causing 15% of Uruguay’s population to leave the country in search of work. These worsening economic conditions played a part in turning public opinion against the free market economic policies adopted by the Batlle administration and its predecessors, leading to popular rejection through plebiscites of proposals for privatization of the state petroleum company in 2003 and of the state water company in 2004.
In 2004, Tabare Vazquez and the left-of-center Broad Front (Frente Amplio) Coalition won the national election that effectively ended 170 years of political control previously held by the Colorado and Blanco parties. This also gave the Broad Front coalition a majority in both houses of parliament. The newly elected government, while pledging to continue payments on Uruguay’s external debt, also promised to undertake a crash jobs programs to attack the widespread problems of poverty and unemployment.
With the idealistic mission to raise the general standard of living of the people, this government instituted a series of social and economic reforms that were designed to both strengthen democracy and fundamentally improve the quality of life. With an objective of improving education, Vásquez announced at the end of 2006 his Plan Ceibal, which gives a free laptop with Internet access to every child between the ages of 6 and 12.
In 2009, former Tupamaro and leftist rebel-turned-moderate Jose Mujica, who is from the same left-wing Broad Front Coalition as Vazquez, won the presidential election. Mujica had the same commitment as his predecessor to education and social welfare. In June 2012, Mujica called for the legalization and regulation of marijuana in Uruguay. The announcement came with the explanation that it was a move to end drug trafficking in the country.
The new law was accepted in the Senate on December 2013 with the provision that the government regulates the production side of the process by controlling the price, quality, and maximum production volume. Residents, who have to be 18 or older, are allowed to buy up to 40 grams (1.4 oz) of cannabis from the Uruguayan government each month and be registered in a national database to track their consumption.
In October 2012, Uruguay legalized abortions during first trimester pregnancies and in 2013, Uruguay became the 12th country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage. Uruguay’s neighbor, Argentina legalized same-sex marriage in 2010. In November of 2014 Tabaré Vázquez won a runoff presidential election and began his second term as president on March 1, 2015.
Festivals and Holidays
|January 1||New Year’s Day|
|January 6||Children’s Day|
|Late Feb or early March||Carnival|
|Late March or early April||Tourism week|
|April 19||Landing of the 33 patriots day|
|May 1||International worker’s day|
|May 18||Battle of Las Piedras|
|June 19||Birthday of Jose Gervasio Artigas and never again day|
|July 18||Constitution day|
|August 25||Independence day|
|October 12||Day of the race (Columbus day)|
|November 2||Deceased ones day|
|December 25||Day of the family|
More detailed information about living in Uruguay is available on the ExpatSphere Guides pages.