Uruguay developed into a stable democracy and
welfare state in the early 1900s. After the middle of
the century, economic downturn led to increased
contradictions and social unrest. The country was a
military dictatorship 1973–1985. Since the reign of
civilian government, the Colorado Party and the
Blancoparty succeeded each other in power as before. The
pattern was broken in 2004 when the left Alliance Breda front won the presidential election and
gained a majority in Congress.
The welfare state established on the basis of the
ideas of President José Batlle and Ordóñez in the early
1900s (see Older History) was funded by means of meat
exports. When meat prices dropped on the world market in
the late 1950s, the economy was hit by a downturn and
social unrest followed. The problem continued during the
1960s. The government's austerity policy to deal with
them led to lower living standards and popular
dissatisfaction with many strikes.
List of most commonly used acronyms containing Uruguay. Also includes historical, economical and political aspects of the country.
Against this background, the urban guerrilla
Tupamaros emerged (see also Political system). The
leftist guerrilla carried out "Robin Hood actions" which
made it popular with many Uruguayans, especially among
the middle class and intellectuals. Tupamaros also
carried out bank robberies, kidnappings and murders.
In the early 1970s, the situation was very unstable.
To strike down strikes and fight guerrillas, exceptional
laws and censorship were introduced. Government
opponents were arrested and tortured. In 1972, the fight
against Tupamaros intensified when President Juan María
Bordaberry of the Colorado Party deployed the military
to "crush guerrillas" at all costs. Although Tupamaros
was soon greatly weakened, the military did not retreat
but instead consolidated its political power. Parliament
was dissolved. Bordaberry remained president, but from
1973 the country was in effect a military dictatorship.
During the dictatorship both political and trade
union activities were banned and the press was heavily
censored. The country's prisons were filled with regime
critics, torture was routine and about 160 opposites
"disappeared" (carried away and killed), usually in
The military junta was unable to stop the country's
economic downturn. In the early 1980s, therefore, the
army wanted to surrender power to a civilian government,
provided the armed forces continued to stand as
guarantors of the political order.
Prior to the 1984 presidential election, censorship
eased and political prisoners were released. Left
parties were still banned, but other parties were
allowed to stand in the elections. The Colorado Party's
Julio María Sanguinetti was elected by a marginal margin
to the president. The following year, Sanguinetti was
installed as the first civilian president in twelve
After the regime change, leftist groups were allowed
to operate again and the last political prisoners were
released. There was considerable disagreement in
Parliament on how military perpetrators of human rights
violations would be treated during the dictatorship.
Faced with threats of new military intervention, the
Congress in 1986 decided that all military should be
granted amnesty (see also Democracy and Rights).
In the presidential election in the fall of 1989, the
Blancoparty's candidate, Luis Alberto Lacalle, won. By
forming a coalition, the Blanco Party and the Colorado
Party together gained a majority in Congress. The
coalition ran a policy of renegotiating foreign debt,
privatizing state-owned companies, reducing government
spending, and attracting foreign investors to the
country. However, the austerity measures triggered union
protests and strikes in the early 1990s. 1992 and 1993
were periodically troubled years, including several bomb
attacks that a right-wing extremist group said were
behind it. When a referendum on the sale of state-owned
enterprises was held in 1992, a clear majority voted in
favor of partially abolishing privatizations.
In the 1994 elections, the Colorado Party won by a
slight margin and Julio María Sanguinetti became
president again. The scarce victory forced Sanguinetti
to form a coalition government with the Blanco Party and
a series of small parties. New economic tightening meant
further deterioration in the welfare system. In 1995,
the retirement age was raised and it became compulsory
to save pension for everyone above a certain income
level. The changes were met by new protests and strikes.
In the first round of the 1999 presidential election,
Tabaré Vázquez, a candidate for a left alliance,
received the most votes. Before the second round, the
Blanco Party and the Colorado Party agreed to support
the latter party's candidate Jorge Batlle (nephew of
Batlle y Ordóñez). Together, the right-wing parties
defeated Tabaré Vázquez, but in Congress the left was
now the largest.
In 2000, President Jorge Batlle addressed the
approximately 160 unresolved cases of disappearance
during the military dictatorship. He met relatives of
the missing, appointed an investigation and dismissed a
general who said that the military would sooner or later
be forced to intervene with left-wing extremists again.
However, the government did not change the contentious
amnesty law that made it impossible to prosecute
suspected crimes during the dictatorship.
The deteriorating economy with new austerities made
the government unpopular and the left organized a series
of protests against its policies. In the summer of 2002,
the financial crisis in Argentina also hit Uruguay. The
value of Uruguay's currency, peson, fell sharply. When
the government prevented people from withdrawing their
savings from the banks, riots and looting broke out (see
Economic overview and Social conditions).
In the fall of 2002, the Blanco Party left the
government, but pledged to support President Battle's
minority government, which made major financial savings
to repay foreign loans and avoid a financial collapse.
The crisis hit hard on the inhabitants: more than one in
three Uruguayans lived below the poverty line in 2004
(see Social conditions).
The October 2004 presidential and congressional
elections marked a historic breaking point in Uruguayan
politics. The dominance of the two great right-wing
parties, 175 years long, was finally broken when the
left alliance, now called the Progressive Meeting-Broad
Front-New Majority (EP-FA-Nueva Mayoría) gained its own
majority in both chambers, while the Alliance leader
Tabaré Vázquez was elected president. From 2005, the
Alliance called itself only the Broad Front (FA).
Tabaré Vázquez became the first left president ever
in Uruguay. He already won 51 percent of the vote in the
first round. It was also the first time in 30 years that
a party gained its own majority in both chambers of
Congress. The left's success was largely due to
widespread dissatisfaction among Uruguayans with how the
old governments had managed the country's economy during
the 1999–2002 crisis years.
In the government that President Vázquez appointed
after the election victory, there were several union
leaders and former members of Tupamaros. But Vázquez's
policies were market-oriented and could almost be
described as social democratic. The President also
managed to establish good contacts with the business
community. Vázquez pursued a relatively strict fiscal
policy, foreign investment increased and the economy
strengthened. At the same time, unemployment dropped
rapidly and poverty decreased. The president remained
popular throughout the term, although he received
criticism from his own party when he refused to sign an
abortion law passed by Congress (see also Social
The popular Vázquez was barred from running for
re-election in 2009 and instead supported his
market-oriented Finance Minister Danilo Astori's
candidacy. But Astori lost the FA nomination battle
against Agriculture Minister José Mujica, who had a past
in left-wing Tupamaros and has been imprisoned for 14
years under the military dictatorship. Mujica then
appointed Astori as his vice presidential candidate, to
accommodate moderate forces within the FA who were
concerned about his left-wing radical past.
In the second round of the November 2009 presidential
election, Mujica won over the Blanco Party candidate
Luis Lacalle, who was president from 1990 to 1995.
Following the election victory of the Blanco Party and
the Colorado Party, Mujica invited political cooperation
and offered them a number of positions within the state
administration and state corporations.
In the contemporary congressional elections, the FA
gained its own majority in both chambers. Two
referendums were also conducted on the first election
day: first, the voters said no to allow Uruguayans
abroad to vote, and secondly, they voted no to abolish
the amnesty law that granted criminal immunity for human
rights violations committed during the dictatorship
1973–1985 (see further Democracy and Rights).
During his presidency, José "Pepe" Mujica personally
attracted considerable attention and admiration in the
outside world. He was rewritten as "the world's poorest
president" when he donated 90 percent of his salary to
charity, drove himself in an old car to work and lived
on a simple farm outside Montevideo where he and his
wife, Senator Lucía Topolansky, farmed chrysanthemums
for sale. In 2013, Foreign Policy magazine
named Mujica one of the world's 100 most influential
people, who, with their unpretentious livery and
reforms, redefined the left in Latin America. The
Economist named Uruguay the "country of the year".
In the 2014 election, then 74-year-old former
president Tabaré Vázquez was re-elected as the candidate
of the Breda Front. Vázquez won in the second round of
the Blanco Party's Luis Lacalle Pou - son of
ex-president Luis Lacalle, who was also the party's
presidential candidate in the previous election. The FA
also remained the largest party, with its own majority
in the House of Representatives.