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Uruguay Modern History

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.

  • ABBREVIATIONFINDER: 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.

Contemporary History of UruguayDuring 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 Argentina.

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 years.

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 Conditions).

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.

 
 

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