Beginning in the mid-1600s this sparsely inhabited fertile plain, home to the semi-nomadic Charrua Indians, became a contested arena between the Spanish and the Portuguese. By the end of the eighteenth century most of the Portuguese had been driven out of the area. In the early part of the nineteenth century, the movement for independence that swept through Latin America took an interesting twist in Uruguay. In 1811, José Gervasio Artigas led a group of revolutionaries against the Spanish in Argentina. Although they successfully ousted the colonial rulers, they failed to establish an Argentine confederation among the provinces of the Rio de la Plata. Ten years later, Brazil tried unsuccessfully to annex the East Bank. Finally, in 1828 Uruguay became independent from both Argentina and Brazil, adopted its first Constitution in 1830, and elected revolutionary leader Fructuoso Rivera as the country's first president.
After independence, the conflict became an internal one. When Rivera's term ended in 1836, he tried to overthrow his successor, Manuel Oribe. Civil war ensued and continued for the next 16 years. Oribe's faction became known as the Blancos, because they wore white hatbands, and Rivera's followers, who wore red hatbands, were called the Colorados. In 1865, the Colorados captured control of the government (in exchange for ceding control of the countryside to the Blancos) and held onto power for nearly a century. During the long reign of the Colorados, one person in particular put a distinctive mark upon the Uruguayan political system. Elected president twice, in 1903 and 1911, José Batlle y Ordóñez was a visionary who instituted a wide-ranging series of social and political reforms that transformed this tiny country into a modern socialist state. Batlle established a social security system, unemployment insurance, and a penal system based on rehabilitation rather than punishment. Banking, insurance, and utilities were run by state corporations, divorce was legalized, and freedom of the press protected. One of his greatest achievements, Batlle made education universal and free.
The 1940s and 1950s were Uruguay's golden years. Bolstered by the Allied troops need for wool and meat during World War II (1939–45), Uruguay's economy boomed and the country enjoyed a period of prosperity and political stability. The tensions in Uruguayan society, however, reemerged during the 1950s as foreign trade declined, the economy stagnated, inflationary pressures mounted, and government deficits rose dramatically. In 1958, the Blancos became the majority party for the first time since 1865.
Social turmoil and political paralysis increasingly gripped the country during the next decade. Confronted with significant student and labor unrest and an incipient leftist, urban guerrilla movement (the Tupamaros), the military took over the government in June 1973. For the next 12 years, the country suffered brutal repression under authoritarian military rule. Thousands were tortured, unions were dissolved, universities were purged and restructured, and thirty-seven newspapers were shut down. Most writers, painters, and musicians were either arrested or fled the country. During this era Uruguay's external debt soared to more than US $5 billion dollars.
The return to civilian rule began in 1980 when Uruguayan voters rejected a referendum to institutionalize the military's ultimate authority over the country's political system. In November 1984, elections were held for a civilian president, and Julio Maria Sanguinetti, the Colorado candidate, won. Sanguinetti served a full term, and was followed by Luis Alberto Lacalle in 1989, a standard-bearer for the Blanco Party (now known as the National Party). Lacalle pursued a neoconservative agenda of market-oriented economic changes, which included lowering tariffs, shrinking the government, reducing social security benefits, privatizing the national airline, and promoting Uruguay's participation in international trade and the regional trading bloc, MERCOSUR. Lacalle's 1992 referendum that proposed selling several state-run companies, including the phone company, was overwhelmingly rejected, however, and the legislature blocked many of his other attempts at reform.
In November 1994, after what most observers called the most bitterly contested and closest election ever, Sanguinetti was once again chosen president, becoming the second Uruguayan in the country's 160-year history to hold the office twice. In 1999, in his fifth attempt at the presidency, Jorge Batlle and his Colorado Party had to strike an alliance with the National Party to defeat a strong challenge from a rejuvenated left. Batlle is the first civilian president since the end of military rule. He is the son and great-nephew of past Uruguayan presidents.
The Uruguayan Constitution bars presidents from holding office for successive terms. Its unique, complex electoral system allows more than one presidential candidate from each party, with voters voting simultaneously for a party and for specific candidates within each party. Each party's first-place candidate then receives all his party's votes. Members of Congress are elected proportionally to the number of votes cast for their party. Suffrage is universal and mandatory for citizens 18 and older, with fines administered to those who fail to vote. All national and mayoral offices are elected simultaneously for five-year terms. The bicameral General Assembly (Asamblea General) has a 30-member Chamber of Senators (Camara de Senadores) and a 99-member Chamber of Representatives (Camara de Representantes).