History of Uruguay

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BEGINNINGS OF INDEPENDENT LIFE, 1830-52

The First Presidents, 1830-38

At the time of independence, Uruguay had an estimated population of just under 75,000, of which less than 20 percent resided in Montevideo, the capital. Indeed, the new nation was born with most of its population scattered throughout the countryside. Political power centered on local leaders, or caudillos, who attracted followers because of their power, bravery, or wealth. There were three major caudillos at the time of independence: Rivera, Oribe, and Lavalleja. The first two were later elected presidents, Rivera from 1830 to 1835 and from 1838 to 1843 and Oribe from 1835 to 1838. Their rivalry, which turned violent in 1836, led to the formation of the first political groups, known as Colorados and Blancos because of the red and white hatbands, respectively, worn during armed clashes beginning in 1836. The groups would subsequently become the Colorado Party and the National Party (the Blancos).

During this period, the economy came to depend increasingly on cattle, on the proliferation of saladeros (meat-salting establishments), and on the export of salted beef and leather. But political instability was the most significant feature of this period. Caudillos and their followers were mobilized because of disputes arising from deficient land demarcation between absentee landowners and squatters and between rightful owners and Artigas's followers who were granted land seized by Artigas. Rivera remained in the countryside for most of his presidency, during which Lavalleja organized three unsuccessful rebellions. Rivera was followed as president by Oribe, one of the ThirtyThree Heroes, but they began to quarrel after Oribe permitted Lavalleja and his followers to return from Brazil. In 1836 Rivera initiated a revolutionary movement against President Oribe, but Oribe, aided by Argentine troops, defeated Rivera's forces at the Battle of Carpintería on September 19, 1836. In June 1838, however, the Colorados, led by Rivera, defeated Oribe's Blanco forces; Oribe then went into exile in Buenos Aires.

Internationally, the new territory was at the mercy of the influence of its neighbors. This resulted from its lack of clearly defined borders, as well as from Rivera's ties with Brazil and Oribe's with Argentina.

Rivera again became the elected president in March 1838. In 1839 President Rivera, with the support of the French and of Argentine émigrés, issued a declaration of war against Argentina's dictator, Juan Manuel de Rosas, and drove Rosas's forces from Uruguay. The French, however, reached an agreement with Rosas and withdrew their troops from the Río de la Plata region in 1840, leaving Montevideo vulnerable to the forces of Oribe and his Argentina. For three years, the locus of the struggle was on Argentine territory. Oribe and the Blancos allied themselves with Argentina's federalists, while Rivera and the Colorados sided with Argentina's rival unitary forces, who favored the centralization of the Argentine state. In 1842 Oribe defeated Rivera and later, on February 16, 1843, laid siege to Montevideo, then governed by the Colorados.

The Great War, 1843-52

Oribe's siege of Montevideo marked the beginning of the Great War (Guerra Grande, 1843-52). The Great War centered on the nineyear -long siege of Montevideo, described by Alexandre Dumas as a "new Troy," although the city itself suffered relatively little from the war. Britain had saved Montevideo at the outset by allowing the city to receive supplies. During the Great War, there were two governments in Uruguay: the Colorados at Montevideo (the so-called government of the "defense") and the Blancos at Cerrito (Little Hill), a promontory near Montevideo.

The intervention first of France (1838-42) and then of Britain and France (1843-50) transformed the conflict into an international war. First, British and French naval forces temporarily blockaded the port of Buenos Aires in December 1845. Then, the British and French fleets protected Montevideo at sea. French and Italian legionnaires (the latter led by Giuseppe Garibaldi) participated, along with the Colorados, in the defense of the city.

Historians believe that the reason for the French and British intervention in the conflict was to restore normalcy to commerce in the region and to ensure free navigation along the Río Paraná and Río Uruguay, thus guaranteeing access to provincial markets without Buenos Aires's interference. Their efforts were ineffective, however, and by 1849 the two European powers had tired of the war. In 1850 both withdrew after signing a treaty that represented a triumph for Rosas of Argentina.

It appeared that Montevideo would finally fall. But an uprising against Rosas led by Justo José de Urquiza, governor of Argentina's Entre Ríos Province, with the assistance of a small Uruguayan force, changed the situation. They defeated Oribe in 1851, thereby ending the armed conflict in Uruguayan territory and leaving the Colorados in full control of the country. Brazil then intervened in Uruguay in May 1851 on behalf of the besieged Colorados, supporting them with money and naval forces. With Rosas's fall from power in Argentina in February 1852, the siege of Montevideo was lifted by Urquiza's pro-Colorado forces.

Montevideo rewarded Brazil's vital financial and military support by signing five treaties in 1851 that provided for perpetual alliance between the two countries, confirming Brazil's right to intervene in Uruguay's internal affairs; extradition of runaway slaves and criminals from Uruguay (during the war, both the Blancos and the Colorados had abolished slavery in Uruguay in order to mobilize the former slaves to reinforce their respective military forces); joint navigation on the Río Uruguay and its tributaries; tax exemption on cattle and salted meat exports (the cattle industry was devastated by the war); acknowledgment of debt to Brazil for aid against the Blancos; and Brazil's commitment for granting an additional loan. Borders were also recognized, whereby Uruguay renounced its territorial claims north of the Río Cuareim (thereby reducing its boundaries to about 176,000 kilometers) and recognized Brazil's exclusive right of navigation in the Laguna Merín and the Río Yaguarón, the natural border between the countries.

SOURCE: Country Studies/Area Handbook by the US Library of Congress

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