History of Uruguay

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MODERN URUGUAY, 1875-1903

Militarism, 1875-90

Between 1875 and 1886, political parties--as represented by the caudillo and the university sectors--were in decline, and the military became the center of power. A transition period (1886- 90) followed, during which politicians began recovering lost ground, and there was some civilian participation in government. Nevertheless, political parties during this period were not parties in the modern sense of the term. Nor, however, was the army a professional institution despite its successful foreign and domestic campaigns.

Because of serious disturbances, Ellauri was forced to resign in 1875. His successor, José Pedro Varela (1875-76), curtailed liberties, arrested opposition leaders and deported the most notable among them to Cuba, and successfully quelled an armed rebellion. At the beginning of 1876, Colonel Lorenzo Latorre (1876-80) assumed power; he was appointed constitutional president in 1879, but the following year he resigned, after declaring that Uruguayans were "ungovernable," and moved to Argentina.

Colonel General Máximo Santos (1882-86) was appointed president in 1882 by a General Assembly elected under his pressure, and his political entourage named him leader of the Colorado Party. In 1886 Santos suppressed an insurrection led by the opposition, but after an attempt against his life, he too resigned and went to live in Europe.

During this authoritarian period (1875-86), the government took steps toward the organization of the country as a modern state and encouraged its economic and social transformation. Pressure groups, particularly businessmen, hacendados, and industrialists, were organized and had a strong influence on government, as demonstrated by their support of numerous measures taken by the state.

In the international realm, the country improved its ties with Britain. Loans increased significantly after the 1870s, when the first one was granted. In 1876 British investors acquired the national railroad company, the North Tramway and Railway Company. They later dominated construction of railroads and continued their policy of ensuring control over, and concessions to, some essential services in Montevideo, such as gas (1872) and running water (1879). Uruguay's adoption of the gold standard facilitated commercial transactions between the two countries.

Under Latorre's administration, order was restored in the countryside. His government vigorously repressed delinquency and unemployment (those without jobs were considered "vagrants") to protect farmers and ranchers. Fencing of the countryside stimulated modernization of the system. Barbed wired was such an indispensable element for livestock improvement and for the establishment of accurate property boundaries that an 1875 law exempted imports of barbed wire from customs duties. This measure was accompanied by the approval of the Rural Code (1875), drawn up with the participation of the Rural Association. The code ensured land and livestock ownership and thus social order.

The government adopted a number of measures to promote national industrial development. Most important was a series of customs laws in 1875, 1886, and 1888 raising import duties on products that could be manufactured in the country, thus protecting indigenous industry. The Latorre government also improved the means of transportation and communications, giving tax and other concessions for the construction of railroads, whose network doubled in size in ten years. The state also reorganized and took over the postal service and connected all departmental capitals by telegraph.

Education reform authored by Varela and implemented in 1877 under the Latorre administration established free compulsory primary education. Reform also reached the University of the Republic (also known as the University of Montevideo--established in 1849 and the country's only university until 1984), where the medical and the mathematics faculties were created in 1876 and 1877, respectively.

The secularization process also continued during this period. Under the pretext of needing to deal with the chaos in parochial archives, Latorre created the Civil Register (1876), which transferred to the state the registration of births, deaths, and marriages. Under the Santos administration, the Law of Mandatory Civil Marriage (1885) established that only marriages performed in accordance with this law would be considered valid.

The Return of Civilians

General Máximo Tajes (1886-90), who was appointed president by the General Assembly, tried to restore the constitution and remove the military chiefs who had supported Santos. During the Tajes administration, civilian political activity resumed. At the end of the Tajes term, Julio Herrera y Obes was elected president (1890-94). Herrera y Obes belonged to the Colorado Party, had been an adviser to his predecessor, and was instrumental in the transition process that displaced the military from power. He selected his aides from among a small group of friends and was convinced that the executive had to play a leading role in elections and the makeup of the General Assembly. This policy, called the "directing influence," was resisted by a sector of the Colorado Party led by José Batlle y Ordóñez, son of the former president, Lorenzo Batlle y Grau.

In 1894, after much internal debate, the General Assembly appointed Juan Idiarte Borda (1894-97), a member of the inner circle of the departing administration, as the new president. But Herrera y Obes and Borda had succeeded in irritating the National Party, when the latter was granted control of only three of the four departments agreed on in the 1872 pact between the two rival parties.

In 1897 discontent led an armed uprising by Blanco forces. The insurrection was led by Aparicio Saravia, a caudillo from a ranching family originally from the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul who was involved in military and political affairs on both sides of the border. The Saravia revolution raised the flag of electoral guarantees, the secret ballot, and proportional representation. Military action had not yet decided the situation when President Borda was assassinated. The president of the Senate (the upper house of the General Assembly), Juan Lindolfo Cuestas (1897-1903), served as provisional president until 1899, when he was elected constitutional president. Cuestas quickly signed a peace agreement with the National Party, giving it control over six of Uruguay's departments and promising all citizens their political rights. An anticlericalist, Cuestas placed restrictions on the exercise of Roman Catholicism and tried to prevent admission to the country of friars and priests.

A majority of the members of the General Assembly, who had ties to the Herrera y Obes faction, submitted another presidential candidate in 1898 for the scheduled election. Cuestas, unwilling to give up power, led a coup d'état. He included members of the opposition in his government in a rudimentary attempt at proportional representation. Late that same year, the Cuestas regime promulgated the Permanent Civil Register Law, dealing with electoral matters, and the Elections Law, formally establishing the principle of minority representation. Through this legislation, the opposition gained access to one-third of the seats if it obtained one-fourth of the total votes.

The political consensus achieved by Cuestas resulted in the unanimous support by the General Assembly for his candidacy and appointment as constitutional president in 1899. In fact, however, political peace was an illusion. There were, in effect, two countries, one Blanco and one Colorado. President Cuestas had to send an envoy to caudillo Saravia, near the border with Brazil, in order to coordinate government action. This precarious balance would break down in 1903 when Batlle y Ordóñez took power.

In spite of political and economic fluctuations, the flow of immigrants continued. From the 1870s to the 1910s, Uruguay's population doubled to just over 1 million inhabitants, 30 percent of whom lived in Montevideo. Montevideo also continued to experience modernization, including the installation of a telephone system (1878) and public lighting (1886). At the same time, the euphoria and speculation of the 1870s and 1880s saw a proliferation of banks and corporations and a stimulation of land sales, as well as the construction of multifamily dwellings.

The economic crisis of 1890 was a traumatic event for Uruguayan society. Bankruptcies followed one after another, and the banking system saw the collapse of a key banking institution, created by a Spanish financier, which had served the needs of the state and promoted production and construction.

The ruling elite felt the impact, and some of its more progressive sectors directed their efforts to the creation of a development model for the country. They were aware of both the need to encourage agricultural and industrial development and the need to redefine the limits of the state. The growing importance of British investment had stimulated the rise of economic nationalism and had, by 1898, provoked more active state intervention.

State intervention in the economy continued in 1896 when the electric utility company was transferred to the municipality of Montevideo and the Bank of Uruguay (Banco de la República Oriental del Uruguay--BROU) was created as an autonomous entity. Moreover, under Cuestas's administration, the state undertook construction of the modern harbor of Montevideo, in reaction to the new facility in Buenos Aires, which had absorbed part of the river traffic with Paraguay and the Argentine littoral. Nevertheless, the nationalization of economic activities and the creation of state enterprises did not fully gather momentum until the administration of Batlle y Ordóñez.

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

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