History of Uruguay

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THE NEW COUNTRY, 1903-33

Batlle y Ordóñez and the Modern State

The election of José Batlle y Ordóñez as the first Uruguayan president in the twentieth century (1903-07, 1911-15) marked the beginning of a period of extraordinary change in the country. The son of former President Lorenzo Batlle y Grau, Batlle y Ordóñez was a member of the Colorado Party, founder of the newspaper El Día (in 1886), and an active opponent of militarism.

The dominant political event during the first administration of Batlle y Ordóñez was another National Party insurrection in 1904, led by Saravia. After nine months of fierce fighting and Saravia's death, it ended with the Treaty of Aceguá (1904). The civil war triumph of Batlle y Ordóñez and the Colorados meant the end of the coparticipation politics that began in 1872, the political and administrative unification of the country, the consolidation of the state, and, most profoundly, the end of the cycle of civil wars that had persisted throughout the nineteenth century.

The period's most significant economic change occurred in meat processing. In 1905 the first shipment of frozen beef, produced by a refrigeration plant (frigorífico) established by local investors two years before, was exported to London in a refrigerated ship. Uruguay now entered the age of refrigeration, making possible the diversification of one of its main export items and giving the country access to new markets. With the inauguration of the modernized port of Montevideo in 1909, Uruguay could compete with Buenos Aires as a regional trade center.

Claudio Williman (1907-11), the president's handpicked candidate, succeeded Batlle y Ordóñez, who sailed for Europe, where he spent the next four years studying governmental systems. In some respects, Williman's administration was considered more conservative than that of Batlle y Ordóñez, although Batllists maintained their political influence. Williman tried to ensure political peace by enacting electoral laws in 1907 and 1910 that increased political representation of minority opposition parties. Williman also ensured peace with Uruguay's northern neighbor by signing a border treaty with Brazil, thereby putting an end to pending litigation and disputes dating back half a century.

The National Party, disappointed with Williman's electoral laws and with the announcement that Batlle y Ordóñez would once again run for president, did not participate in the elections held in 1910. This helped foster the emergence of two new political parties: the Catholic-oriented Civic Union of Uruguay (Unión Cívica del Uruguay--UCU) and the Marxist-inspired Socialist Party of Uruguay (Partido Socialista del Uruguay--PSU). Church and state relations also underwent changes. The government passed a divorce law in 1907, and in 1909 it eliminated religious education in public schools.

In 1911 Batlle y Ordóñez was reelected to the presidency. A non-Marxist social democrat, he set about modernizing the country, taking into account the aspirations of emerging social groups, including industrialists, workers, and the middle class. Writing and promoting progressive social legislation, Batlle y Ordóñez fought for the eight-hour workday (enacted in 1915 under the administration of his successor), unemployment compensation (1914), and numerous pieces of social legislation. Some of these would be approved years later, such as retirement pensions (1919) and occupational safety (1920).

Batlle y Ordóñez firmly believed that the principal public services had to be in the hands of the state to avoid foreign remittances that weakened the balance of payments and to facilitate domestic capital accumulation. In a relatively short period of time, his administration established a significant number of autonomous entities. In 1911 it nationalized BROU, a savings and loan institution that monopolized the printing of money. In 1912 the government created the State Electric Power Company, monopolizing electric power generation and distribution in the country; it nationalized the Mortgage Bank of Uruguay; and it founded three industrial institutes for geology and drilling (coal and hydrocarbon explorations), industrial chemistry, and fisheries. In 1914 it purchased the North Tramway and Railway Company, later to become the State Railways Administration.

Attempts to change the agrarian productive structure were not as successful. Influenced by United States economist Henry George, Batlle y Ordóñez thought that he could combat extensive landholdings by applying a progressive tax on land use and a surcharge on inheritance taxes. The agrarian reform plan also contemplated promoting colonization and farming. Very little was accomplished in this regard, however, partly because of the opposition of large landowners who created a pressure group, the Rural Federation (Federación Rural), to fight Batlle y Ordóñez's policies. The government did make one important accomplishment with regard to agriculture, namely, the creation of a series of government institutes dedicated to technological research and development in the fields of livestock raising, dairying, horticulture, forestation, seeds, and fodder.

The government adopted a protectionist policy for industry, imposing tariffs on foreign products, favoring machinery and raw materials imports, and granting exclusive licensing privileges to those who started a new industry. Indigenous companies sprang up, but foreign capital--especially from the United States and Britain--also took advantage of the legislation and came to control the meat industry. The growth of the frigorífico meat-processing industry also stimulated the interbreeding of livestock, Uruguay's main source of wealth.

Education policy was designed to take into account the continuous inflow of European migrants. Although it fluctuated, immigration was significant until 1930. Furthermore, education was a key to mobility for the middle classes. The state actively sought to expand education to the greatest number of people by approving free high school education in 1916 and creating departmental high schools throughout the country in 1912. A "feminine section" was created to foster mass attendance of women at the University of the Republic, where the number of departments continued to expand.

The secularization process, initiated during the second half of the nineteenth century, was accelerated by Batlle y Ordóñez's anticlericalism. Uruguay banned crucifixes in state hospitals by 1906 and eliminated references to God and the Gospel in public oaths in 1907. Divorce laws caused a confrontation between church and state. In addition to the 1907 and 1910 laws (divorce with cause and by mutual agreement), a law was passed in 1912 allowing women to file for divorce without a specific cause, simply because they wanted to.

Batlle y Ordóñez also proposed the institutional reorganization of government in 1913. Essentially, he wanted to replace the presidency with a nine-member collegial executive (colegiado) inspired by the Swiss model (see Constitutional Background , ch. 4). This proposal caused an immediate split in the Colorado Party. One sector opposed the political reform and also feared some of Batlle y Ordóñez's economic and social changes. Subsequently, these dissidents, led by Carlos Manini Ríos, founded a faction known as the Colorado Party-General Rivera (Riverism). The National Party, under Luis Alberto de Herrera, the leading opposition figure from 1920 to his death in 1959, did not back Batlle y Ordóñez's proposal either.

Feliciano Viera (1915-19), a Colorado who was more conservative than Batlle y Ordóñez, became president at the time of the debate between "collegialists" and "anticollegialists." During his mandate, elections were held for a constituent assembly (July 30, 1916). The rules for this election enabled the National Party to ensure incorporation of many of the principles it advocated, such as the secret ballot, partial proportional representation, and universal male suffrage.

Batlle y Ordóñez and his political faction of the Colorados lost these first popular elections, but the Colorados continued to be the majority party, and the 1917 constitution, the country's second, reflected many of the changes that had taken place under Batlle y Ordóñez. It separated church and state, expanded citizens' rights, established the secret ballot and proportional representation, and banned the death penalty. It also created autonomous state enterprises in the areas of industry, education, and health. But in a bitter compromise for Batlle y Ordóñez, the executive was divided between the president, who appointed the ministers of foreign affairs, war, and interior, and the nine-member colegiado, the National Council of Administration (Consejo Nacional de Administración). The latter, which included representatives from the party that received the second highest number of votes, the Blancos, was placed in charge of the ministries dealing with economic, educational, and social policy.

President Viera, like many of Batlle y Ordóñez's followers, interpreted the 1916 electoral defeat as a direct consequence of previous policy. He thus announced a halt to economic and social reforms. Some of the old projects as well as some new proposals were approved, however, such as restrictions on night work in 1918 and the creation in 1916 of a new autonomous entity, the Montevideo Port Authority, as known as the National Administration of Ports (Administración Nacional de Puertos-- ANP). Workers' strikes, however, were repressed severely. Finally, in 1919 Viera, in disagreement with Batlle y Ordóñez, founded a dissident Colorado Party faction known as Vierism.

The Consolidation of Political Democracy

The 1920s witnessed electoral struggles in which the various parties sought to consolidate the political peace achieved in 1904. The National Party participated actively in political life, and although the Colorado Party was dominant, its electoral advantage was slight. Relative electoral parity and the still recent memory of the last armed uprising compelled participants to preserve electoral purity and to improve the corresponding legislation. In 1924 the Electoral Court was created to prepare and control national elections. The 1917 constitution eliminated restrictions on male suffrage and required elections almost every year to renew the various governmental bodies.

Each political party was internally divided because of ideological, economic, and social differences. To the existing Colorado factions--Riverism and Vierism--were added the Colorado Party for Tradition (also known as Sosism), founded by Julio María Sosa in 1925, and the Advance Grouping (Agrupación Avanzar), founded by Julio César Grauert in 1929. Splinter groups of the National Party included the Radical Blanco Party, founded by Lorenzo Carnelli in 1924, and Social Democracy, founded by Carlos Quijano in 1928. The small PSU also split in 1920, and one of its factions formed the Communist Party of Uruguay (Partido Comunista del Uruguay--PCU). The parties were divided into "traditional" (Colorado Party and National Party) and "minor," or "ideological," parties (UCU, PSU, and PCU). The former, by means of a 1910 law that allowed a double simultaneous vote for a party and a faction of the party (sub-lema), became "federations" of parties with different agendas and were thus able to attract followers from all sectors of society.

These contradictions forced Batlle y Ordóñez to make electoral arrangements with his opponents within the Colorado Party to prevent the victory of the National Party. The resultant "politics of compromise" diluted his reformist agenda. Baltasar Brum (1919-23), one of Batlle y Ordóñez's followers and a former foreign minister, was succeeded as president by a "neutral" Colorado, José Serrato (1923-27), who turned over the office to a Riverist, Juan Campisteguy (1927-31).

It was difficult for adherents of Batllism to implement their agenda despite having the occasional support of other political sectors. Nevertheless, additional social reforms were enacted. In 1920 compensation for accidents in the workplace and a six-day work week were made law. In 1923 a minimum rural wage was passed, although it was never enforced. A social security system was created in 1919 for public sector employees, and the program was extended to the private sector in 1928. Despite the reforms, a union movement, weak in numbers, was organized in several umbrella organizations: the Uruguayan Syndicalist Union, encompassing anarcho-syndicalists and communists, in 1923; and the communist General Confederation of Uruguayan Workers, in 1929.

The only state enterprise created during these years reflected the difficulties in expanding state control over industry because of opposition from the conservatives. Ranchers complained that foreign refrigeration plants, which had established quotas for shipments and for access of meat to the London market, did not pay a fair price for cattle. In 1928 the government created National Refrigerating (Frigorífico Nacional-- Frigonal) as a ranchers' cooperative supported by the state and governed by a board made up of representatives from the government, the Rural Association, and the Rural Federation.

Although the country had suffered the immediate consequences of the post-World War I crisis, a period of recovery had quickly followed. It was characterized by growing prosperity sustained mainly by United States loans. A continued increase in population accompanied economic prosperity. The 1920s saw the arrival of the last great wave of immigrants, consisting mainly of Syrians, Lebanese, and eastern Europeans. Between 1908 and 1930, Montevideo's population doubled.

In 1930 Uruguay celebrated the centennial of the promulgation of its first constitution and won its first World Cup in soccer. Elections were held that year, the results of which were to presage difficulties, however. Batlle y Ordóñez died in 1929, leaving no successor for his political group. The Blanco leader, Herrera, was defeated by a wide margin of votes for the first time. The electoral balance between the parties had been broken. By a few votes, the conservative Colorado Manini, a Riverist leader and newspaper publisher, failed to become president.

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

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