History & Background
Uruguay, the smallest country in South America, is located in the southern part of the continent, nestled between Brazil and Argentina along 220 kilometers of Atlantic coastline. The country is recognized as having one of the more eclectic societies in Latin America, showcasing a rich European heritage, a broad variety of artistic and cultural attractions, and one of the most progressive educational systems in the region. These characteristics, among others, have earned Uruguay the title, the "Switzerland of South America." Its mild climate, modest mountain ranges (Cuchilla de Haedo and Cuchilla Grande), and inviting tourist attractions make Uruguay popular among travelers from the Western Hemisphere and Europe.
Although Uruguay's land mass is small—only 187,000 square kilometers, compared to the much larger areas of Argentina and Brazil—the quality of life in this tiny nation is high. Approximately 90 percent of the country's 3.2 million people live in urban areas; most of these reside in the capital city of Montevideo. The country boasts one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the world, a life expectancy rate paralleling that of the United States, and an impressive adult literacy rate of 97 percent among its relatively low population density. Although the country's economy has lagged behind its neighbors' occasionally in the past, its agricultural, hydropower, mineral, fishing, and tourism industries have sustained it through its slow times. Uruguay enjoys highly interactive economic and political relationships with its South American neighbors and with countries abroad, trading often with Brazil, Argentina, the United States, Germany and Italy. The national currency is the Uruguayan peso.
People of Uruguay (Uruguayans) have a unique cultural history. While many of the citizens identify themselves as "white," their lineages can be traced to a number of origins, including Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, mestizo, Amerindian, and African-Uruguayan. Spanish is the official national language, although Portuguese, Brazilero (a Spanish-Portuguese mix), English, French, German, and Italian are spoken widely in the Montevideo metropolitan area. This linguistic diversity is reflected in the wide range of artistic outlets found in Uruguay, including theatre, the visual arts, music, literature, and poetry. About two-thirds of the population is Roman Catholic; Judaism, Protestantism, and other religions account for the country's other religious preferences.
Like many other areas of South America, the land that was to become known as Uruguay was once occupied by indigenous populations, most notably the Charruas. When Spanish explorers, seeking a water route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, initially cast anchor in Uruguay in the 1500s, they were attacked and killed by the Charruas. Later arrivals of Spanish settlers along Uruguay's coastline subdued the Charruas and established lucrative farming and ranching sites in the area. The expansion of the Portuguese from Brazil, however, posed a threat to Spain's commercial interests, and the next several years would witness a continued military struggle between Spanish and Portuguese forces.
Uruguay was under the influence of a number of governments in its early years, including Spain, Portugal, Argentina, Brazil, and Great Britain. It was not until 1828, at the signing of the Treaty of Montevideo at Rio de Janeiro, that Uruguay finally achieved lasting independence. This treaty, negotiated by Great Britain, called for the permanent removal of Brazilian and Argentine forces from the country, although both neighboring countries still retained limited rights to intervene in Uruguay's civil affairs. A constitution was drafted, naming the new country the Republica Oriental del Uruguay, or The Republic of Uruguay (the term "Oriental" referred to the country's eastern position on the continent, not to anything associated with Asia). Today, Uruguay retains this official name, although it is most commonly referred to as "The Republic of Uruguay," or just "Uruguay." Each year, August 25 is celebrated as independence day in memorial of the 1828 treaty.
During the remainder of the nineteenth century, ranching-related immigration from Europe increased and Uruguay's population grew. At the onset of the industrial revolution, Uruguay initiated a series of social reforms, many of which were unprecedented at the time, especially related to employment conditions. The government also included reforms that abolished the death penalty, instituted child care laws, allowed for women's suffrage, and provided for other issues related to human rights. But this time of progressive change was also characterized by numerous political upheavals, insurrections, and economic crises that lasted throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Then, in 1966, a new constitution was created, later suspended, and then reformed in 1997, under which the current government operates.
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