Batlle y Ordóñez, José (1856–1929)

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Batlle y Ordóñez, José (1856–1929)

José Batlle y Ordóñez (b. 21 May 1856; d. 20 October 1929), journalist and president of Uruguay (1903–1907, 1911–1915). One of the most important and influential personalities in Uruguayan history, José Batlle y Ordóñez's first avocation was philosophy rather than politics. With an initial Catholic education, he was influenced as a youth by the ideas of Karl Christian Friedrich Kraus. His transition to a rationalist, spiritualist philosophy would mark his later public career. Also early in his life, he began a lifelong journalism career, writing for such periodicals as La Razón, La Lucha, and El Espíritu Nuevo.


Batlle y Ordóñez began his political life between 1876 and 1886, confronting the military dictatorships of Lorenzo Latorre and Máximo Santos. He participated in the 1886 Quebracho Revolution against Santos, which, despite military defeat, marked the beginning of a political transition toward civilian rule. In this same year he founded the newspaper El Día, which served as a mouthpiece for the Colorado Party. From its pages, he led the opposition to the Santos regime. After its early financial problems and government repression, El Día's low price and street distribution caused it to become the foremost newspaper in Uruguayan history.

With Santos out of power, Batlle y Ordóñez—part of the group of allies of then Minister Julio Herrera y Obes—was appointed as political chief of the department of Minas by President Máximo Tajes. This was his first position as a public servant, and it lasted only six months. Already deeply involved in the political militancy of the Colorado Party, he was elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 1893 and the Senate in 1896. He opposed the oligarchic practices of President Herrera y Obes (1890–1894) and worked intensely on the organization of a popular faction within the Colorado Party. He adamantly opposed the presidency of Juan Idiarte Borda, who, assassinated in 1897, never finished his term.

Batlle y Ordóñez supported the rise to power of Juan L. Cuestas, which began a dramatic political ascent that would win him the presidency of the Senate. He supported the 10 February 1898 coup led by Cuestas and formed part of the interim state council. He was considered a favorite to succeed to the presidency in 1903, but in 1901 he seemed to lose all chances when he strongly rejected the Blancos (Nationalists) and was displaced from the presidency of the Senate. Cuestas withdrew his support for Batlle y Ordóñez due to the latter's proven independence of character. Conservative Uruguayans also began to oppose Batlle. They saw him as a "war candidate," due to his growing ill-will toward the Nationalists and his doctrinaire defense of the "politics of partisanship," which threatened the system of coparticipación. They also mistrusted some of the reformist ideas he outlined in his critiques of the gold-supporting oligarchy in 1891 and in his editorials supporting workers' movements in 1895.


With arduous effort, Batlle y Ordóñez won over the internal factions of the Colorados along with a group of dissident Blancos. This assured him a majority among the legislators. He was elected president by the General Assembly on 1 March 1903. His first presidency was marked by the Blanco uprisings of 1903 and 1904 led by the caudillo Aparicio Saravia. Batlle y Ordóñez was also confronted by two antagonistic visions of the political future of the country: the continuance and deepening of coparticipación versus the "politics of partisanship." Saravia's death in 1904 marked the end of the revolution and the consolidation of "partisanship."

Reformist measures adopted during the first administration of Batlle y Ordóñez included the abolition of the death penalty, legalization of divorce by mutual consent, a law of labor regulation, expansion of public education, creation of the Colleges of Commerce and of Agronomy and Veterinary Science, and a plan for public works and roads. At the end of his presidential term in 1907, Batlle y Ordóñez left almost immediately on a trip to Europe and the Near East that lasted almost four years. In 1907 he participated in the Second International Peace Conference in The Hague. While visiting many European countries, he studied their social conflicts and joined in ideological debates, thereby polishing many of the ideas and proposals that constituted the reformist plan he would implement during his second presidential term. He returned to Uruguay in February 1911 and on 1 March was again elected president by an overwhelming majority of legislators in the General Assembly. (The Blanco Party had abstained from the legislative elections in 1910 after another attempt at revolution failed.)


The second presidency of Batlle y Ordóñez constituted the decisive period during which his reformist plan was implemented. The debate over a broad range of initiatives dominated the public stage. These reforms generated strong resistance from the Blanco Party (which abandoned its abstentionist posture in 1913), from management guilds, from foreign capital (especially British), and from the army.

The Batllist plan was organized around six major reforms. First, economic reform was based on the nationalization of strategic sectors and industrialization through protectionist legislation. Second, social reform centered on "critical support" for unions, "protective" social legislation for workers and other philanthropic measures. Third, rural reform was aimed at the gradual elimination of large ranches, the promotion of a more balanced and automated livestock industry, and the transformation of rural poverty. Fourth, fiscal reform sought tax increases for the wealthy, a decrease in taxes on consumption, the use of economic pressure as an instrument of social justice, and the stimulation of economic development. Fifth, moral reform promoted the concept of a cosmopolitan nation, secular politics, and various feminist principles. Finally, political reform promoted public debate and supported proposals that the executive branch be organized in a collegiate system.

Not all of these reforms came to fruition, due in some cases to strong opposition and in others to ambiguity among the Batllists themselves. Also, proposals for political reform did not include essential democratic changes that the opposition demanded, such as the secret ballot, proportional representation, and guarantees against electoral fraud. The essence of the reform plan was implemented before the democratization of the political system, which occurred with the second constitution in 1919. Batllism suffered a defeat in the decisive elections of 30 July 1916 for members of the National Constituent Assembly. Batlle's successor to the presidency, Feliciano Viera, adopted the so-called "halt politics," which drastically decreased proposals for reform. From 1916 to the end of the 1920s, the predominant atmosphere in public policy favored putting the brakes on reform. Batllism gradually lost its political initiative and strength.


Although with less power than earlier, Batlle y Ordóñez continued to be politically active throughout the last years of his life. He was one of the fundamental backers of the political accord from which sprang the new constitution. In 1921 and 1927 he served briefly as president of the National Council of Administration, the central component of the new collegiate executive branch. He was a major force behind the effort to attain electoral unity among distinct Colorado Party factions. He made exhausting tours of the country, seeking grassroots support for his reforms, and until his death he led the often acerbic debates in the inner recesses of the Colorado Party. Even in the midst of political uproar, he constantly promoted political debate from the pages of El Día.

Batlle y Ordóñez died just a few days before the great stock market crash on Wall Street. The Great Depression had its effects on Uruguay, among them putting a halt to a good part of the reformist projects of Batllism. Most of the first three decades of the twentieth century in Uruguay are referred to by historians as the Batllist Era. Whether in a spirit of polemic or agreement, the ideas and symbols associated with Batlle y Ordóñez remain present in the Uruguayan public debate.

See alsoUruguay, Political Parties: Colorado Party .


Milton Vanger, José Batlle y Ordóñez of Uruguay, the Creator of His Times, 1902–1907 (1963) and El país modelo (1983).

Carlos Real De Azúa, El impulso y su freno (1964).

Göran Lindahl, Batlle, fundador de la democracia en el Uruguay (1971).

José P. Barrán and Benjamín Nahum, Historia rural del Uruguay moderno, vols. 5-7 (1977–1978), and Batlle, los estancieros y el Imperio Británico, 8 vols. (1979–1987).

Carlos Zubillaga, El reto financiero: Deuda externa y desarrollo en el Uruguay, 1903–1933 (1982); El primer batllismo: Cinco enfoques polémicos (1985); Raúl Jacob, Modelo batllista: ¿Variacíon sobre un viejo tema? (1988).

Gerardo Caetano, La República Conservadora, 1916–1929, 2 vols. (1992–1993).

Additional Bibliography

Buscio, Jorge. José Batlle y Ordoñez: Uruguay a la vanguardia del mundo. Montevideo: Editorial Fin de Siglo, 2004.

Peluas, Daniel. José Batlle y Ordoñez: el hombre. Montevideo: Editorial Fin de Siglo, 2001.

                                            Gerardo Caetano