Uruguay, Constitutions

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Uruguay, Constitutions

Uruguay has had six constitutions during its existence as a sovereign state: 1830, 1918, 1934, 1942, 1952, and 1966. Nevertheless, its adherence to constitutional democracy—except for eleven and a half years of military rule in the 1970s and 1980s—is remarkable in a region not known for following the norms of elections, civil liberties, and social welfare.

The 1830 Constitution confirmed the independence and juridical sovereignty of Uruguay, officially known as the República Oriental del Uruguay, as established by Brazil and Argentina in a treaty mediated by the English diplomat Lord John Ponsonby. The constitution established a presidential system with the chief executive elected by the General Assembly, or Congress (consisting of the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies) every four years. The president could be reelected after a four-year interim. Comparable to those of his U.S. counterpart, the president's powers included the roles of commander in chief, protector of domestic peace and external security, and architect of the budget. The president governed with a set of ministers, whom he appointed and dismissed at will. Early on, the General Assembly established the right to question (interpellate) the ministers, thus establishing the tradition of a presidential system with an active and influential legislature. The local unit of government was the department, governed by a jefe político (executive magistrate), who lived in the principal town of each department and was appointed by the president. During the nineteenth century, the constitution was violated almost as frequently as it was honored. Nevertheless, it remained in force for ninety years, making it the third longest in the history of Latin America.

The 1918 Constitution was the result of a compromise between José Batlle y Ordóñez's vision of a collegial executive and more conservative elements within his own Colorado Party who joined with the Blancos (National Party) in wishing to preserve at least a partially presidential system. This charter was a unique experiment in constitutional law. It created a president who was popularly elected for a four-year term and who would be responsible for foreign affairs and domestic and external security through his control of the armed forces and police. All other executive powers would be in the hands of a National Council of Administration, which consisted of nine members elected by thirds every two years. The 1918 Constitution thus produced a bicephalous executive (seeUruguay: Colegiado). The arrangement, coupled with extremely close elections between the Colorado and Blanco parties during the 1920s resulted in a growing stalemate in decision making. With the death of José Batlle in 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression, President Gabriel Terra found himself increasingly frustrated by the partially collegial executive system. He joined forces with the Blanco leader Luis Alberto de Herrera in a 1933 coup that in effect dissolved the bold experiment put in place in 1918.

The 1934 Constitution, in effect written by Terra and Herrera, returned Uruguay to a presidential system by eliminating the dual executive. It gave the two factions led by the coup leaders total control of the Senate, with fifteen seats for each. The president (Terra) would rule with a Council of Ministers. Parliamentary approval of ministers meant that in practice three ministers would be given to the minority party, that is, Herrera's faction. In effect, the coparticipation that had been put in place by the 1918 Constitution was renewed, but it was now restricted to the two coup factions. Under the constitution the boards of directors of all government agencies and Autonomous Entities, which in Uruguay included industrial and commercial corporations, would consist of three to five members who had to be approved by 60 percent of the Senate.

The 1942 Constitution was the product of a "constitutional coup" by President Alfredo Baldomir, who closed the General Assembly on 21 February 1942, just before the scheduled elections. On 29 May he presented his constitutional reform proposal to his newly created Council of State, declaring that the new constitution would go into effect if approved in a plebiscite the following November. There was no doubt that it would be approved since it ended the outdated and unpopular features of the 1934 Constitution. The new charter eliminated the arbitrary division of the Senate between the two 1933 coup factions, calling for senators to be elected by strict proportional representation. Ministers would again be appointed by the entire Congress, and the boards of state corporations would be selected with guaranteed minority participation. Essentially, the 1942 Constitution abolished the exclusion of the Terra-Herrera alliance that was codified in the 1934 Constitution.

The 1952 Constitution gave Uruguay its second colegiado, this time in the form of a purely collegial executive system. The constitution was the result of an agreement between Batlle's sons, César and Lorenzo, and the great caudillo of the Blancos, Luis Alberto de Herrera, who gave up his longstanding opposition to the colegiado when he saw how poorly his party did in the 1950 presidential election. Former president Luis Batlle Berres, whose faction dominated the Colorado Party and controlled the presidency, could not oppose such a powerful combination pushing for constitutional reform.

The constitution created a nine-member executive, or colegiado, known as the National Council of Government, with six seats going to the majority party and three to the dominant minority party. The division of patronage between the Colorados and Blancos was assured by a constitutional clause mandating that the boards of directors of all state services and industrial enterprises consist of five members, divided three to two between the two major parties. Thus, the long-standing tradition of coparticipation was fully constitutionalized. The healthy Uruguayan economy of the 1940s and 1950s served to mask the inefficiencies of this system.

The 1966 Constitution, which returned Uruguay to a presidential system by eliminating the colegiado, was approved in a plebiscite on 27 November 1966. The new charter lengthened the term of all elected officials to five years and reaffirmed the electoral tradition of having all offices contested at the same time, that is, once every five years. The return to the presidential system was a reaction to Uruguay's growing economic crisis and the malaise that had overcome the Colorados and Blancos. The political elite, faced with increased social unrest, rising inflation, and virtually no economic growth, decided to streamline the government by returning to a presidential system. The new constitution created a Central Bank to help control monetary and fiscal policy and a Social Security Bank to try to rationalize the administration of retirement funds. In an attempt to depoliticize the running of state enterprises, the three to two division in their directorships was eliminated. Maintaining the 60 percent requirement for confirmation as director, however, implied that the two traditional parties would continue to split the assignments and the patronage that went with them.

The new constitution also contained several articles on land reform and internal order, which reflected the growing insecurity of the political and economic elites. Article 168 specifically gave the president the power to invoke a state of emergency under the Medidas Prontas de Seguridad (Prompt Security Measures). These allowed, in effect, a limited form of a state of siege. This power had existed in the previous constitution but only in cases of invasion or internal rebellion. The provision proved crucial to the government of President Jorge Pacheco Areco (1967–1972), who operated under the medidas for all but a few months of his presidency.

In reality, the constitution was suspended under President Juan María Bordaberry in April 1972 and was ignored by the military during its dictatorship from 27 June 1973 until the restoration of civilian rule in 1985. During this period the General Assembly passed a series of institutional acts that the dictatorship used to circumvent the constitution. The military tried to get its own constitution approved, but the project was defeated in a plebiscite in 1980. The 1967 Constitution was fully restored by president Julio María Sanguinetti on 1 March 1985. Since the democratic transition, citizens have used referendums, allowed by the constitution, to shape laws. Referendums have protected water resources, stopped the privatization of public utilities, and safeguarded social security benefits.

See alsoBaldomir, Alfredo; Batlle y Ordóñez, José; Bordaberry, Juan María; Herrera, Luis Alberto de; Jefe Político; Sanguinetti, Julio María; Terra, Gabriel; Uruguay, Political Parties: Blanco Party;Uruguay, Political Parties: Colorado Party.


Justino Jiménez De Arechaga, La constitución nacional, 10 vols. (1949), and La constitución de 1952, 4 vols. (1952).

Héctor Gros Espiell, ed., Las constituciones del Uruguay (1956).

Alberto Pérez Pérez, Constitución de la República Oriental del Uruguay, 2 vols. (1970).

Additional Bibliography

Brito, Alexandra Barahona de. Human Rights and Democratization in Latin America: Uruguay and Chile. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Gros Espiell, Héctor. Evolución constitucional del Uruguay. Montevideo: Fundación de Cultura Universitaria, 2003.

                                         Martin Weinstein