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POPULATION: 3,447,778
RELIGION: Roman Catholicism; some Judaism; Afro-Brazilian churches; evangelical Protestantism


Before the arrival of the Europeans, the territory that is now Uruguay was inhabited by Amerindian tribes. The Charrúas and the Guarani, were the main tribes when the Europeans arrived. The Charrúas were a semi-nomadic ethnic group who occupied territory near the shoreline, where they fished and gathered clams and fruits. In winter, the Charrúas moved inland, where they could hunt for deer and rheas (ñandú), a flightless bird. Guarani people were concentrated in the sub-tropical forests of eastern Paraguay.

In 1515, the first European expedition explored the region. The Spanish navigator Juan Díaz de Solís who, along with several of his men, was killed by Charrúa warriors, led the mission. Because of the lack of gold and silver, the European conquerors lost interest in the region.

Eventually, during the 16th and 17th centuries, Uruguay became a natural zone of contention between the Spanish and Portuguese empires. As the two countries expanded their colonial rule in Latin America, Uruguay became the focus of the conflict, and the Amerindians were driven out. The Portuguese, based in Brazil, migrated south into Uruguay in 1680 and founded a new colony called Colonia de Sacramento. In response to this challenge, Spain established a fort in nearby Montevideo, the present-day capital of Uruguay. A struggle for control over Uruguay ensued. Uruguay fell under Portuguese control and later became a province of Brazil. Uruguay was only granted full independence in 1828, through an agreement between Argentina and Brazil.

Modern Uruguay has an export-oriented agricultural sector, a highly educated workforce, and robust social spending. In 2007 the economy achieved a growth rate of 7% and the per capita gross domestic product (GDP) was $11,600.


Uruguay is located between Brazil and Argentina on the Atlantic coast of South America. Its terrain is characterized by gently rolling hills and natural grasslands. In contrast to the Andean or Amazonian countries, a high proportion of Uruguay's territory is suitable for agriculture. Most of Uruguay's grasslands are used for grazing sheep and cattle. In addition, Uruguay produces a wide range of fruits, cereals, and other agricultural products.

Unlike many other Latin American countries, Uruguay does not have a native population. Although there were Amer-indian groups that lived in Uruguayan territory at the time of the colonial expansion, they were either displaced or annihilated. As a result, since 1830 the Uruguayans have been ethnically European, descending mainly from Italians or Spaniards. There is also a small population of Afro-Uruguayans (2.5% of the population).


The official language of Uruguay is Spanish. No Amerindian languages are spoken in modern Uruguay. In regions close to the Brazilian border, however, a Spanish-Portuguese dialect called Portuñol (or Portuniol) is spoken.


The name given to Uruguay's capital, Montevideo, originates in Ferdinand Magellan's visit to the region in 1520. According to legend, a sailor on board saw land and shouted, "Monte vide eu"—"I see a hill." The origin of the city's name is also from a phrase in Spanish found on early maps: "Monte VI de E.O.," or "The sixth hill from east to west."

Uruguayan culture shares some features with Argentina, mainly because of their strong European influence. The most noticeable characteristic of this common background is the preponderance of the gaucho, a kind of cowboy (usually a mestizo—mixed European and Amerindian descent) in the art and folklore. Uruguay's theatre and music are broadly based in terms of support and participation.


Most Uruguayans are descendants of Italians and Spaniards and they have inherited the Roman Catholic tradition (66%). Although the Church has historically played an important role in Uruguayan society and culture, it has no official role in politics. A variety of minority religions are practiced in Uruguay in addition to Catholicism. A small Protestant population (2%) and some Jewish residents (1%), for example, exist in Montevi- deo. Many Afro-Uruguayans who live in the Barrio Sur (South Neighborhood) of Montevideo practice the Afro-Brazilian religion of Condomble. In addition, more than 31% of the population does not profess any type of religion.

There is a sharp separation between church and state. This has actually led to the renaming of many religious holidays. Many have been given secular (nonreligious) names. Christmas, for instance, is widely referred to as Family Day. Similarly, Easter Week is also known as Criollo Week.


Perhaps the most celebrated holiday in Uruguay is Carnaval (or Carnival), a weeklong celebration that marks the commencement of Lent. During Carnaval, the country virtually comes to a halt, as stores close and people celebrate. Drinking, feasting, and dancing accompany a series of street parades with music and elaborate costumes. Competitions are held for the best musical performance. Water throwing is a key ritual during Carnaval. Water balloons and buckets of water are used to drench friends and strangers alike.

Many of Uruguay's festivals celebrate its cattle-raising heritage. During Easter Week, a Cowboy Festival (Fiesta Gaucha) is held in Montevideo. Rodeo competitions are the main event. Contestants compete in a variety of events, such as knife throwing, riding, and lassoing. Grilled beef and folk music accompany these celebrations.


Major life transitions, such as birth, puberty, and death, are marked by rituals and celebrations appropriate to each Uruguayan's particular religious tradition.


The most substantial meal of the day in Uruguay is not dinner, but lunch. Many Uruguayan employees are given a two-hour lunch break that enables them to return home for a large, home-cooked meal with their families. Evening meals are traditionally much lighter. When invited to a Uruguayan home, one may be offered mate, an herbal tea. Traditionally, mate is drunk through a silver straw, called a bombilla, from a carved gourd. The gourd and straw are passed around and shared by all present. In most urban homes, however, mate is now served in teacups.

In Uruguay, the Italian influence in both language and culture can be felt. For example, to say goodbye, most Uruguayans have adopted the Italian ciao or addio in place of the Spanish adios. In addition, it is proper to kiss someone both when saying hello and upon departing.


Uruguay does not have the extreme inequality of incomes and standards of living found in other Latin American countries. However, there is a marked difference in patterns of living in urban and rural areas. Nearly half the population lives in the capital, Montevideo. Montevideo is a modern city, with high-rise apartments and office buildings. The city has many restaurants, cinemas, and shopping centers. However, many of the poorer residents live in small homes or shacks on the outskirts of the city.

A substantial proportion of the population continues to live in rural areas. For many, cattle- and sheep-ranching is their way of life. Large-scale farms, called estancias, employ many people. Uruguayan cowboys, called gauchos, still wear traditional dress as they brand cattle, fix fencing, and round up the herd. Most gauchos live in simple communal housing on the farm where they work. Other households live in adobe homes.

The life expectancy in Uruguay (76 years) is almost equal to that of developed countries. Uruguay's relative prosperity gives most residents access to health care (94%) and clean water (98%). Adequate living conditions mean that the rate of infectious disease is low in comparison to other Latin American countries. Uruguay also has a varied agricultural sector, and locally grown beef and vegetables are affordable for most households.


The rights of women in Uruguay were historically more advanced than in other Latin American countries. As early as 1907, divorce due to spousal abuse became legally recognized. In addition, women now have the right to a divorce without giving a reason. This privilege is not offered to men. This growing legal protection of women and the secularization of society (i.e., the separation of church and state) enable women to escape traditional female stereotypes and work outside the home. Girls in Uruguay are also more likely to complete their schooling than are their counterparts in other Latin American countries.

Marriage in Uruguay can now be formalized through a civil, or nonreligious, ceremony. There is no requirement, as in other Latin American countries, that weddings be performed in a church. Civil weddings also mean that the bride no longer has to vow to obey her husband. Instead, both the man and woman pledge to treat their partner with respect.

Families in Uruguay are relatively small in comparison with other countries in the region. Most urban families have access to birth control and choose to limit the size of their families. In rural areas, however, access to birth control is more restricted, and women there typically have more children.


The lifestyle of Uruguay's cowboys, or gauchos, has not changed dramatically since the 1800s. Gauchos proudly use the distinctive clothing worn by their ancestors. Because they spend most waking hours on horseback, gauchos have adopted the use of very baggy pants called bombachas. Wide-brimmed black hats offer protection from the midday sun, while woolen ponchos are used for warmth in the evenings. Leather boots and intricately tooled leather saddles complete the rugged picture.

In contrast, urban Uruguayans wear modern European dress. Today's youths favor jeans and tee shirts, while suits and ties are appropriate attire for businessmen.


Not surprisingly for a cattle-ranching country, beef features predominantly in Uruguayan cuisine. Uruguayans are reputed to be among the largest consumers of beef per capita in the world. Churrasco, or grilled steak, can be said to be the national dish. Sometimes the meat is grilled with the skin on, in order to prevent it from drying out. Also very popular are chivitos: hot steak sandwiches, topped with bacon, eggs, cheese, lettuce, and tomatoes.

The Uruguayans have also adapted traditional Spanish dishes. A Uruguayan version of puchero, Spanish meat stew, is sometimes cooked with blood sausage. Although this dish is considered a delicacy, it has been nicknamed olla podrida, or "rotten pot." Uruguay's cuisine also has a significant Italian influence. Pasta and lasagna are Uruguayan favorites.

(Uruguayan meat stew)

4 pounds osso buco (veal shanks), cut into six pieces
1 cup chopped celery
6 carrots, peeled
6 white potatoes, peeled
1 onion
6 zucchini
1 pound green beans
1 bunch parsley
6 ears of sweet corn, peeled
4 teaspoons salt
1 squash (medium size), cut into 6 pieces, unpeeled

Fill a large saucepan with water and bring it to a boil. Add all ingredients to boiling water, putting the meat in first, then carrots, onion, green beans, corn, squash, and celery. Then add potatoes and zucchini. Add parsley and salt to season the stew. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes, or until potatoes are tender. Drain off broth and serve meat and vegetables. To enhance the flavor, the stew may be served with mustard, mayonnaise, tomato, onion, or pepper sauce. If desired, add rice or noodles to remaining broth and serve in soup bowls.

(Recipe courtesy of the Embassy of Uruguay.)


Uruguayans are among the most-educated people in Latin America, with a literacy rate topping 98%. The impressive educational system in Uruguay originated in the government of José Batile y Ordoñez. Early in the 1900s, this president introduced sweeping educational reforms and invested in developing Uruguay's educational structures. Children are obligated by law to attend school until the age of 12.

The University of the Republic (1849) has numerous faculties, including a distinguished medical school that draws students from throughout the region. The Catholic University of Uruguay (1985) is also a well-reputed and prominent private institution.


Uruguay has a rich literary tradition, combining both European and indigenous cultural influences. Perhaps the most celebrated poet was Juan Zorrilla de San Martin. Referred to as the "poet of the Fatherland," he wrote a poem in 1879 about the native Amerindians. The poem "Tabare" has been considered to be among the most powerful in Uruguay's literary history. A more-recent writer of international acclaim is Juan Carlos Onetti, a contemporary novelist.

Uruguay's musical tradition has been shaped by its European history—as in Argentina, the tango is a popular form of dance. One exception to the European influence is candombe, an Afro-Brazilian musical and dance form that is also popular in Uruguay.


Uruguay's population works in many different sectors of the economy. Many urban dwellers find work in the industrial sector, including textile plants, breweries, and canning factories. Many industries are closely tied to the processing of agricultural products. For example, the leather industry generates employment. Small firms produce shoes, purses, bags, and other leather items. In addition, wool is an important export.

In addition to industry and manufacturing, Montevideo offers jobs as waiters, taxi drivers, and shopkeepers. Unemployment, however, is a major problem. Many Uruguayans are unable to find paid employment and are forced to develop their own small-scale enterprises. Many of these people turn to street vending, tailoring, or other activities to make a living.

Agriculture is the primary driving force behind the Uruguayan economy. Sheep- and cattle-ranching are the most important agricultural activities. Growing crops such as fruits, wheat, oats, sugar, and corn is less important than raising livestock.


Uruguayans love soccer (fútbol) and enjoy the game both as spectators and participants. They have won the World Cup twice, first in 1930 and later in 1950. In the second World Cup game, Uruguay beat the strong favorite, Brazil. The country responded with such jubilation that the government declared a national holiday! Soccer is also a favorite of youths. Informal neighborhood matches can be seen not only in soccer fields but also on quiet streets throughout the city.

Uruguayans are equally passionate about horses. Rodeos where gauchos (cowboys) demonstrate their equestrian skills are always widely attended. Horseracing is also very popular. Uruguay also shares with Argentina a passion for polo. Regular matches between the two countries are held on the Punte del Este.


Many Uruguayan families flock to the beaches on weekends for rest and recreation. Many beautiful beaches provide an opportunity for swimming and sunbathing. Uruguayans are also fond of camping. The coastal forests provide numerous sites for camping and fishing. Weekends are often a time in the cities for visiting friends or having large family lunches. Montevideo also has a varied nightlife. Restaurants, cinemas, and musical shows are widely attended on weekends.


Most of Uruguay's crafts involve processing the raw materials produced by the large cattle- and sheep-ranching sector. Uruguayans excel in producing handcrafted leather goods. Belts, hats, boots, and purses of high quality are carefully crafted from homegrown leather.

Many craft items are produced by a well-known handicraft cooperative in Montevideo called Manos de Uruguay (Hands of Uruguay). This cooperative includes skilled artisans from all over Uruguay. They spin the wool, dye it, and knit sweaters. Manos de Uruguay produces over 100,000 sweaters each year. In addition to handmade woolen items, they also make ceramic crafts.


Uruguay's highly urbanized society faces the same problems common to other industrialized countries. Unemployment typically ranges from 10% to 15%, and there is a serious lack of housing. There is, however, no major drug abuse problem.


Gender equality in Uruguay presents a mixed picture. Girls and boys participate in the education system at approximately the same rates through high school. Women enter universities at a higher rate than men. In fact, some 60% of students at public universities are women. Women often pursued professional careers, and approximately 60 percent of public university students were women. Literacy rates for women are the same as for men, and Uruguayan women have the highest labor force participation rates in Latin America. However, fewer women than men receive unemployment insurance.

A serious societal problem affecting Uruguayan women is domestic violence: 46% of women reported that they were victims of domestic violence during the early years of the 21st century. An estimated one woman dies every nine days as a result of domestic violence in the country.

Gender differences persist in employment with respect to hiring women and promoting them to higher positions. As for the wage differential, the gap has been closing in recent years: women's salaries are now 84.7% of men's. At the same time, differences remain with respect to decision-making in the political, economic, and social spheres. The labor market remains segmented, both horizontally and vertically: women are still found mainly in traditional sectors and their increased levels of education and training have not translated into positions of professional responsibility. Among employees, women are more numerous than men in so-called "non-standard" or casual employment, and they are heavily represented in seasonal and part-time jobs.

As of 2008 Uruguay had 4 women senators (out of 30) and 11 female deputies (of a total of 99 representatives), making up 11% of the seats in the General Assembly. In addition, 3 of the 13 cabinet ministers are women. Given the weakness of the executive branch's gender mechanisms, the national legislature has assumed the role of coordinating efforts in the various areas of government and of civil society. This role is pursued through the Special Commission on Gender and Equity of the House of Representatives, and through the "Women's Bloc", an ad hoc mechanism created by female senators and deputies committed to gender issues, drawn from all political parties.


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___. Uruguay. Enchantment of the World Series. Chicago: Children's Press, 1992.

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—revised by H. A. Azeves