Gabriel Terra (1873-1942) was a Uruguayan politician. President by election, he overthrew his government by a coup d'etat in 1933 and headed a mildly authoritarian government until 1938.
Born in Montevideo, Gabriel Terra was educated at the University of Montevideo. He received a degree in law and jurisprudence in 1895, and his lifelong specialty was principally in fiscal and financial matters. He began a legal practice and also became a teacher of economics in the Escuela Superior of Montevideo. Later he served as professor of political economy in the law school of the university.
Terra entered active politics soon after receiving his degree. In 1905 he was elected to the Chamber of Deputies as a Colorado and follower of President José Batlle y Ordóñez. Terra rose rapidly in the party and, while still a deputy, announced his intention of one day becoming president of the republic. Batlle appears to have been cool to this ambition, on grounds of his doubt of Terra's judgment and good faith.
Terra served in the Chamber of Deputies until 1925 and briefly in the cabinets of several presidents as minister of industry, of labor, and of public instruction. Terra also held several diplomatic posts. In 1916 he was a delegate to the Pan-American Commercial and Financial Conference in Washington. In 1918 he was president of the Uruguayan delegation to the International Financial High Commission in Paris. Later he was Uruguayan minister to Italy.
In 1925 Terra was elected to the National Council of Administration for a 6-year term. Under the complex 1918 Constitution, this nine-member body shared the executive power with the president of the republic, who was elected for a 4-year term. In 1930 Terra resigned to run for the presidency; he won that office for the term beginning March 1, 1931.
On March 31, 1933, after weeks of preparation, Terra overthrew the government. Congress was dissolved; six members of the council were jailed briefly, and another member, former president Baltasar Brum, shot himself. Careful preparations had assured that the event would be peaceful; one company of army infantry and the Montevideo fire department were the only uniformed units needed to support it. Terra imposed mild controls; newspapers were censored, but speakers were subjected to only mild harassment. In 1934 an elected constitutional convention elected Terra president for the term 1934-1938. In elections in 1938 he yielded power to Alfredo Baldomir.
Terra lived quietly in Uruguay until his death in Montevideo. He published many economic studies, beginning with his degree thesis of 1895, The Public Debt of Uruguay. Other titles included Notes on Public Credit, The Hydro-electric Energy Potential of the Rio Negro, Cooperativism and Socialism, and International Politics.
Terra's inauguration occurred at the nadir of the world depression. He felt that the council was a major cause of his country's economic collapse. As president, he had the power to subvert the government. His actions prior to the coup were well noted, but opposition proved fruitless. Economic recovery occurred after 1933, but it is not clear that the coup hastened that recovery. His image is as much that of a technocrat as of a politician. He was held in check by Batlle until the latter's death in 1929. Terra remains a controversial figure and an exception among the proconstitution leaders of his political generation.
There is no work in English on Terra. Useful background material may be found in Simon G. Hanson, Utopia in Uruguay (1938); John J. Johnson, Political Change in Latin America: The Emergence of the Middle Sectors (1958); and Philip B. Taylor, Jr., Government and Politics of Uruguay (1962). □