July 19, 2012, 5:39 pm
Source: CIA World Factbook
Content Cover Image

Aerial view of Montevideo. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Uruguay is a nation of three-and-a-third million people in South America located between Brazil to the north and Argentina to the west and south, and the Atlantic Ocean.

The border with Argentina is the Urguay River and the estuary Rio del Plate onto which the capitols of both nations Montevideo and Buenos Aires front, 221 km (137 mile) apart.

Uruguay is the second-smallest South American country (after Suriname).

Most of the low-lying landscape (three-quarters of the country) is grassland, ideal for cattle and sheep raising.

Uruguay's major environmental issues include:

  • water pollution from meat packing/tannery industry; and,
  • inadequate solid/hazardous waste disposal.

The future capitol of Uruguay, Montevideo, was founded by the Spanish in 1726 as a military stronghold, and soon took advantage of its natural harbor to become an important commercial center.

Claimed by Argentina but annexed by Brazil in 1821, Uruguay declared its independence four years later and secured its freedom in 1828 after a three-year struggle.

The administrations of President Jose Batlle in the early 20th century established widespread political, social, and economic reforms that established a statist tradition. A violent Marxist urban guerrilla movement named the Tupamaros, launched in the late 1960s, led Uruguay's president to cede control of the government to the military in 1973. By yearend, the rebels had been crushed, but the military continued to expand its hold over the government. Civilian rule was not restored until 1985.

In 2004, the left-of-center Frente Amplio Coalition won national elections that effectively ended 170 years of political control previously held by the Colorado and Blanco parties. Uruguay's political and labor conditions are among the freest on the continent.


Location: Southern South America, bordering the South Atlantic Ocean, between Argentina and Brazil

Geographic Coordinates: 33 00 S, 56 00 W

Area: 176,220 km2 (173,620 km2 land and 2,600 km2water)

Land Boundaries: 1,648 km - border countries: Argentina 580 km, Brazil 1,068 km

Coastline: 660 km

Maritime Claims: Territorial sea to 12 nautical miles; contiguous zone to 24nautical miles; exclusive economic zone to 200 nautical miles; continental shelf: to 200 nautical miles or edge of continental margin

Natural Hazards: Seasonally high winds (the pampero is a chilly and occasional violent wind that blows north from the Argentine pampas), droughts, floods; because of the absence of mountains, which act as weather barriers, all locations are particularly vulnerable to rapid changes from weather fronts.

Terrain: Mostly rolling plains and low hills; fertile coastal lowland. The highest point is Cerro Catedral (514 metres)

Climate: Warm temperate; freezing temperatures almost unknown.

The Rio de la Plata is the brown, rather short, sediment-filled river in the center of the image. It is the widest river in the world, ranging from around 40 km (25 mi) in width near Buenos Aires, to approximately 220 km (140 mi) near its mouth. As its water mixes with clearer ocean water, it creates swirls and cloudy formations. Visible in this image (in gray) is Buenos Aires, the capital city of Argentina, located inland near the head of the river. Montevideo, Uruguay's capital, is located downstream on the opposite side of the Rio de la Plata (and also appears gray). Photo: NASA.


Biodiversity and Ecology

The unique grasslands, palm savannas, and gallery forests of the Uruguayan savanna ecoregion cover a vast area including the entire country of Uruguay. Unfortunately, agriculture and cattle ranching have heavily altered these natural communities.

These savannas encompass a mosaic of gallery forests, palm savannas and out cropping of submontane forests. The gallery forests are found along the Uruguay, Negro, Yaguarí, Queguay, and Tacuarembo Rivers in the easternmost part of the ecoregion, while submontane forests and palm savannas are scattered throughout the ecoregion.

The savannas are critically endangered due to the fact that there are few small isolated patches of intact habitat remaining. The whole ecoregion has been severely altered by cattle ranching- one of the main pillars of the national economy in Uruguay. About 80% of Uruguayan territory is used for cattle ranching on natural and artificial savannas.

The Uruguayan government identified 36 areas for wildlife protection. The current status of the national parks is poor. There are 15 protected areas that have been highly degraded, and are not adequate for protection of native species. There are also areas that do not protect the native fauna and flora in the ecoregion but instead introduced species, such is the case of the Roosevelt National Park with eucalyptus as the dominant species.

Source: World Wildlife Fund

The Patagonian Shelf Large Marine Ecosystem (LME) extends from Uruguay to the Strait of Magellan. The LME is rich in a variety of fishery resources. There is high phytoplankton production at the mouth of the Rio de la Plata, a river discharging large quantities of freshwater and sediments into the LME. There are commercially important fisheries in that area. Some pollution issues stem from the presence of the two major metropolitan areas (Buenos Aires and Montevideo) situated along the Patagonian coast. Argentina and Uruguay are the two countries bordering this LME. Consensus in the management of the LME is an elusive goal because of differing jurisdictions and a different acceptance of international customary law and conventional law.

People and Society

Population: 3,316,328 (July 2012 est.)

Uruguayans share a Spanish linguistic and cultural background, even though about one-quarter of the population is of Italian origin. Most are nominally Roman Catholic although the majority of Uruguayans do not actively practice a religion. Church and state are officially separated.

Uruguay is distinguished by its high literacy rate, large urban middle class, and relatively even income distribution. The average Uruguayan standard of living compares favorably with that of most other Latin Americans. Metropolitan Montevideo, with about 1.6 million inhabitants, is the only large city. The rest of the urban population lives in about 20 towns. During the past two decades, an estimated 500,000 Uruguayans have emigrated, principally to Argentina and Spain. Emigration to the United States also rose significantly. As a result of the low birth rate, high life expectancy, and relatively high rate of emigration of younger people, Uruguay's population is quite mature.

Ethnic groups: white 88%, mestizo 8%, black 4%, Amerindian (practically nonexistent)

Age Structure: 

0-14 years: 22.2% (male 373,613/female 361,160)
15-64 years: 64.1% (male 1,042,163/female 1,078,357)
65 years and over: 13.7% (male 180,729/female 272,513) (2011 est.)

Population Growth Rate: 0.24% (2012 est.)

Birthrate: 13.4 births/1,000 population (2012 est.)

Death Rate: 9.55 deaths/1,000 population (July 2012 est.)

Net Migration Rate: -1.45 migrant(s)/1,000 population (2012 est.)

Life Expectancy at Birth: 76.41 years 

male: 73.27 years
female: 79.66 years (2012 est.)

Total Fertility Rate: 1.87 children born/woman (2012 est.)

Languages: Spanish, Portunol, or Brazilero (Portuguese-Spanish mix on the Brazilian frontier)

Literacy: 98%

Urbanization: 92% of total population (2010) growing at a 0.4% annual rate of change (2010-15 est.)


The only inhabitants of Uruguay before European colonization of the area were the Charrua Indians, a small tribe driven south by the Guarani Indians of Paraguay. The Spanish discovered the territory of present-day Uruguay in 1516, but the Indians' fierce resistance to conquest, combined with the absence of gold and silver, limited settlement in the region during the 16th and 17th centuries. The Spanish introduced cattle, which became a source of wealth in the region. Spanish colonization increased as Spain sought to limit Portugal's expansion of Brazil's frontiers.

Montevideo was founded by the Spanish in the early 18th century as a military stronghold; its natural harbor soon developed into a commercial center competing with Argentina's capital, Buenos Aires. Uruguay's early 19th century history was shaped by ongoing conflicts between the British, Spanish, Portuguese, and colonial forces for dominance in the Argentina-Brazil-Uruguay region. In 1811, Jose Gervasio Artigas, who became Uruguay's national hero, launched a successful revolt against Spain. In 1821, the Provincia Oriental del Rio de la Plata, present-day Uruguay, was annexed to Brazil by Portugal. The Provincia declared independence from Brazil in August 25, 1825 (after numerous revolts in 1821, 1823, and 1825) but decided to adhere to a regional federation with Argentina.

The regional federation defeated Brazil after a 3-year war. The 1828 Treaty of Montevideo, fostered by the United Kingdom, gave birth to Uruguay as an independent state. The nation's first constitution was adopted in 1830. The remainder of the 19th century, under a series of elected and appointed presidents, saw interventions by neighboring states, political and economic fluctuations, and large inflows of immigrants, mostly from Europe. Jose Batlle y Ordonez, president from 1903 to 1907 and again from 1911 to 1915, set the pattern for Uruguay's modern political development. He established widespread political, social, and economic reforms such as a welfare program, government participation in many facets of the economy, and a plural executive. Some of these reforms were continued by his successors.

By 1966, economic, political, and social difficulties led to constitutional amendments, and a new constitution was adopted in 1967. In 1973, amid increasing economic and political turmoil, the armed forces closed the Congress and established a civilian-military regime, characterized by repression and widespread human rights abuses. A new constitution drafted by the military was rejected in a November 1980 plebiscite. Following the plebiscite, the armed forces announced a plan for return to civilian rule. National elections were held in 1984. Colorado Party leader Julio Maria Sanguinetti won the presidency and served from 1985 to 1990. The first Sanguinetti administration implemented economic reforms and consolidated democracy following the country's years under military rule.

Sanguinetti's economic reforms, focusing on the attraction of foreign trade and capital, achieved some success and stabilized the economy. In order to promote national reconciliation and facilitate the return of democratic civilian rule, Sanguinetti secured public approval by plebiscite of a controversial general amnesty for military leaders accused of committing human rights violations under the military regime, and sped the release of former guerrillas.

The National Party's Luis Alberto Lacalle won the 1989 presidential election and served from 1990 to 1995. Lacalle executed major structural economic reforms and pursued further liberalization of the trade regime. Uruguay became a founding member of MERCOSUR in 1991 (the Southern Cone Common Market, which includes Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay). Despite economic growth during Lacalle's term, adjustment and privatization efforts provoked political opposition, and some reforms were overturned by referendum.

In the 1994 elections, former President Sanguinetti won a new term, which ran from 1995 until March 2000. As no single party had a majority in the General Assembly, the National Party joined with Sanguinetti's Colorado Party in a coalition government. The Sanguinetti government continued Uruguay's economic reforms and integration into MERCOSUR. Other important reforms were aimed at improving the electoral system, social security, education, and public safety. The economy grew steadily for most of Sanguinetti's term, until low commodity prices and economic difficulties in its main export markets caused a recession in 1999, which continued into 2003.

The 1999 national elections were held under a new electoral system established by constitutional amendment. Primaries in April decided single presidential candidates for each party, and national elections on October 31 determined representation in the legislature. As no presidential candidate received a majority in the October election, a runoff was held in November. In the runoff, Colorado Party candidate Jorge Batlle, aided by the support of the National Party, defeated Frente Amplio candidate Tabare Vazquez.

The legislative coalition of the Colorado and National parties that held during most of Batlle's administration ended in November 2002, when the Blancos withdrew their ministers from the cabinet. Throughout most of his administration, President Batlle had to handle Uruguay's largest economic crisis in recent history, which impacted on poverty and led to increased emigration. Aside from successfully addressing the crisis, Batlle increased international trade, attracted foreign investment and tried to resolve issues related to Uruguayans who disappeared during the military government.

The two traditional political parties, the National ("Blanco") and Colorado parties, which were founded in the early 19th century, in the past garnered about 90% of the vote but have seen their share decline over the past decades. At the same time the share of the Frente Amplio, a coalition of various left-of-center factions that became the largest political force in 1999, was on the rise. In October 2004 presidential elections, Tabare Vazquez ran against the Blanco candidate Jorge Larranaga, a former state governor and senator who got 34.3% of votes, and against the Colorado candidate, former Interior Minister Stirling who got 10.4%. President Vazquez won the elections in the first round, with 50.5% of ballots, and his party achieved parliamentary majority. The Frente Amplio has ruled Montevideo since 1990.

During its years in power, the Vazquez administration made good on its campaign promise to re-examine the human rights abuses committed during the period of military dictatorship and uncovered important forensic evidence. Bilateral relations with Argentina were strained by an ongoing dispute over the construction in Uruguay of a large wood pulp mill on a shared river. Legislation, including a controversial tax reform bill, tended to pass easily as the Frente Amplio enjoyed majorities in both houses of congress. In November 2009, Jose Mujica of the Frente Amplio defeated National Party candidate Luis Lacalle in a run-off round, garnering 54.8% of the vote. President Mujica was inaugurated for a 5-year term on March 1, 2010.


Government Type: constitutional republic

Uruguay's 1967 constitution institutionalizes a strong presidency, subject to legislative and judicial checks. The president's term is 5 years. The term is non-consecutive, but former presidents may run again in subsequent elections. Thirteen cabinet ministers, appointed by the president, head executive departments. The constitution provides for a bicameral General Assembly responsible for enacting laws and regulating the administration of justice. The General Assembly consists of a 30-member Senate, presided over by the vice president of the republic, and a 99-member Chamber of Deputies.

Capital:  Montevideo - 1.633 million (2009)

Administrative divisions: 19 departments (departamentos, singular - departamento):

  • Artigas,
  • Canelones,
  • Cerro Largo,
  • Colonia,
  • Durazno,
  • Flores,
  • Florida,
  • Lavalleja,
  • Maldonado,
  • Montevideo,
  • Paysandu,
  • Rio Negro,
  • Rivera,
  • Rocha,
  • Salto,
  • San Jose,
  • Soriano,
  • Tacuarembo,
  • Treinta y Tres

Independence Date: 25 August 1825 (from Brazil)

Legal System: civil law system based on the Spanish civil code, Uruguay accepts compulsory International Court of Justice (ICJ) jurisdiction; and accepts International criminal court (ICCt) jurisdiction. The highest court is the Supreme Court; below it are appellate and lower courts and justices of the peace. In addition, there are electoral and administrative ("contentious") courts, an accounts court, and a military judicial system.

Source: Martin Weinelt/Wikimedia Commons

International Environmental Agreements

Uruguay is party to international agreements on Antarctic-Environmental Protocol, Antarctic-Marine Living Resources, Antarctic Treaty, Biodiversity, Climate Change, Climate Change-Kyoto Protocol, Desertification, Endangered Species, Environmental Modification, Hazardous Wastes, Law of the Sea, Ozone Layer Protection, Ship Pollution, and Wetlands.


Total Renewable Water Resources: 139 cu km (2000)

Freshwater Withdrawal3.15 cu km/yr (2% domestic, 1% industrial, 96% agricultural)

Per Capita Freshwater Withdrawal: 910 cu m/yr (2000)


Agricultural products: soybeans, rice, wheat; beef, dairy products; fish; lumber, cellulose

Irrigated Land: 2,180 sq km (2008)


Natural Resources: arable land, hydropower, minor minerals, fish

Land Use:

arable land: 7.77%
permanent crops: 0.24%
other: 91.99% (2005)


Uruguay's economy remains dependent on agriculture and services. Agriculture and agri-industry account for 12% of GDP, and for about 70% of total exports. Leading economic sectors include commerce, agriculture and agri-industry (meat processing, wood pulp, rice, soybeans, and wheat), and construction. Though still small, the information technology and software industry is growing rapidly. There are 12 free trade zones, three of which are dedicated to services (for example, financial, software, call centers, and logistics). Uruguay offers U.S. firms significant advantages as a MERCOSUR-region distribution platform.

The global financial crisis slowed economic growth, but Uruguay managed to avoid a recession and keep a positive growth rate of 2.6% in 2009. GDP growth reached 8.5% in 2010 and 5.7% in 2011. The Government of Uruguay forecasts annual growth of about 4% for 2012.

Recent governments have carried out cautious programs of economic liberalization similar to those in many other Latin American countries. They included lowering tariffs, controlling deficit spending, reducing inflation, and cutting the size of government. Although Uruguay's economy is based on free enterprise and private ownership, the country has traditionally favored substantial state involvement in the economy, and privatization is still widely opposed. In spite of some de-monopolization over the past several decades, the state continues to play a major role in the economy, owning either fully or partially companies in insurance, water supply, electricity, telephone service, petroleum refining, airlines, postal service, railways, and banking.

Uruguay has largely diversified its trade in recent years and reduced its longstanding dependency on Argentina and Brazil. It is a founding member of MERCOSUR, the Southern Cone trading bloc also composed of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay. The MERCOSUR Secretariat is located in Montevideo.

Total bilateral trade in 2011 was over $1.5 billion, with a total of nearly $1.3 billion in U.S. exports to Uruguay ($966 million trade surplus.) Key U.S. exports are machinery, electrical machinery, perfumery and cosmetics, toys and sports equipment, and mineral fuel (oil). Sales to the United States are concentrated in beef, prepared meat; dairy, eggs, and honey; and hides and skins. Other major markets for Uruguay are Brazil, Argentina, China, Russia, Spain, and Venezuela. Major non-U.S. suppliers include Brazil, Argentina, China, Canada, Russia, and Venezuela. Uruguayan exports are concentrated in a few products, with meat, rice, soy, leather, dairy products, and wood accounting for over half of total annual export sales. Uruguay’s top imports are oil and capital goods. There are approximately 100 U.S. companies operating in Uruguay.

Uruguay enjoys a positive investment climate, with a strong legal system and open financial markets. It grants equal treatment to national and foreign investors and, aside from very few sectors, there is neither de jure nor de facto discrimination toward investment by source or origin. Investments are allowed without prior authorization, and there is fully free remittance of capital and profits. A decree passed in 2007 provides significant incentives to local and foreign investors. Domestic investment and foreign direct investment (FDI), which have been traditionally low, increased significantly in recent years.

GDP: (Purchasing Power Parity): $52.02 billion (2011 est.)

GDP: (Offical Exchange Rate): $49.4 billion (2011 est.)

GDP- per capita (PPP): $15,400 (2011 est.)

GDP- composition by sector:

agriculture: 9.1%
industry: 20.9%
services: 70% (2011 est.)

Industries: food processing, electrical machinery, transportation equipment, petroleum products, textiles, chemicals, beverages

Natural Resources: Arable land, hydropower, minor minerals, fisheries.

Currency:  Uruguayan pesos (UYU)



Agency, C., Fund, W., International, C., & Department, U. (2012). Uruguay. Retrieved from


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