The first Spanish explorer Juan Diaz de Solis to visit Uruguay and most of his party were killed in 1516 by the hostile Charrua tribes that occupied the territory. The first European settlement came only in 1680 when the Portuguese founded Colonia de Sacramento across the Plata river from Buenos Aires, newly re-established by the Spanish. Spain retaliated by building a strong citadel in Montevideo in 1726. After a long struggle, Spain wrested the country from Portugal in 1778, by which time almost all of the indigenous people had been exterminated.
Uruguay revolted against Spain in 1811, only to be conquered in 1817 by the Portuguese from Brazil. Independence was reasserted with Argentine help in 1825, and the republic was set up in 1828.
A revolt in 1836 touched off nearly 50 years of factional strife, including an inconclusive civil war 18391851), a war with Paraguay (18651870), and occasional armed interventions by Argentina and Brazil.
Early in the 20th century President José Batlle y Ordóñez introduced social an economic reforms including a welfare program and government participation in the economy. Uruguay prospered on meat and wool exports but a decline began in the 1950s as successive governments struggled to maintain a large bureaucracy and costly social benefits. Corruption led to economic stagnation and left-wing terrorist activity followed.
A military coup ousted the civilian government in 1973. The military dictatorship that followed used fear and terror to demoralise the population, taking thousands of political prisoners. After ruling for 12 years, the brutal military regime permitted election of a civilian government in Nov. 1984 and relinquished rule in March 1985; full political and civil rights were then restored.
In 1990, free-market reformer Luis Alberto Lacalle took office but considerable opposition to his plans for wage restraint, spending cuts and major state sell-offs paved the way for Sanguinetti to once again take control in 1994.
Elections held under a new electoral system in 2000 brought the Colorado Party's candidate Jorge Batlle to power. Since, he's pursued a conservative agenda, promoting growth and foreign investment, reducing the size of government, selling state monopolies, and attempting to resolve the issue of the disappearances that occurred during the military occupation. The economy, however, has been dogged by problems beyond the direct control of Uruguay: the devaluation of the Brazilian currency, the collapse of the Argentinian economy and an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the important beef industry.
In 2002, economic troubles in neighbouring Argentina caused a staggering 90% drop in tourists, devastating Uruguay's important tourism industry. Batlle also faced a sizeable budget deficit, a growing public debt, and a weakening of the peso on international markets.
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Chui is really a border town for the border runs down the middle of the main avenue shown here. The left side of the avenue is in Uruguay and it's called Avenida Brasil. The right side, that belongs to Brazil, is appropriately called Avenida Uruguay!
It was dark when I got here and border towns are often rough so I was alert and watchful as I walked down the center of the deserted side streets looking for a place to sleep. A couple of teen aged girls showed me the way to the Rivero hotel where I spent the night for only 4 US$.
There wasn't much to see in Chui so I moved on to the seaside town of La Paloma where I stayed at the Viola Hotel.
La Paloma was obviously a resort town but it was small and charming being made up mostly of private secondary residences rather than noisy hotels.
Even under cloudy skies, La Paloma was peacefully beautiful.
Actually, it was a bit too peaceful. The high season (Dec. Jan. Feb.) had just ended and the beaches were already deserted although it was still warm enough to go swimming.
Uruguay's economy is roughly one tenth of Argentina's and one thirtieth of Brazil's. It is largely dependent on the prosperity of its larger neighbours. Difficult times since Brazil's 1998 financial troubles and Argentina's 2001 monetary crisis culminated in Uruguay's worst economic crisis of its history with a run on banks, riots and looting in the summer of 2002.
The situation is improving but hard times are not over yet, half of the secondary
residences in La Paloma were for sale when I was there in March 2004..
Montevideo's strange 1927 Palacio Salvo still dominates the skyline across Plaza Independencia from the Puerta de la Ciudadela where this photo was taken.
The horseman perched on his mausoleum in the center of the plaza is José Gervasio Artigas who fought the Spanish in 1811 and participated in liberating the region from Brazil in 1825.
Directly facing Artigas is central Montevideo's main thoroughfare, Avenida 18 de Julio.
Palacio Estévez on the south side of the Plaza Independencia was the government house until 1985.
Another public building of great importance is Uruguay's Central Bank, focus of the 2002 crisis.
I had the good fortune to have an Internet correspondent in Montevideo, Rosina Bartesaghi who showed me around with her husband Diego Urcota, both professionals in the financial world. We met for lunch at the famous Mercado del Puerto next to the Customs Building (with the tower), in the old city.
Here's a souvenir photo of Rosina, Diego and I after enjoying a "parrillada" of excellent Uruguay beef washed down with the local speciality"medio y medio" (white wine and champagne).
And here is the "parrilla" where you can chose the cuts you prefer.
I had been here before in 1994!
Plaza Fabini on Avenida 18 de Julio offers a perspective up the diagonal Avenida Libertador General Lavalleja that leads up to the Palacio Legislativo. The fountain and sculpture "El Entrevero" by José Belloni is so famous that some guide books call Plaza Fabini, Plaza Entrevero.
Plaza Fabini also has a pleasant sidewalk cafe, a peaceful oasis on busy Avenida 18 de Julio.
Here is the impressive 1908 Palacio Legislativo mentioned above. It is brilliantly lighted at night and looks great from Plaza Fabini.at the other end of Avenida Libertador General Lavalleja
Thanks to Rosina and Diego who drove me around, I can show you this fort on the 132 m Cerro de Montevideo across the bay from the old city.
Modern Montevideo is quite extensive with a population of 1.3 million people (more than a third of the country's 3.4 million). You can see how the white old city across the opening of fine natural harbour is only a small part of it. You can also spot the storage tanks of the country's only oil refinery on the left.
The Rambla, or waterfront road, extends from the old city to the east past several sandy beaches well attended by residents and tourists alike. This is Playa Ramirez inside the city on a Saturday
Yuppie Rosina and Diego live in Playa Pocitos an upper middle class suburb that reflects the hopes of modern Uruguay.I was favourably impressed but could not dispel my fears that corruption and elitism would limit Uruguay's potential for growth as it has in Argentina.
A voyage into the past is always pleasant because we choose to see only the quaint architecture and the glory, pageantry and elegance of the powerful while we close our eyes to the terrible reality of abuse of power, of slavery, of common crime and of hopeless disease that were the lot of common man in those days.
This colourful ceremony of changing the guard in Colonia is an example of our selective memory.
Colonia del Sacramento was founded to re-establish Portugal's claim on all lands east of the arbitrary "line of demarcation" drawn by Pope Alexander V in 1493 in competition with Spain that had founded Buenos Aires in 1536, had abandoned it and had just re-founded it in 1680.
The lighthouse shown here and below left was built only in the 19th century as was the church on the right below.
Colonia does look peaceful notwithstanding all the violence and injustice of its past that have now been sanitised.
This flowery colonial street is so delightful. Don't you agree?
Here is another view of charming Colonia. I forgot why the flag was at half mast on Sunday March 14th 2004 when this was taken.