Uruguay was discovered in the late 16th century by Spanish Adelantados and was a part of the United Provinces of the River Plate until 1811. (Although plata technically means “silver” in Spanish, the conventional and proper translation is “plate,” since it was formerly used as a synonym for precious metals.) Uruguay was formerly known as the Banda Oriental, or Eastern Band, of colonies along the Uruguay and Plate Rivers’ eastern edges.
The capital was relocated to Montevideo when Buenos Aires ousted the last Viceroy, Baltasar Cisneros. The revolutionary fleet set sail from Buenos Aires, backed by local rebel soldiers, in an effort to defeat the Spanish troops stationed there.
When Montevideo was fully free of Spain, Uruguay planned to separate from Buenos Aires, only to be attacked by the Brazilian Empire, sparking the Argentine-Brazilian war in 1813. The battle eventually came to a halt after a series of perplexing turns. Both warring nations decided to abandon their territorial claims on the Banda Oriental in 1828, thanks to British government intervention, giving birth to the new Eastern Republic of Uruguay. After that, in 1830, a constitution was written and approved. British aid in the formation of Uruguay resulted in a lengthy history of British influence (including the practice of driving on the left), which only came to a stop after World War II.
The Argentinian Civil War, which ravaged the country in the nineteenth century, was not unfamiliar to Uruguay, which soon gave birth to two opposing parties, the Whites (liberals) and the Reds (traditionalists), which eventually led to a Uruguayan Civil War, which raged in various hot and cold phases until the turn of the twentieth century. According to legend, the parties’ colors were inspired by armbands ripped from the Uruguayan flag, but conservatives switched to red armbands after learning that red faded less rapidly in the sun than blue.
However, the simmering conflict between Uruguay’s left and right wing politicians continued. Uruguay attempted an unusual approach taken from Switzerland from 1954 to 1967: a collegiate Executive Office in which a new member was named President each year. Uruguay was dubbed the “Latin American Switzerland” for a while, serving as an example of democracy and financial freedoms until a military coup put a stop to it all.
Uruguay’s president Juan Mara Bordaberry “agreed” to military control of his government in 1973 after a Marxist urban guerrilla organization, the Tupamaros, emerged in the late 1960s. (In 1976, they paid him back by dismissing him and installing the first of many puppet presidents.) The rebels had been brutally crushed by the end of 1974 (and Tupamaro leader and future president Jose Mujica was imprisoned at the bottom of a well), but the military continued to tighten its grip on the government by torturing and disappearing alleged insurgents and anyone perceived to be enemies of the regime. It took until 1985 for civil and democratic government to be restored.
Uruguay’s political and labor circumstances are now among the continent’s most liberal. In 2004, the Tupamaros were part of a Marxist coalition (the Frente Amplio or Broad Front) that won elections and took control of both chambers of congress, the president, and most municipal and regional governments. Mujica, a former guerrilla commander, was elected president in 2009.