Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Country of the week.

It's time to pick a South American country. And I'm picking Uruguay. Why you ask? Is it animosity toward Argentina? Some gripe with Brazil for winning the last world cup? No. I have been leading a church small group consisting of junior high students and one of them expressed interest in Uruguay because he did a school assignment on it. Oh yeah, and they were the very first winners of the World Cup (no soccer bias here).
So what's going on with the second smallest country in South America these days?

Uruguay is lodged right in between Brazil on the north east and Argentina to the west. It is not flat, but doesn't have much elevation either. Mostly rolling hills. The highest point is somewhere in the 1500 foot range (500m). Uruguay is about as big as the state of Washington with fewer people.
The economy is mostly services, even though the majority of the country is used for farming and livestock. Between 60 and 70 percent of the people work in the service industry. The people are well educated and European in ethnic background (Iberian Spanish and Portuguese).
The economy was doing rather well up until about 1999, when the whole region experienced much economic turmoil. Since Argentina and Brazil are about half of Uruguay's import/export activity, and they were hit hard by the economic slump, Uruguay suffered as well. The employment rate got up to 20% and the value of the Uruguayan peso fell about 50%. The US Dollar is worth about 24 Uruguayan pesos right now (which, again, is not bad considering the region).
Interesting fact: hydro power contributes 99% of the electric power in Uruguay, and they export twice again as much outside the country.

The government is similar to ours. More-so than many of the countries I have looked at in the course of this blog. There is one head of state, the president, who is elected by popular vote every 5 years (elections are coming up this fall). The vice president is on the same ticket every election. The president is currently Jorge Batlle Ibanez of the Colorado party.
The legislature is bicameral with a house of Senators (30) and a house of Representatives (99). Both are elected by popular vote, again every 5 years. The legislature and the president seem to get elected in the same year. The party Encuentro Progresista controls both houses, with the Colorado party and Blanco party not far behind in the number of seats they control.
There is also a supreme court, picked by the president, who serve 10 year terms.

The history of Uruguay is terribly fascinating. It was generally left alone by the Spanish because of the lack of minerals, specifically gold, and didn't become important until the 1700s. The Spanish wanted to seize the land before the Portuguese from Brazil did. The Spanish imported lots of cattle, with seemed to do well in that environment, and cattle was the main economy for most of the countries history until the 20th century. In that time a group of settlers became known as the gauchos (cowboys). Probably not all that different from the American west in many ways. It was a gaucho, Jose Gervasio Artigas, who led the initial revolt against the Spanish.
The country gained independence from Spain in 1828. They have an independence day, August 25. The rest of the 1800s are marked with internal strife. The two major parties, which still exist, were the Colorados (Reds - Urban liberals) and the Blancos (Whites - Rural conservatives). The colors had to do with the color of the hat bands they wore to distinguish themselves from enemies on the battle field.
The turn of the century brought more stability as the Colorados, under Jose Batlle y Ordonez, began to promote social, economic and political modernization while controlling the country for the first 25 years of the century.

Current news:
Soccer is still huge. The South Americans are already competing for places in the next World Cup in 2006.
Meat exports are up! No mad cows here.
This article about the current election for president is a good intro to the political climate, what happened to the stability they used to have and what the people think is the cause of all their troubles (free market reforms) . The Colorado and Blanco parties are being severely challenged by a once disparate coalition of leftist parties.

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