The Oriental Republic of Uruguay, as Uruguay is officially known, is South America's second smallest independent nation after Suriname. The River Uruguay, which forms the country's W border, flows into the Río de la Plata (River Plate), a large estuary fringed with lagoons and sand dunes which leads into the South Atlantic Ocean.
The land consists mainly of low-lying plains and hills. The highest point lies S of Minas and is only 501m [1,644ft] above sea level. The main river in the interior is the Rio Negro.
Uruguay has a mild climate, with rain throughout the year, though droughts sometimes occur. The summer is pleasantly warm, especially near the coast. The weather remains relatively mild in winter.
The first people of Uruguay were Amerindians, but the Amerindian population has largely disappeared. Most were killed by Spanish settlers or died of imported diseases to which they had no resistance. Most Uruguayans today are of European origin, though there are some mestizos of mixed European and Amerindian descent.
The first European to arrive in Uruguay was a Spanish navigator, Juan Diaz de Solis, in 1516. He and part of his crew were killed by the local Charrúa Amerindians when they went ashore. Few Europeans settled until the late 17th century. Spanish settlers founded Montevideo in order to prevent the Portuguese from gaining influence in the area. Uruguay was then little more than a buffer zone between the Portuguese territory to the N and Spanish territories to the W. By the late 18th century, Spaniards had settled in most of the country. Uruguay became part of a colony called the Viceroyalty of La Plata, which included Argentina, Paraguay, and parts of Bolivia, Brazil and Chile.
Uruguay was annexed by Brazil in 1820, bringing about an end to Spanish rule. In 1825 Uruguayans, supported by Argentina, began a struggle for independence.
Uruguay was recognized as an independent republic by Brazil and Argentina in 1828. Social and economic developments were slow in the 19th century but, from 1903, governments made Uruguay a democratic and stable country. Since 1828 two political parties - the Colorados (Liberals) and the Blancos (Conservatives) - have dominated.
During World War 2 Uruguay prospered because of its export trade, especially in meat and wool. However, from the 1950s, economic problems caused unrest. Terrorist groups, notably the Tupumaros (Marxist urban guerrillas), carried out murders and kidnappings in the 1960s and early 1970s. In 1972 President Juan Maria Bordaberry declared war on the Tupumaros and the army crushed them. In 1973 the military seized power, suspended the constitution and ruled with great severity, committing major human rights abuses.
Military rule continued until 1984, when elections were held. General Gregorio Alvarez, who had been president since 1981, resigned and Julio Maria Sanguinetti, leader of the Colorado Party, became president in February 1985 leading a government of National Unity. He ordered the release of all political prisoners. In the 1990s Uruguay faced problems in trying to rebuild its weakened economy and shoring up its democratic traditions. In 1991 Uruguay joined with Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay to form Mercosur, which aimed to create a common market. Mercosur's secretariat is in Montevideo. The early 21st century brought economic problems, many of which were the result of the economic crisis in Argentina and its imposition of banking controls. Uruguay elected its first leftist president, Tabare Vasquez, in 2004.
Uruguay is classed by the World Bank as an 'upper-middle-income' developing country. Although 90% of the population live in urban areas and agriculture employs 3% of the population, the economy depends on the exports of hides and leather goods, beef and wool. Main crops include maize, potatoes, rice, sugar beet and wheat.
Manufacturing concentrates on food processing and packing. The economy has diversified into cement, chemicals, leather goods, textiles and steel. Uruguay depends largely on hydroelectric power for energy and exports electricity to Argentina.
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