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The only known inhabitants of Uruguay before European colonisation were the Charrua tribe. The Portuguese discovered the region in 1512 with the Spanish arriving a few years later in 1516. Due to the country’s lack of silver and gold and resistance by the indigenous people, settlement was limited during the 16th an 17th centuries and Uruguay remained largely uninhabited.
The Spanish introduced cattle in 1603 and established their first permanent settlement at Soriano on the Rio Negro in 1624. The Portuguese established Colonia del Sacramento in 1680. Montevideo was founded by the Spanish in 1726 as a military stronghold and seized the country from Portugal in 1778. During the early 19th century there were ongoing fights for dominance in the Argentina-Brazil-Uruguay region by the Spanish, Portuguese, British and other colonial forces. In 1806 and 1807 the British tried to seize Montevideo and a British Force occupied the city in 1807.
Uruguay won its independence between 1811 and 1828 following a lengthy struggle between Spain, Portugal, Argentina and Brazil. Uruguay revolted against Spain in 1811 but was then conquered by the Portuguese from Brazil in 1817. Independence was won back in 1825 with help from Argentina and the republic established in 1828.
More strife followed with a revolt in 1836, a civil war from 1839 to 1851 and a war with Paraguay between 1865 and 1851, as well as the occasional armed intervention by Argentina and Brazil. Between 1875 and 1886, the military became the centre of power.
Uruguay is South America’s second smallest country. Bordered by Argentina to the west, Brazil to the north and east, with the Atlantic Ocean to the south and southeast, the country has 660kms of coastline. The landscape is mainly rolling plains, low hill ranges and fertile coastal lowlands. The main internal river is the Rio Negro (Black River).
The country can be divided into 4 main regions. The Atlantic coastal region includes La Paloma and Punta del Este. Rio de la Plata in the southwest of the country is the region bordering the Rio de la Plata, an estuary of the Uruguay River that forms the western border. It includes the capital Montevideo and Colonia. The Northern Interior is gaucho country and a citrus growing region with land crossings to Argentina. The Central Interior is an agricultural region with land crossings to Brazil and huge dams on the Rio Negro.
Uruguay lies within the temperate zone and has a relatively uniform climate throughout the year. Due to the lack of mountains all parts of the country are subject to rapid changes in weather. The high abundance of water results in high humidity and fog being common.
Cerro Catedral, at 514 metres, is Uruguay’s highest point.
Uruguay’s natural resources include arable land, hydropower, minor minerals and fish.
Uruguayan culture is strongly European with the majority of Uruguayans (over 90%) being of European descent. Most are descendants of immigrants from Spain, Italy, France, Germany and Britain. About ¼ of the population is of Italian origin. Amerindian traits can also be found throughout Uruguayan culture, from cuisine to vocabulary.
Spanish is the first language of Uruguay with Portunal or Brasilero, a mixture of Portuguese and Spanish being used on the Brazil border. Uruguayan Spanish used does have a few modifications due to the high numbers of Italian immigrants. The immigrants used to speak a mixture of Spanish and Italian known as "cocoliche". No indigenous languages are thought to exist in Uruguay.
Uruguay has no official religion but the predominant religion is Roman Catholic, with about 46% of the population practicing Catholicism.
The influences from southern Europe are particularly important in Uruguayan culture. The tradition of the gaucho (cattle herder) has also been important in art and folklore. The folk and popular music of Uruguay shares its gaucho and tango roots with Argentina.
The cuisine of Uruguay has mainly Spanish but also Italian influences. Beef is fundamental to the cuisine with asado, a type of barbecued beef being the national dish. The "chivito" is the most popular food item - a thick steak sandwich with ham, bacon, hard-boiled egg, cheese and tomatoes or olives for seasoning. The national drink is mate, a herbal tea.
Due to its abundance of suitable grazing land, Uruguay has cattle herds totalling around 12 million head. Cattle and sheep farming occupy about 60% of the land. Uruguay is one of the world’s largest producers of soybeans, greasy wool, beeswax and quinces. It is also an important global exporter of frozen beef, rice, malt and milk. Other main exports include cellulose, wheat, timber and dairy products. Its main export partners are Brazil, China, Argentina and Germany.
Uruguay experienced serious economic and financial difficulties between 1999 and 2002 mainly as a result of the economic problems in neighbouring Argentina. But the country managed to avoid a recession and retained positive growth rates. It diversified its export markets to reduce dependency on Argentina and Brazil.
Since 2002, poverty has been reduced from 33% to around 18.5% in 2010. Extreme poverty is below 2%.
Uruguay is a democratic constitutional republic with a presidential system, the president serving as both head of state and head of government. The country is divided into 19 departments. Universal suffrage is granted to those 18 years of age and is compulsory.
Uruguay has experienced its share of political instability over the years. In the late 1960’s, a violent Marxist urban guerrilla movement called the Tupamaros was launched, causing the country’s president to hand over control of the government to the military in 1973. The rebels were crushed that same year but the military continued to expand its hold over the government. It was not until 1985 that civilian rule was restored. The Frente Amplio Coalition won the national elections in 2004, effectively ending 170 years of political control held by the liberal Colorado (Reds) and conservative Blanco (Whites) parties.