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The territory now occupied by the Republic of Uruguay was discovered in 1516 by Juan Diaz de Solis, leader of a Spanish expedition which, looking for a route to the Indies via the New Continent, sailed up the Rio de la Plata. Noticing the presence of natives in the shore, he landed at the head of his men and was immediately killed. Then, and throughout the whole period of the conquest, the natives put up such a brave resistance that even today the Uruguayans are proud to call themselves "Charruas" in memory of the indomitable spirit and the total refusal to surrender to the foreign invaders manifested by the tribe which inhabited the southern part of the country.

    The territory took a long time to conquer, not only because of the strong resistance of the natives, but also by reason of a lack of interest on the part of the Europeans who did not discover there the precious metal they had found in Peru. In 1617 Hernando Arias de Saavedra (Hernandarias), Governor of the Rio de la Plata, realized that the region's real assets lay in its extensive prairies and its inexhaustible reserves of water, together with its relative flatness and splendid climate, all offering great possibilities for livestock farming. It was the Governor himself who introduced the first bovines; they bred remarkably rapidly, soon spreading all over the country and establishing the bases for its future economy. Later, England and Portugal came to envy Spain this prosperous colony.

    Whit the passing of the years the descendants of the early settlers -criollos- felt their freedom restricted under the Spanish administration which denied them self government and prevented them from enjoying a flourishing economy and improving their social status. Gradually, and under the influence of the American and French revolutions, this dissatisfaction led to a revolutionary movement which erupted in 1811. It was then that Jose Gervasio Artigas came on the scene, a military officer who gained popular recognition and became the leader of the revolution. His ideas on independence, republicanism and democracy very soon marked him as one of the greatest statesmen of the American Continent.

    The struggle extended over several years, first against the Spaniards, who after a series of victories were definitively defeat in 1814, and then against the Portuguese. Betrayed by several of his allies, Artigas retired to Paraguay, where he died far from the battlefields. But the flame of patriotism which he had kindled on the soil of his own country was revived in the hearts of thirty-three men who, commanded by Juan Antonio Lavalleja, embarked upon the Crusade of Liberation which, baked by the people as a whole, reached its climax in the Declaration of Independence in 1825 and the creation of the State of Uruguay in 1828.

    In 1830 the first Constitution of the Republic was proclaimed and General Fructuoso Rivera was elected President. During the first few years of its existence the new State, like nearly all other American countries, had to cope with considerable difficulties, the major ones being the maitenance of internal peace, the promotion of the economy, and the solution of numerous international problems. But as the years passed the country settled down and began to prosper in all fields, reaching its high point in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At that time, very advanced social legislation was introduced, and production was encouraged to the point where the national currency became stronger than the dollar. In the cultural field, figures emerged who achieved world-wide fame.

    This sound economic and social situation enabled Uruguay to survive the crisis of 1929 without encountering the serious difficulties which assailed the rest of the world.

    The Second World War did not disturb the peace of the Uruguayans; the country was directly involved in only one episode, the Battle of the River Plate which resulted in the scuttling of the German battleship Admiral Graf Spee.

    The sale of Uruguay's traditional products- beef, leather and wool- continued until after the Korean War (1950-54), maintaining the country's stability.

    But then a serious crisis arose which spared no sector of Uruguayan activity. It led to the stagnation of production, foreign debts, uncontrolled State intervention and paternalism, the inordinate growth of bureaucracy, and permanent inflation. The social consequences were inevitable: unemployment, unrest among workers and students, constant strikes, increasing violence and socio-economic upheaval.

    In 1973, amid increasing economic and political turmoil, the armed forces closed the Congress and established a civilian-military regime. A new constitution drafted by the military was rejected in a 1980 plebiscite. Following the plebiscite, negotiations were held with representatives of the political parties and a plan for the return to civilian rule was agreed on. National elections were held in Nov. 1984 and in Nov. 1989. The political process has solidified and Uruguay has returned to its traditional system of freedom and constitutional government. The last national election was held in Nov. 1999 and the next one will be in Nov. 2004.*

*Source: Permanent Mission of Uruguay to the OAS. Copyright 2003 Embassy of Uruguay in Washington, DC, Ministry Of Foreign Affairs. All Rights Reserved.