Recently, I was watching a video about my country – Uruguay -created by a Spanish YouTube page focusing on geopolitics. I was surprised to see the video repeating a modern version of the common Uruguayan trope referring to the nation as “The Switzerland of Latin America.” This idea claims that Uruguay’s excellence and exceptionalism are based on the country’s predominantly white population, liberal democracy and political stability. When compared to the rest of Latin America these traits demarcate the country’s superiority. This complacent, racist and middle-class Uruguayan tale emerged in the 20th Century. As a member of the Charrúa nation and an activist for the recognition of Indigenous rights, it infuriates me to see this disastrous Uruguayan narrative regurgitated in the 21st Century. This obligates me to provide an analysis of what this small Southern Cone republic truly is.
This video, produced by Spaniards, claims the success of the tiny South American country is due to the fact that they have no Indigenous population (a majority of its inhabitants are of Spanish and Italian descent) their political stability (guaranteed by the governing party Frente Amplio, a center-left coalition party) and it’s adherence to neoliberalism’s Free Trade Zones. In other words, they’ve accomplished an equilibrium between leftist social policies and a globalized neoliberal economy. This was also said about Uruguay between 1910-1955. They say it’s the only country in Latin American comparable to Europe because of the extermination of its Indigenous population, its small Black population and its ability to attract European migrants. This story is based on the supposed racial superiority of the European population (and thus Uruguay’s) in contrast to the “ignorant” and “backwards” Mestizo/Indigenous/Black populations in the rest of the continent. This ethnic cleansing guaranteed the success of Uruguay’s liberal democracy as well as it’s economic stability, which was based on the exportation of primary goods to belligerent European nations.
This narrative obscures the bloody process used create this “liberal utopia.” Unlike other Latin American regions — such as Mexico or Peru — in the area of present-day Uruguay, there were no precious metals or Indigenous state societies. Our ancestors were Pampean nomads — in particular, hunters and gatherers. We are more similar to the Central Basin Indigenous groups of the United States than those of the Andes. This reality meant European colonizers gave up the conquest of our territory after some initial disastrous attempts. Between 1611-1680, the only Europeans that entered our territory were Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries with the intent to evangelize. Despite this, in 1680, the expansion of Portugal began an inter-imperialist dispute that determined the colonization of our region. The Spanish Empire sought to consolidate its colonial dominion in the region in its efforts to halt Portuguese expansion. This how our region began to develop colonization policies distinct to the rest of Latin America.
A policy of settler colonialism or settlement colonialism was developed. This meant establishing families of Spanish origin in the area. This is how they began to establish villages and distribute land among European settlers. This is where the structural matrix of capitalism and Uruguayan society was born. These colonists, soldiers and landowners defended Hispanic lands from both the Portuguese and us, the Indigenous. At the same time, they produced agricultural products under the logic of capitalist profitability and exported these to the big centers of global consumption. The combination of whiteness, capitalist land use and agro-export created the basis of Uruguay’s dominant system.
In spite of some agrarian reforms that included Indigenous and Black populations during the Wars of Independence, ultimately the sectors that built the Uruguayan state were the conservative factions of the independence movement. The elites that built the National State of Uruguay quickly established new economic ties with the two most important empires of the moment: England and France. These elites intended to build a “New Europe,” meaning a process of ethnic cleansing of the national population. From 1830 to 1835 this policy was directed by the “Group of the Five Brothers” (named as such because they married all the Obes sisters), comprised by Lucas Obes, Nicolas Herrera, José Longinos Ellaurí, Santiago Vázquez, Julián Álvarez and Juan Andrés Gelly, in addition to the bloodthirsty Brigadier General Frutuoso Rivera. These men led the Charrúa Genocide. The series of massacres and deportations, whose milestone was the Slaughter of Salsipuedes in 1831, symbolized the decline of my people. During this time, there was mass land redistribution of the territories that up until then were inhabited by my ancestors. Those bequeathed land by the government were some military men, Brazilians, Englishmen and Basque men. This was the other side of the ethnic cleansing policy — the incorporation of immigrant contingents mainly from Basque Country, Sardinia and Great Britain.
This policy of consolidating rural private property was cut short due to political disputes. The Colorados Party (defenders of a centralist state and with ties to commercial liberalism, representing the Montevidean commercial bourgeoisie) and the National Party (federalists and nationalists, representing the rural oligarchy) clashed in continuous civil wars from 1838 to 1875. In the 1860s, due to the U.S. Civil War and the rebellion of the sepoys in India, England lost its industrial cotton supply centers. Thus, England promoted in Uruguay, Argentina and Australia the development of the high-quality wool industry to supply the British textile industry. This process was known as the “Lanar Revolution” (Borges, L. 2013. Blood and Clay, Ediciones de la Plaza, Montevideo). The economic wealth fostered by the Lanar Revolution strengthened the links between the rural oligarchy and the commercial bourgeoisie. Both strengthened the idea of the need for the central state to end regional rebellions.
This trend happened along with the strengthening of the national army after its participation in the Triple Alliance War or Paraguayan War. Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay united, under British influence, to confront Paraguay, massacring its people and ending the unusual experience of that country. The imperialist war in Paraguay strengthened a military elite who was willing to do the dirty work required by the bourgeoisie and the oligarchy. Between 1876 and 1890, there were a series of military governments that carried out the “modernization” of Uruguay. They fought regional rebellions, fenced off the fields, resettled the rural population in urban centers, built railroads, promoted the refrigeration industry and established free and compulsory education, which aimed to “civilize” the rural population. Uruguayan education is inspired by the North American model of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. According to the words of the “Great Uruguayan Pedagogue” José Pedro Varela, the objective was “to eradicate the indigenous heritage” of society. This period and the subsequent decades were also when Uruguay saw a higher influx of European immigrants not only from the Mediterranean, but also from Central and Eastern Europe.
After military dictatorships established the country’s political foundations, Uruguay paved a path to social democracy, forming the vanguard of many social rights in the continent. Social democracy was allowed to operate as long as it did not question the military, the landlords and whiteness. Whenever political crisis, economic and popular advances emerged, the military entered the scene and imposed dictatorships. It happened between 1929-1933, when Uruguay’s dictatorship allied itself to Nazi Germany until 1942, when it was pressured by the United States to restore liberal democracy. Not to mention the revolutionary experience of the 1960s that ended with a 1973 coup backed by the United States.
By understanding the historical processes of Uruguay, one can see that although the state has been ruled by progressive governments since 2005, Indigenous rights continue to lag far behind other social advances. The obligatory mea culpa performances when discussing historical genocidal policy, the issue of territorial devolution and demarcation are questions so strong that even the “progressive” left has difficulty recognizing them. This is how Uruguay legalized marijuana, gay marriage and abortion, but the 169 ILO Convention on Indigenous and tribal peoples has yet to be ratified.
Currently, the issue of cultural diversity and the fight against racism is increasingly relevant in the country. This is due in large part to the growing presence of Latin American migrants (Peruvians, Paraguayans, Colombians, Venezuelans, Dominicans, Cubans, Salvadorans, Mexicans), African migrants (Senegalese, Nigerians, Beninese, Congolese and Angolans) and Middle Eastern migrants (Syrians, Egyptians, Palestinians and Kurds). However, in order to understand the causes of Uruguayan racism, one must also understand the historical forms in which the dominant society has treated the Charrúa and the Afro-Uruguayan population. To carry out a truly emancipatory process, the left must decolonize and begin to question its Eurocentric matrices.