How well do you know Uruguay? To be honest, before doing my exchange year there, all I knew was that they had a great national football team. In recent years, it made itself famous thanks to its peculiar president and the legalization of marijuana, among other things. So, let’s recapitulate the basics.
Nestled between Brazil and Argentina, Uruguay is a small country in South America. Montevideo, its capital city, is located on the South coast, only a few hours away from Buenos Aires. The entire population of Uruguay is around 3 million people, half of them living in the capital city, and most of them on coastal towns, leaving the inner land countryside mostly populated by cows and sheep. If you are a football fan, you probably know who Luis Suárez, Diego Forlán or Edinson Cavani are. Just like many other countries in Latin America, football is the national sport. Although nationally speaking, the population is divided between two main soccer clubs, Nacional and Peñarol. Its cuisine is typical of the region and resembles the Argentine gastronomy. Check out our section “Discover”, under “Recipes” to learn about Uruguayan food and try the recipes at home!
Uruguay is a secular state, but most of its religious population is Catholic. Recently, the Uruguayan society has shown very liberal tendencies and is one of few Latin American countries to grant so many freedoms to its populace. Many changes took place under the government of former president Jose Mujica, who set himself apart by his peculiar way of life. If you already knew all the above, I hope that you will learn something new with the following twelve surprising facts about Uruguay.
1. Uruguay hosted and won the first FIFA World Cup
In 1930, Uruguay was selected by the international football organization to host the first FIFA World Cup. All events took place in Montevideo, mostly in the Estadio Centenario, which was built for the occasion. In the final, Uruguay defeated Argentina and became the first nation ever to win the World Cup. Uruguayans are generally very proud of this part of their history and like to remind everybody of it!
2. Uruguay is often seen as “The Switzerland of the Americas”
In the 1950s, Uruguay was considered as “The Switzerland of Latin America”, mostly thanks to its prosperity and democratic traditions. Generally speaking, Uruguay has good living conditions that are similar to European standards. It is one of the richest countries in South America and was one of the first countries in the world to legalize divorce and women’s suffrage. Its education is secular, free and compulsory, and its literacy rate is one of the highest of the region.
3. Uruguay is one of the least corrupt countries of the world
It is easy to understand why Uruguay is so often compared to Switzerland. In 2016, Uruguay ranked 21st out of 177 in the Index of the least corrupt countries by International Transparency, becoming one of the least corrupt countries in the world and the least corrupt country of all Latin America.
4. Jose Mujica, “the world’s humblest president”
Its former president, Jose Mujica is a living proof of the lack of corruption amongst politicians in Uruguay. “Pepe” Mujica, as Uruguayans call him was the 40th president of the Oriental Republic of Uruguay and was in office from 2010 until 2015. He was called the world’s poorest president, due to the fact that he donated 90% of his salary to the State and to charities. He lives in the countryside in a modest farmhouse with his dog and used to appear in an old blue Beetle. Interestingly, even though he is widely seen as the coolest president of all time, his popularity amongst locals is not always as high as we would think. Besides his political values, some consider his atypical look as unprofessional and ridiculous. Under his presidency, many changes took place in the country, which, in a few years, became one of the most liberal in South America.
5. Abortion is legal in Uruguay
In 2012, the Uruguayan Senate passed a bill to legalize abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Uruguay became the first country in South America to allow women to request an abortion for any reason they consider valid.
6. Same-sex marriage is legal in Uruguay
In 2013, Uruguay became the second country in South America to legalize same-sex marriage, after Argentina, proving once again that it is one of the most progressive countries in the world. In that same year, Uruguay was named “Country of the Year” by The Economist.
7. Uruguay legalized the marijuana trade
That was in 2014. What a quinquennium under Pepe! Not only did the former president legalize marijuana consumption, but the entire production is also now ruled under the auspices of the State. This law, which the first of its kind on the worldwide level was passed in order to counter drug trafficking that has been devastating the whole continent for decades. Uruguayan citizens are now allowed to buy 10 grams of marijuana a week, at less than a euro per gram. Besides, each person is allowed to crop up to six plants for his own consumption.
8. Uruguay was the first country to recognize the Armenian Genocide
The Armenian Genocide is commonly referred to as the systematic massacre of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire between the years 1915 and 1923. Today, the events are recognized as genocide by 29 nations; most of them officially expressed their position in the years 1990 and 2000. Uruguay did it in 1965.
9. Uruguay hosts the largest colony of South American fur seals
As its name states, the South American fur seal is found on the southern coasts of Latin America and its biggest colony is found in Uruguay, on the shore of Punta del Este, on an island called “Isla de Lobos”. The area of Cabo Polonio is also highly populated by the specie. It is estimated that out of the approximately 250.000 seals identified, 200.000 live along the Uruguayan coast.
10. 95% of Uruguay’s electricity comes from renewable energy
Since 2015, renewable energy makes up 95% of the country’s electricity. In 10 years, Uruguay managed to shift its traditional oil-dominated energy plan to an eco-friendly model that all countries could learn from. It lowered its carbon footprint while lowering electricity costs. The green energy comes all-together from wind turbines, hydropower, biomass and solar power. The renewables account for 55% of the overall energy mix of the country, while the global average share only amounts to 12%.
11. Almost all native Uruguayans disappeared during the colonization
In the 1830s, almost all indigenous Uruguayan groups disappeared. Local indigenous populations, especially the Charrúa peoples, started to decline when the colonization started in the 16th century. Europeans brought diseases that native Uruguayans had never been in contact with before and to which they had no immunity. By the time of the independence in 1830, there were only 300 Charrúa people left in the country, and only 18 in 1840. The Guaraní were another tribe at the time who survived a bit longer but very little is known about them. Nowadays, almost 90% of Uruguayan people have European descent and only 2,4% are reported to have indigenous ancestry.
12. Uruguay was under a military dictatorship until 1985
Between the years 1973 and 1985, the country was under an authoritarian military dictatorship. In 1973, a conflict erupted between the president, the General Assembly and the armed forces. During that time, systematic repression was conducted by the Uruguayan military regime, many people were imprisoned, tortured or mysteriously disappeared. Jose Mujica, who was a guerilla fighter at that time, was imprisoned for 13 years in the 1970s and 1980s.
Uruguay doesn’t have a flawless history, but it certainly has shown some incredible improvements and worldwide advancements in recent years. Its liberal policies and progressive mentality raise Uruguay to the level of example from which many nations could learn from. But Uruguay remains a country that not so many people know about. That is why I thought it would be interesting to spend a few minutes discovering it a bit more. At least, I hope that you learnt something by reading this short article and don’t hesitate to leave us your thoughts and comments!
- My Knowledge
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