Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
One of the smallest countries in Latin America, Uruguay is located on the eastern coast of the Southern Cone. It borders Argentina to the west and Brazil to the east/ north-east. Unlike many other Latin American countries, Uruguay has no mountains, deserts or rainforests, which means that most of the country is easily accessible. Over 80 per cent of Uruguayans live in cities.
It is commonly assumed that little ethnic mixing took place between Uruguay’s indigenous population and early Spanish colonists. Indigenous peoples that survived Spanish colonial rule were deliberately exterminated in the nineteenth century. This coincided with a relatively large influx of European immigrants and government efforts to promote Uruguay as the ‘Switzerland of South America’.
In Uruguay, as in the other southern cone countries, the 1970s were marked by continual human rights violations on the part of the armed forces and military government. Investigation of these violations became a political issue after re-democratisation in 1985, when the government proposed an amnesty for those involved; a referendum held in 1989 upheld the amnesty by a narrow majority. In 2001, the government finally established a Peace Commission to clarify the fate of those who were disappeared between 1973 and 1985.
Several Afro-Uruguayan organizations and cultural groups have emerged since the 1980s. Uruguayans have also begun to show an increasing interest their country’s indigenous history.
Main languages: Spanish
Main religions: Christianity (majority Roman Catholic), Judaism (although Uruguay has one of the highest percentages of agnostics and atheists in the region
Minority groups include Afro-Uruguayans 190,000 (UN and World Bank estimates) and Jews 23,000 (American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, website last accessed 3 Oct 2006). Small numbers of indigenous peoples have survived, including some 1,000 Guaraní Mbyá (Montenegro and Stephens, 2006).
The Afro-Uruguayan and Jewish populations reside almost exclusively in and around Montevideo.
As a result of the deliberate genocide practised in the nineteenth century, Uruguay’s most renowned indigenous population – the Charrúa – was almost totally wiped out. From the 1980s several families of Guaraní Mbyá hunter gatherers, whose ancestral lands extend from the Paraguayan jungle to the Atlantic coast, began to settle in various parts of Uruguay, notably in the estuaries of the Rio Plata and Rio Uruguay.
Uruguay has suffered a major economic crisis in recent years, which has meant deteriorating living standards for most of the population. In 2005 Tabare Vasquez became Uruguay’s first left-wing head of state.
Historically, there has been little legal recourse against racially discriminatory behaviour in Uruguay, except for Article 42 of the penal code which penalises open aggression due to differences in colour, race or religion. There is no legal recourse against subtle discriminatory behaviour, such as denying access to employment or services in public places or institutions.
The country has no tradition of official anti-Semitism although there have been isolated incidents of Jews being attacked or marked with swastikas. Montevideo now has a Jewish museum and a Holocaust memorial. As a result of the economic crisis of the early 2000s a large proportion of the country’s Jewish community has emigrated abroad.
The Asociación Indigenista de Uruguay [Indigenist Association of Uruguay] was created as the result of the arrival of Guaraní Mbyá families from Argentina and Brazil in the 1980s. In 1992 one of the first regional meetings of indigenous peoples (including Guarani, Mapuche, Aymara and Quechua representatives) was held under the auspices of Uruguay’s Asociación Indigenista. However, the Guaraní Mbyá still desperately need support in a country, where the elites believe in reinforcing a homogeneous (European) identity.
Education reform has been reluctant to consider demands for the inclusion of Afro-Uruguayans’ history in the national curriculum. Lack of access to basic resources (housing, water, sewage) continues to be a problem for many Afro-Uruguayans.
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Tel: + 598 2 900 9851
Asociación de Descendientes de la Nación Charrúa
Tel: + 59 82 4182480
Integrador Nacional de los Descendientes de Indígenas Americanos
Tel: + 59 82 309 3353
Centro Cultural por la Paz y la Integración (CECUPI)
Tel: +598 2 402 6391
Tel: + 59 82 9168779
Sources and further reading
Gonzalez, L., ‘How many indigenous people? Indigenous People and Poverty in Latin America in Latin America and the Caribbean’. Washington: World Bank, 1994.
Montenegro, R.A. and C. Stephens, ‘Indigenous Health in Latin America and the Caribbean’, The Lancet, Vol. 367, June 2006.
Bank Track [has useful information on the Botnia Paper Mill] “retrieved 30 May 2007, www.banktrack.org”
Integrador Nacional de los Descendientes de Indígenas Americanos, Uruguay “retrieved 30 May 2007, http://members.tripod.com/indiauy”
Los Charrúas del Uruguay [information site on Charrua history] “retrieved 30 May 2007, http://www.internet.com.uy/charruas”
Cordones-Cook, J. ‘The Afro-Uruguayan Theater of Andrés Castillo’, Latin American Theatre Review 29: 2 (1996) pp. 31-36.
Frigiero, A. ‘Estudios sobre los afro-uruguayos: Una revision crítica’, Cuadernos del Instituto Nacional de Antropología y Pensamiento Latinoamericano 16 (1995), pp. 411-422.
Luz, A. da, ‘Uruguay’, in MRG (ed.), No Longer Invisible: Afro-Latin Americans Today, London, Minority Rights Publications, 1995.
Pacheco, R. ‘Invisible But Not Forgotten: The Afro-Argentine and Afro-Uruguayan Experience from the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Centuries’. MA Thesis, Florida International University, 2001.
Rama, C., Los afro-uruguayos. 3rd Ed. Montevideo: Editorial El Siglo Ilustrado, 1969.
Sanchez, M. and M. Franklin, ‘Poverty Alleviation Program for Minority Communities in Latin America. Communities of African Ancestry in Latin America: History, Population, Contributions and Social Attitudes’. Report prepared for the Inter-American Development Bank, Washington, 1996.
Santos Roland, E. M., ‘The condition of Afro-Americans: marginalization, on the basis of race and poverty, attitudes towards cultural identity’. World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, Regional Seminar of Experts, Santiago, 27-29 October, 2000
Mundo Afro’s website [tells readers about the organisation, recent events, important issues etc…] “retrieved 30 May 2007, http://webs.demasiado.com/mafro”
Instituto Nacional de Estadística “retrieved 30 May 2007, www.ine.gub.uy”
American Jewish Distribution Committee [informs about Jewish migration] “retrieved 30 May 2007, www.jdc.org”
The Jewish Virtual Library [reports on Jewish populations in Latin America] “retrieved 30 May 2007, www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org“
Minorities and indigenous peoples in