Celebrating Uruguay’s Constitution on July 18

Cecilia JuambeltzBy Cecilia Juambeltz

Today, Uruguay celebrates the 183rd anniversary of its first Constitution. This is a special day for Uruguayans like myself as we take a look back at our history and think about how much we have moved forward. A recent visit to Egypt, a country so different from mine, gave me a new perspective on how valuable it is for a country to respect fundamental human rights and how important stability is to a democratic system. In Uruguay such stability is a result of years of hard work and forward-thinking from many men and women who believe in the Rule of Law as a guiding principle. Although not without its share of problems, for nearly 200 years the South American country has relied on a strong and respected body of laws to support its economy and a progressive stance towards social development. So July 18th is also a day to be grateful for.

Uruguay´s first Constitution

The Constitution of 1830 marked the culmination of the emancipation process that started 20 years before and the beginning of an independent life in the territory that is today known as Uruguay. Our first Constitution, which had strong French and North American influences, established liberal ideas, and stated personal rights and the distribution of powers. It was a symbol of order and the assurance of a civilized life. It was above the warlords and political parties. However, it also had, in the light of our contemporary vision, some negative aspects. Firstly, it promoted political instability because it made no specific reference to the rights of assembly and association, which are essential for the emergence of political parties. It did not foresee the sharing of political parties in power, forcing minorities to resort to revolution, which caused the country to be in an almost continuous state of revolt. It also distorted the role of the General Assembly in electing the President, because the deputies were more electors than representatives of the people. Not everyone could vote: those deprived of citizenship, illiterates, women, slaves, day laborers, line soldiers, state debtors, the drunken, the criminal processed, and paid servants were disenfranchised. And finally, the voting system was not secret, so suspicions of fraud were frequent. This, among other reasons, led to a civil war that lasted from 1838 to 1851. The war left the country weakened socially, economically, and politically. But the Constitution of 1830 remained standing until 1918.

The 20th Century brought stability and changes

Evidence of Uruguay’s progressiveness is found throughout its national history. For example, with its 1877 Law of Common Education, Uruguay was the second nation in the world—following the principles set out by Uruguayan sociologist, journalist, and politician, José Pedro Varela—to establish a system of free, compulsory, and secular education, which lasts until today.

However, it was not until the nineteenth century that the country obtained lasting peace, completed its organization, and made the biggest and most positive reforms. During the presidency of José Batlle y Ordóñez—the Batllista era that stretched on and off between 1899 and 1915—Uruguay went through a rapid process of modernization of almost all political and social structures. As well as battling against foreign imperialism, this new Batllismo movement secured many social advancements.

For example, Batlle y Ordóñez vigorously promoted religious tolerance and the separation of church and state, a legacy that lasts to today. The 1830 Constitution established Catholicism as the official religion of Uruguay. While most of the population was Catholic, atheists and people of other faiths abound. To José Batlle y Ordóñez, the State, as the representative of all citizens, should not have had an official religion. He removed crucifixes from public hospitals and eliminated the religious teaching in public schools. Secularism is protected by Article 5 of today´s constitution. The main religion is Roman Catholicism, but many sects coexist peacefully: Jews, Pentecostals, Evangelicals, Adventists, Baptists, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, and Protestants.

Batlle also promoted other rights. In 1917, for instance, Uruguay was one of the first countries to establish the legal right to divorce. And it was first South American country to approve women’s suffrage: the first woman who voted in Uruguay issued her vote in 1927, in the Plebiscite of Cerro Chato, a town of central Uruguay.

Under the leadership of  Batlle y Ordóñez, Uruguay consolidated its democracy and reached unprecedented levels of economic development and social welfare, becoming known internationally as “the Switzerland of America”. The Constitution of 1830 was effective until 1918, just after he ceased to be President. The new Constitution of 1918 incorporated topics debated during his presidency.

A strong democracy

These transformations had such force that they survived one of the most critical periods in the history of our country: the coup d’état that established a dictatorship lasting from 1973 until 1984. In 1980, the military attempted a popular referendum to reform the Constitution and legitimize their regime, but the majority of the population refused such reform. The Constitution, though manipulated during this period, stood still.

Since the return to democracy, Uruguay has enjoyed a strong and stable democratic system and a strong Rule of Law that meant steps forward in human rights and development. Today, the nation has a strong democratic system, with the participation of different political parties and voting is now compulsory for every person over the age of 18. This ensures a broad participation of the population and gives more legitimacy to the President-elect.

Many Latin American countries have changed their constitutions in recent times to fit in better with modern ideals. In the last decade or so, Bolivia changed to secularism, Venezuela enhanced citizen powers, and Ecuador recognized ecosystem rights. Uruguay has also been a constitutional pioneer in certain spheres. Its current Constitution was approved in 1967, and was amended four times since, in 1989, 1994, 1997 and 2004, with the latter recognizing—by a majority public vote—“access to safe drinking water and access to sanitation” as human rights.

In keeping with the legacy of  Batlle y Ordóñez, Uruguay continues to strive for civil rights today. After much deliberation, in 2013 Uruguay followed Argentina to become the second South American country to approve egalitarian marriage. According to Article eight of the constitution:

“All persons are equal before the law, no other distinction is recognized among them but their talent and virtue”.

With this new law, people of different sexual orientations can get married and start families, something that could previously only be done by couples consisting of one male and one female. To many Uruguayans, the passing of this law takes us closer to a more equal society and reflects a state of tolerance and forward-thinking as never before.

The future looks bright for Uruguay. As well as being a joyous occasion, the celebrations of July 18 also give us pause to reflect. We can hope that the country continues to be a leader in matters of human, civil, and political rights, and it can keep its democracy strong and stable, so it can continue its path to full development.

Cecilia Juambeltz has a Master’s in International Studies from the University of Barcelona where she wrote a thesis on Development Cooperation in Middle Income Countries: The case of Uruguay. 

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For your reference:

Caetano G. y Rilla J. (1987) Breve Historia de la Dictadura, Montevideo: CLAEH – EBO

Fenton I. (2012) 99 Percent Democracy: Lessons from the Developing WorldDevelopment Roast, December 13, 2012. INESAD.

W. Reyes Abadie y A. Vázquez Romero (1998) Crónica General del Uruguay, Montevideo: Ediciones de la Banda Oriental

Zum Felde A. (1985) Proceso Histórico del Uruguay, Montevideo: Arca

Uruguayan Parliament Website




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