Uruguay Table of Contents

In 1988 Uruguay's population was estimated at 3,081,000, up somewhat from the 2,955,241 inhabitants recorded in the 1985 census. From 1981 to 1988, the population growth rate averaged about 0.7 percent per year. In South America, only Guyana and Suriname had a lower growth rate. According to projections, the growth rate would continue in the 0.6 to 0.7 range through the year 2020, resulting in an estimated total population of 3,152,000 in 1995, 3,264,000 in 2000, and 3,679,000 in 2020.

A major factor in Uruguay's low population growth rate was its relatively low birth rate. The average birth rate for 1990 was the lowest in Latin America at just 17 per 1,000 inhabitants. Significant levels of emigration also inhibited the growth of the population. At the same time, the average life expectancy of Uruguayans (seventy years for men and seventy-six years for women in 1990) was relatively high. Together, the comparatively low birth rate, net emigration, and long life expectancy gave Uruguay an aging population with a pyramidal structure more typical of a developed country than of a Third World country.

In addition to its remarkably low population growth rate, low birth rate, high life expectancy, and aging population, Uruguay also was notable for its extremely high level of urbanization. According to the 1985 census, 87 percent of Uruguay's population could be classified as urban. Moreover, this trend was expected to continue because the urban population was continuing to grow at a faster rate than the population as a whole, while the rural population growth rate was well under that for the total population. In the 1981-88 period, Uruguay's urban population grew at a rate of 0.9 percent, while its rural population grew at a rate of only 0.3 percent (as compared with a total population growth rate of 0.7 percent).

Ethnically, Uruguay enjoyed a high level of homogeneity. Its population was estimated to be nearly 90 percent white, having descended from the original Spanish colonists as well as from the many European immigrants, chiefly from Spain and Italy, who flocked to Uruguay in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (The remainder were primarily black and mestizo, or people of mixed Indian and European ancestry.)

Historical Patterns of Settlement

First administered from Buenos Aires, Uruguay came into being as an independent nation in 1828 when the British intervened to create a buffer (and client) state between Argentina and Brazil. The fact that Uruguay was scarcely settled beyond a thin coastal strip during the colonial period meant that unlike many other areas of Latin America, little of its colonial heritage survived. The British dominated the country's economic and commercial development until World War I. In marked distinction to Chile's or Peru's minerals, however, Uruguay's prime productive asset (land) remained in the hands of Uruguayans, or at least settlers who wanted to become Uruguayans.

Shortly after independence, civil war broke out between the two political factions that came to form Uruguay's traditional parties, the Colorado Party (Partido Colorado) and the National Party (Partido Nacional, usually referred to as the Blancos). Military conflicts between caudillos on both sides were to recur frequently until 1904. The main cause of conflict was the rivalry between center and periphery: in Montevideo the Colorados predominated, but in the interior the Blancos wished to preserve their control. A dictatorship by a Colorado caudillo, Lorenzo Latorre (1876-80), imposed strict order in the countryside. Concurrently, Uruguay's exports of beef products and wool to Europe began to boom.

After 1911 massive growth of frozen meat exports revived the profitability of the large cattle ranches that had been somewhat eclipsed after the 1860s by medium-sized sheep farms. By World War I, two-fifths of the nation's farmland was in the hands of large landowners (the 3 to 4 percent of proprietors who had over 2,000 hectares). However, historians have argued that Uruguay's rural society was "pluralist" in character. Thus, along with the big landowners (latifundistas) and smallholders (minifundistas), a middle sector had arisen, constituting 40 percent of the proprietors and accounting for 55 percent of the land.

Contemporary Ethnic Composition

In 1990 about 88 percent of Uruguay's population was white and descended from Europeans, and the nation has always looked to Europe for its cultural cues. Eight percent of the population was mestizo, and 4 percent was black. Although in 1990 Uruguay had an aging population, it was once a young nation of immigrants. According to the 1908 census, over two-fifths of the population was foreign born. While the descendants of the original Spanish colonists (known as criollos) predominated in the interior, the origins of the population were varied in the densely populated areas of Montevideo and the coast. In these areas, citizens of Italian descent were particularly numerous, constituting as much as one-third of the population.

In 1990 estimates of the number of Uruguayans of African descent ranged from as low as 40,000 to as high as 130,000 (about 4 percent). In Montevideo, many of them traditionally made a living as musicians or entertainers. Few had been allowed to achieve high social status. As many as three-quarters of black women aged eighteen to forty were employed in domestic service. In the interior, citizens of African or mixed descent were concentrated along the Brazilian border. Early in the twentieth century, the traditional folkways of Afro-Uruguayans were captured in the impressionist paintings of Pedro Figari. Although vestiges of African culture survived in the annual carnival celebrations known as the Llamadas, Uruguay's black population was relatively assimilated in 1990.

Uruguay's Indian population had virtually disappeared and was no longer in evidence in 1990. Even the mestizo, or mixed-race, population was small--8 percent--by Latin American standards. In 1990 signs of intermarriage between whites and Indians were common only in the interior. The slightly derogatory term chino was still applied by the inhabitants of Montevideo to the somewhat darker-skinned migrants from the interior.

Montevideo also had a highly assimilated Jewish population of some importance. Estimated at 40,000 in 1970, the Jewish community had fallen to about 25,000 by the late 1980s as a result of emigration, particularly to Israel. Anti-Semitism was not uncommon, but it was less virulent than, for example, in Argentina.

Fertility, Mortality, and Population Growth

Uruguay's population has grown slowly throughout its history, reaching the 1 million mark early in the twentieth century. In the twentieth century, the rate of population growth declined steadily, however, despite significant amounts of immigration and virtually halted in the 1950s. Registered at over 2 percent in 1916, the annual growth rate had dropped to 1.4 percent by 1937. It continued in the 1.2 to 1.5 percent range until 1960, but in the 1960s population growth averaged only 1 percent annually. In the 1970s, the average annual growth rate was even lower, at 0.4 percent. In the 1981-88 period, annual population growth was 0.7 percent, but in 1990 it was 0.6 percent.

A major contributor to the slow population growth rate was Uruguay's low, and declining, crude birth rate. It fell steadily throughout the first half of the twentieth century, from 38.9 per 1,000 population in the 1900-04 period to 21.1 per 1,000 in the 1945-49 period, where it more or less stabilized through the mid1960s . In the 1980-85 period, the birth rate was 19.5 per 1,000. In 1987 it was estimated at 17.5, and in 1990 it was estimated at 17 per 1,000. (In comparison, the birth rates for Argentina, Brazil, and the United States in 1990 were 20 per 1,000, 26 per 1,000, and 15 per 1,000, respectively.) This relatively low birth rate was usually ascribed to Uruguay's prosperity and the widespread availability of contraception. Given the secularization of Uruguayan society at the beginning of the twentieth century, the influence of the Roman Catholic Church was minor. The total fertility rate in 1990 was 2.4 children born per woman.

The crude death rate, which had averaged 14 to 15 per 1,000 since the 1895-99 period, began to decline significantly starting in the 1920s. In the 1940s, it reached 10 per 1,000, and it has stayed at approximately this level every since. In 1987 the crude death rate was estimated at 9.5 per 1,000 and in 1990 at 10 per 1,000.

Advances in medicine resulted in longer life expectancy. Uruguay's General Directorate of Statistics and Census noted that overall life expectancy in the 1984-86 period was 71.6 years (68.4 years for men and 74.9 years for women). Estimates in 1990 placed life expectancy for males at seventy years and that for females at seventy-six years. Because Uruguayans were living longer, the population began to age. By the census year of 1963, demographers already were beginning to worry that the rising proportion of the population in retirement might overstrain the country's social security system. The 1975 and 1985 censuses confirmed the acceleration of this aging trend. The trend was aggravated as net immigration, which had characterized Uruguay in the early twentieth century, gave way to net emigration and the exodus in particular of young, well-educated Uruguayans.


In the nineteenth century, Uruguay was already highly urbanized. But in the twentieth century, it has been one of the world's most urbanized states. According to the 1985 census, 87 percent of Uruguayans lived in urban areas, the highest percentage in Latin America. The department of Montevideo alone accounted for 44 percent of the country's population; the department of Canelones accounted for another 12 percent. Furthermore, the interior of Uruguay, although sparsely populated, was also quite urban. Census figures from 1985 indicate that even outside Montevideo over 80 percent of the country's inhabitants could be classified as "urban" (i.e., living in towns of 2,000 inhabitants or more). Most of these townspeople lived in the departmental capitals.

Uruguay's level of urbanization seemed likely to continue to rise, based on estimates of the growth rate of the urban population vis--vis that of the population as a whole and that of the rural population. During the 1960s, the urban population grew at an annual rate of 1.7 percent, while the overall population growth rate was only 1.0 percent. In the 1970s, the growth rates were 0.6 and 0.4 percent, respectively. For the 1981-88 period, the overall population growth rate was 0.7 percent, while the urban population grew by 0.9 percent and the rural population by only 0.3 percent.


Rural depopulation has been a striking trend in Uruguay during the twentieth century. According to the 1975 census, onefifth of those citizens born in the eighteen interior, littoral, and coastal departments lived in Montevideo. The departments that produced the highest flow of outward migration between the 1963 and 1975 censuses were in the interior of the country. In the littoral and coastal departments (except the department of Rocha), the greater net retention of population correlated with the growth of the local urban population. This showed that people tended to stay in the department where they were born if there were local towns to which they could move. Otherwise, they moved farther afield.

Migration in Uruguay thus appeared to follow the classic pattern by which those born in isolated rural areas moved to the nearest towns, whereas those born in interior towns headed for Montevideo. Montevideans, in turn, sought to migrate to large cities in Latin America, notably Buenos Aires, where their accents and customs blended successfully and where wages were much higher on average.


Since the 1950s, Uruguay's traditional pattern of net immigration has given way to a severe pattern of emigration, which has been of concern to the authorities. This was particularly worrisome because those most likely to leave were the youngest and best-educated citizens. The emigration of youth and the country's aging population had created a very high dependency ratio and serious difficulties for Uruguay's social security system. A famous piece of black-humored graffiti in the port of Montevideo in the early 1970s read: "Last one to leave, please turn off the lights!" Estimates of emigration as high as one-third of the population have, however, been wildly exaggerated.

Economics motivated emigration in the 1960s, but political repression became a major factor during the 1973-85 military regime. Official figures suggest that 180,000 people left Uruguay from 1963 to 1975. In 1973 about 30,000 left, in 1974 nearly 60,000, and in 1975 nearly 40,000. According to the General Directorate of Statistics and Census, 150,000 Uruguayans left the country between 1975 and 1985. By 1989 only 16,500 of them had returned. If the 180,000 who left between 1963 and 1975 are added, the proportion of the population that emigrated from 1963 to 1985 can be estimated at about one-tenth. Along with the low birth rate, this is the major explanation for the country's low population growth rate.

Most of the emigrants were young. Of those who emigrated between 1963 and 1975, 17.7 percent were aged fourteen or younger, 68 percent were between the ages of fifteen and thirtynine , and only 14.3 percent were forty years or older. Those leaving were on average also better educated than the total population. Only 1.5 percent were uneducated, 52.1 percent had completed primary school, 33.6 percent had attended secondary school or teachers' training colleges, and 12.8 percent had attended university or technical college.

In the late 1980s, the lack of jobs for young people was again a fundamental factor contributing to emigration. Those people leaving Uruguay were not only younger and better educated than the population as a whole but also tended to have more job skills. Among those aged fourteen and older who emigrated from 1963 to 1975 and who were economically active, the relative proportions of different occupations were as follows: professionals, technicians, managers, and administrators made up 12.8 percent, 2.9 percentage points higher than in the economically active population (EAP) as a whole in 1975; office employees constituted 16 percent of those emigrating, 4.3 points above their share of the EAP; salespeople made up 12.4 percent of emigrants, 2 points above the EAP; and drivers, skilled and unskilled workers, and day laborers constituted 34.2 percent of the EAP in 1975, but 47.6 percent of those emigrating.

On the one hand, the proportion of emigrants who had worked as domestic servants was 10.4 percent, close to their share of the EAP. On the other hand, whereas 18.2 percent of the EAP was classified as farmers and fishermen in 1975, these made up only 0.8 percent of those leaving the country in the previous twelve years.

By far the most popular destination for Uruguayan emigrants was Argentina, which in the first half of the 1970s took over one-half of the emigrants. Also important were the United States and Australia, followed by Spain, Brazil, and Venezuela. Small numbers of artists, intellectuals, and politicians experiencing persecution emigrated to Western Europe, notably to the Netherlands and Spain. Many of these political exiles, however, chose to return to Uruguay after 1984.

The Uruguayan community in Argentina was officially given as 58,000 in 1970 but was actually much larger. Many Uruguayans in Argentina returned to Montevideo at election time to vote. Political exiles were allowed to return to Uruguay after 1984, but many of them found it difficult to make a living. This was even true in those cases where they had the right to return to former government posts, for example in education. Often they expressed shock at the decay of public services and the dilapidated state of buildings compared with their memories of Montevideo.

For more recent population estimates, see Facts about Uruguay.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress