The Ranching Elite

Uruguay Table of Contents

Compared with their counterparts on the Argentine pampas, Uruguay's latifundistas (large landholders) never achieved the same level of social and political preeminence. Constituting a tiny fraction of the population, they nevertheless controlled the bulk of the nation's land, which they typically used for cattle and sheep ranching. Intermarriage with newer urban commercial elites was common, but many of the ranchers descended from colonial Spanish settlers. Those who could afford it ran their ranches as absentee landlords, spending as much of the year as possible in Montevideo. Their children were traditionally educated in private schools, which were either Roman Catholic or English-speaking schools. Originally founded for the children of expatriates, the latter institutions continued to model themselves on Britain's elite private schools.

For the ranchers, the social event of the year was the annual agricultural show at the Prado, a park in Montevideo, where prizes were awarded for the best breeds of cattle and sheep and where the latest farm machinery was displayed. Politically, the ranchers were organized in the Rural Federation (Federación Rural), which acted as a pressure group for their interests. Because the incomes of the ranchers varied with the profitability of beef and wool exports, they were constantly lobbying the government for favorable tax and exchange-rate policies. Under military rule from 1973 to 1985, they were deprived of much of their influence, and thus many of them turned against the government. Historically, the majority of ranchers voted for the National Party rather than the Colorado Party. However, the distinction has tended to break down. One factor in this breakdown was the emergence in the 1950s of a nonparty Ruralist movement called the Federal League for Rural Action (Liga Federal de Acción Rural--LFAR), which allied with different parties in successive elections.

Uruguay's rural society remained much more rigidly hierarchical than its urban society, and status differences were pronounced. This was also true of towns outside the Montevideo region, where the majority of the interior population lived.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress