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Evolution of the Army

The first armed forces associated with the Banda Oriental, or what was to become Uruguay, developed after the Spanish hold on Buenos Aires ended in 1810. Montevideo, the only Spanish stronghold in the area, soon became embroiled in the conflict, and residents of the interior of the Banda Oriental rebelled against Spanish rule. Led by José Gervasio Artigas, the independence movement was started by a band of guerrillas that first joined with the independent government in Argentina to help free Montevideo from Spanish rule. General Artigas prematurely declared Uruguay independent in 1815 and formally took control of the new national army, which consisted of one battalion of ethnic European settlers and one battalion of freed slaves (see Artigas's Revolution, 1811-20 , ch. 1).

After Uruguay became an independent state in 1828, the new nation's army consisted of a poorly organized irregular militia, of which a substantial portion of personnel were inducted slaves or minor criminals condemned to service. The army was employed in a short campaign in 1832 against a remnant Indian force. The low quality of the army's personnel and its poor public image, however, made it neither an influential force in politics nor an effective military establishment.

Independence did not bring peace or an end to foreign military intervention. Uruguay was plagued by chronic disorder and repeated insurrections supported by various foreign powers (see Beginnings of Independent Life, 1830-52 , ch. 1). Most of the disorder derived from political factionalism, as evidenced in the 1836 struggle between forces led by the nation's first president, General Jose Fructoso Rivera (1830-35, 1838-43), and his successor, General Manuel Oribe (1835-38), who was backed by Argentina. In 1838 Rivera's army prevailed, and Oribe fled to Buenos Aires. Oribe returned in 1842, however, and, using Blanco and Argentine forces, commenced a nine-year siege of Montevideo that attracted French, British, and Italian intervention. The siege and the war between Colorado forces in Montevideo and Blanco forces outside the capital, known as the Great War (Guerra Grande, 1843-52), helped forge the identities of what were to become the nation's two dominant political parties (see Political Parties , ch. 4).

The end of the nine-year siege of Montevideo was followed by renewed conflict and foreign intervention. The Uruguayan Army in 1852 consisted of infantry, cavalry, and artillery elements and had a total strength of some 1,800 personnel; it was nonetheless unable to control the private political armies kept by local caudillos. In 1858 the country established the National Guard, in which males between seventeen and forty-seven years of age were required to serve. The main effect of the National Guard, however, was to provide local caudillos with better-trained personnel for their armies, which operated under the auspices of various factions of the Colorado Party (Partido Colorado) or the National Party (Partido Nacional, usually referred to as the Blancos).

Foreign intervention on behalf of the Blancos by Francisco Solano López, the Paraguayan dictator, embroiled Uruguay in a bloody war between the Triple Alliance of Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay on the one side and Paraguay on the other side. During the War of the Triple Alliance (1865-70), some 3,000 Uruguayan troops joined the more professional armies of Brazil and Argentina. The Uruguayan Army emerged from the experience with somewhat more professional standards.

After the challenge of facing a foreign threat ended, the pattern of armed Colorado-Blanco clashes resumed. The war had strengthened the sense of national identity, but party loyalty remained intense, and for many Uruguayans it surpassed loyalty to the state. The army, itself highly politicized, worked to control banditry, engaged in public-works projects, and was active in controlling clashes between the private political armies. The number of combatants in the interparty struggles was never large, and the clashes were punctuated by a number of peace pacts that ended specific uprisings and formally redistributed power held by the dominant Colorados in Montevideo to accommodate Blanco aspirations outside the capital.

The party clashes peaked around the turn of the twentieth century. A serious Blanco rebellion in 1897 ended in a "pact between the parties," but, as in the past, the Blancos used the opportunity to consolidate their power and improve their armed strength. After Colorado president José Batlle y Ordóñez (1903- 07, 1911-15) moved to check Blanco growth, Blanco rural leaders rose up in 1904 in the last of the armed conflicts between the two parties (see The New Country, 1903-33 , ch. 1).

After the defeat of the Blanco uprising, the army replaced the private armed forces of the caudillos as the nation's dominant armed force. Batlle y Ordóñez appointed and promoted only loyal officers; by 1915 almost all army officers were Colorados. In recognition of the politicization of the army and its growing influence, Batlle y Ordóñez and other civilian leaders followed a careful policy of balancing frequent transfers of loyal and suspected units in and out of Montevideo with increased investment in weaponry and increased personnel. As a result, the army nearly doubled in size between 1904 and 1914; it grew from about 6,000 to 12,000 personnel. Its position as the nation's preeminent military force was strengthened after Uruguay made it illegal to address nonmilitary persons with a military title, which had formerly been a common practice among Blanco forces.

As the prospect of further revolution subsided, the activeduty forces were reduced through attrition in an effort to circumscribe the army's political role. The army was spared serious budget cutting but was reorganized into smaller units intended to be expanded in wartime. The increase in the number of units meant more officers and more promotions; at the same time, the increase in the number of units also made it harder for officers to forge a unified political force. The government and the armed forces leadership placed new emphasis on developing an apolitical and professional military institution, and as a result the army essentially withdrew from the political arena.

After World War I, the army came under the influence of a French military mission, and officers began to train at the Military Academy at St. Cyr, France, and at various specialty schools of the French army. Under a French plan, the country was divided into four military regions, and the military air arm was strengthened. Modern equipment, including aircraft, was imported from various European sources. The army was used to support a coup by President Gabriel Terra (1931-38) in 1933 but did little except to prevent legislators from entering the General Assembly (the nation's bicameral legislature).

During World War II, the United States replaced France as the nation's foremost foreign military influence. United States assistance under the Lend-Lease Agreement focused primarily on aviation. The armed forces spent the 1950s and 1960s pursuing a program of gradual equipment modernization.

Data as of December 1990

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Uruguay Table of Contents