The Switzerland of Latin America
The impact and long-term legacy of Uruguay’s progressive leader.
Latin America has been plagued by dictatorships and stark social and economic inequalities, but it has also produced some of the most visionary leaders of the past century. One such leader was José Batlle y Ordóñez of Uruguay, under whose guidance the country would become known as ‘The Switzerland of Latin America’.
Like many of its neighbours, Uruguay in the 19th century was marked by instability, facing military rule, civil wars and annexation attempts by Brazil and Argentina. It also underwent decades of negative caudillismo politics, in which the two main parties that alternated in power (the Colorados and Blancos) offered voters a choice of strongmen in place of policies. All that changed, however, with Batlle’s rise to power.
In office, Batlle, the son of a former Colorado president, spearheaded reforms that turned Uruguay into a pioneering social laboratory. A champion of labour rights, Uruguay became the first nation in Latin America to grant pensions, a minimum wage for rural workers and a standard 48-hour working week. A legal provision of chairs for female workers in various workplaces was introduced and low-paid public employees were exempted from income tax. Other sectors of society also felt the impact of Batllismo, the name given to his political creed. Divorce was legalised, while free welfare support was introduced together with credit facilities for the poor in rural places. Several utilities were nationalised and state enterprises set up as part of a strategy to use the state as a tool for economic development. Batlle also inspired the adoption of a new constitution in 1919, which provided for progressive rights, including the right to strike and compulsory free education. His views helped his liberal Colorado Party win the backing of urban working-class people, enabling it to achieve political dominance for decades. It also underwent a profound ideological shift under his leadership. As observed in a 1960 study on Uruguay by the political scientist Philip B. Taylor, Jr, the Colorados were originally based ‘on rural landowning interests’. Batlle transformed them, in the words of the historian Torcuato S. Di Tella, ‘from a caudillista band into an engine of social reform’.
Arguably, the Colorado Party’s leftward shift was a reflection of wider developments taking place within other established liberal parties around that time. New liberal leaders emerged, who believed in positive state action to alleviate social injustices. It was an acknowledgment that, as long as people are exploited and deprived materially, spiritually and intellectually, they can never truly be free. In France in 1908 a chain of thought called solidarism, similar to British New Liberalism, became the official social philosophy of the Radicals, while certain liberal governments in early 20th-century Europe, including those led by Nicolaas Pierson of Holland and Gunnar Knudsen of Norway, rolled out reforms reflective of this new ethos. The Batlle era can therefore be seen as part of the rising tide of global, progressive, liberal governance.
Despite the ideological imprint Batlle left on his party, the Colorados retained a conservative wing critical of his reformism. This division was demonstrated when Batlle proposed the creation of a colegiado, a nine-member body in which two thirds of seats went to the majority party and the remainder to the minority party. This was inspired by the Swiss style of government, with power shared by ministers representing different parties. Batlle’s proposal split the Colarodos and a conservative faction teamed up with other right-wing forces to oppose it. When elections were held for members of a Constitutional Convention in 1916-17, the anti-colegiado forces won. This was seen as representing a view among the public that the reforms had gone far enough. Although his colegiado idea was implemented after Batlle threatened in 1919 to run for a third presidential term, and while his followers – the Batllistas – remained dominant in the Colorados, his conservative successor in 1915, Feliciano Viera, announced a ‘pause’ of social and economic reforms. During the 1920s Batlle’s supporters won on average 70 per cent of party votes, but held fewer than half of all posts in the colegiado. Uruguayan politics had shifted to the right and it seemed that the Batlle era was finally over.
Nevertheless, Batlle had bequeathed a positive legacy to Uruguayan society. The Batllista programme of economic interventionism benefited Uruguay during the 1920s, as global market demand for Uruguayan commodities increased. Meanwhile, as demonstrated by the historian María José Álvarez-Rivadulla, the state continued to expand and provide ‘universal or near-universal’ basic social protections. The Colorados remained divided between left and right factions, but Uruguay has often been led by progressive presidents who followed in Batlle’s footsteps. The Colorados’ position as one of the two main actors in Uruguayan politics ended finally in 2004 when they lost to the leftist Broad Front, but they returned to power in 2019 as part of a multiparty alliance, which governs Uruguay to this day.
Batlle’s life, however, was not without faults. In 1920 an article was published in El País, edited by the Blanco deputy Washington Beltrán Barbat, accusing Batlle of using manipulation to stay in power. This was in response to accusations of fraud Batlle had levelled against the Blancos in previous elections. Batlle demanded a duel. Beltrán was killed and Batlle, returning to his home, turned himself in after learning that an arrest order had been issued, and was locked up incommunicado. It was a sad and shameful episode, born of rivalry and mud-slinging, which could have been avoided and casts a shadow on a man admired by many.
Despite his faults, the reforms he shaped did much to improve the lives of his people and shape his country’s destiny. His ideas live on among those who seek contemporary centre-left democratic governments in an often troubled Latin America.
Vittorio Trevitt writes on history and current affairs and consults for local government.