Last Updated: Monday, 05 October 2015, 08:59 GMT

World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Uruguay : Overview

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2007
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Uruguay : Overview, 2007, available at: [accessed 5 October 2015]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


One of the smallest countries in Latin America, Uruguay is located on the eastern coast of the Southern Cone. It borders Argentina to the west and Brazil to the east/ north-east. Unlike many other Latin American countries, Uruguay has no mountains, deserts or rainforests, which means that most of the country is easily accessible. Over 80 per cent of Uruguayans live in cities.


Main languages: Spanish

Main religions: Christianity (majority Roman Catholic), Judaism (although Uruguay has one of the highest percentages of agnostics and atheists in the region

Minority groups include Afro-Uruguayans 190,000 (UN and World Bank estimates) and Jews 23,000 (American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, website last accessed 3 Oct 2006). Small numbers of indigenous peoples have survived, including some 1,000 Guaraní Mbyá (Montenegro and Stephens, 2006).

The Afro-Uruguayan and Jewish populations reside almost exclusively in and around Montevideo.

As a result of the deliberate genocide practised in the nineteenth century, Uruguay's most renowned indigenous population – the Charrúa – was almost totally wiped out. From the 1980s several families of Guaraní Mbyá hunter gatherers, whose ancestral lands extend from the Paraguayan jungle to the Atlantic coast, began to settle in various parts of Uruguay, notably in the estuaries of the Rio Plata and Rio Uruguay.


It is commonly assumed that little ethnic mixing took place between Uruguay's indigenous population and early Spanish colonists. Indigenous peoples that survived Spanish colonial rule were deliberately exterminated in the nineteenth century. This coincided with a relatively large influx of European immigrants and government efforts to promote Uruguay as the 'Switzerland of South America'.

In Uruguay, as in the other southern cone countries, the 1970s were marked by continual human rights violations on the part of the armed forces and military government. Investigation of these violations became a political issue after re-democratisation in 1985, when the government proposed an amnesty for those involved; a referendum held in 1989 upheld the amnesty by a narrow majority. In 2001, the government finally established a Peace Commission to clarify the fate of those who were disappeared between 1973 and 1985.

Several Afro-Uruguayan organizations and cultural groups have emerged since the 1980s. Uruguayans have also begun to show an increasing interest their country's indigenous history.


Uruguay has suffered a major economic crisis in recent years, which has meant deteriorating living standards for most of the population. In 2005 Tabare Vasquez became Uruguay's first left-wing head of state.

Historically, there has been little legal recourse against racially discriminatory behaviour in Uruguay, except for Article 42 of the penal code which penalises open aggression due to differences in colour, race or religion. There is no legal recourse against subtle discriminatory behaviour, such as denying access to employment or services in public places or institutions.

The country has no tradition of official anti-Semitism although there have been isolated incidents of Jews being attacked or marked with swastikas. Montevideo now has a Jewish museum and a Holocaust memorial. As a result of the economic crisis of the early 2000s a large proportion of the country's Jewish community has emigrated abroad.

The Asociación Indigenista de Uruguay [Indigenist Association of Uruguay] was created as the result of the arrival of Guaraní Mbyá families from Argentina and Brazil in the 1980s. In 1992 one of the first regional meetings of indigenous peoples (including Guarani, Mapuche, Aymara and Quechua representatives) was held under the auspices of Uruguay's Asociación Indigenista. However, the Guaraní Mbyá still desperately need support in a country, where the elites believe in reinforcing a homogeneous (European) identity.

Education reform has been reluctant to consider demands for the inclusion of Afro-Uruguayans' history in the national curriculum. Lack of access to basic resources (housing, water, sewage) continues to be a problem for many Afro-Uruguayans.

Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples

Uruguayan representatives have been involved in recent debates about the Guarani Aquifer System (named after the Guarani people) – one of the largest ground water reservoirs in the world, which underlies parts of Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil and Uruguay. Such debates have included consultation with key indigenous actors. In February 2006 several Guarani from Uruguay took part in the 'Asamblea Continental Guarani' commemorating the 250th anniversary of the death of Guarani leader Sepe Tiataji, who fought against the Spanish and Portuguese armies. The Botnia Paper Mill, near the border with Argentina, is also reported to affect local populations, some of which are indigenous.

In Montevideo Afro-Uruguayan organisations have been involved in various education initiatives, seeking to make the curriculum more inclusive. Political representation of the Afro-Uruguayan community is currently an important topic of debate, with Egardo Ortuño promoting positive discrimination in the national congress. He has also made great efforts to increase general awareness of and pride in the country's African ancestry and cultural heritage.

As a result of the work of Afro-Uruguayan artists, intellectuals, and grassroots organisations, racial discrimination is now at least recognised and debated by an increasing number of Uruguayans. However, it continues: according to human rights reports, racism inhibits the advancement of Uruguayans of African descent in school and in the labour force; the majority of Afro-Uruguayans continue to make up the poorest strata of national society.

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