Uruguay country brief


Australia and Uruguay enjoy positive relations based on a number of shared interests and cooperation in a range of multilateral fora. Like Australia, Uruguay is a significant agricultural producer and exporter. Australia and Uruguay are members of the Cairns Group and cooperate in the World Trade Organization to advance global reform of agricultural markets.

Uruguay opened an Embassy in Canberra in May 1958 and Australia’s first Ambassador to Uruguay, E.D. Mackinnon presented credentials on 17 July 1968.

Australia has non-resident diplomatic accreditation to Uruguay through the Australian Embassy in Buenos Aires and maintains an Honorary Consulate in Montevideo, which provides consular services to Australians in Uruguay.

The Oriental Republic of Uruguay is a small country located between Argentina to its west and Brazil to its east. Uruguay is slightly smaller than Victoria and is a relatively low-lying country with fertile plains and low hills, with its highest point, Cerro Catedral, reaching 514 metres above sea level. Uruguay’s western border with Argentina is made up entirely by the Uruguay river and the Rio de la Plata Estuary. Uruguay’s full name in Spanish means ‘the Republic on the east of the Uruguay (River)’, from which it gets its common name of ‘Uruguay’. Uruguay’s capital is Montevideo.

Uruguay’s population is approximately 3.4 million (2013 est) and is made up of mainly European (88 per cent) and mestizo (eight per cent) people, with a small black population (four per cent). Roman Catholicism is the largest religion in Uruguay with around 47 per cent of the population identifying as Catholic although some of these identify as non-practising Catholics. Protestantism, Judaism and other faiths are also present. Spanish is the official language of Uruguay.

Political overview


The Spanish first arrived in Uruguay in 1516, but resistance from indigenous inhabitants helped postpone full Spanish settlement until the early 18th century. Following secession from Spain in 1811, Uruguay was annexed by Portugal to its Brazilian territories. In 1825, Uruguay declared independence from Brazil, and in 1828 the country became fully independent under the Treaty of Montevideo. During the rest of the 19th century there was a number of minor conflicts with neighbouring states, coupled with considerable inflows of (mainly European) immigrants.

Throughout much of the 20th century, Uruguay's two main political parties, the centrist Colorado and National (Blanco) parties, alternated in power. However, a military regime assumed control following a coup in 1973, and remained in power until 1985. The legacies of twelve years of military rule included an economy in severe decline and lingering human rights issues. Democracy was re-installed in 1985 and successive governments have worked to consolidate Uruguay's democratic institutions and stabilise the economy.

System of government

Uruguay is divided into 19 "departments" with limited local self-government. The political system is based on a strong central executive branch, subject to legislative and judicial checks. No member of any branch of government can simultaneously perform official duties in another branch.

The executive branch comprises the President, Vice-President and Council of Ministers. The President and Vice-President are chosen by direct popular vote for one five-year term (consecutive re-election is not permitted), and the ministers are appointed by the President. The legislative branch consists of a bicameral Parliament, comprising the Senate and the Chamber of Representatives.

Recent political developments

In elections held in 2009, José Mujica of the centre-left 'Encuentro Progresista Frente Amplio' (EP-FA) coalition was elected as President for the term between March 2010 and 1 March 2015. Despite his radical background, Mujica gravitated to the political centre, consistently preaching moderation and placing practicality, continuing economic growth and consensus-seeking above ideological standpoints.  The two-round presidential election in October and November 2014 was won convincingly by the EP-FA’s Tabaré Vázquez, who will serve as President from 2015 to 2020. Vázquez, a respected medical practitioner and successful politician, served one previous term as President of Uruguay in 2005-2010. Soon after the election, Vázquez announced his Cabinet line-up. Vázquez’s ministeral choices suggest he will maintain Uruguay’s largely business-friendly economic policies.

Foreign Policy

Uruguay's most important political and economic partners are its neighbours, in particular Brazil and Argentina. Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela are full members of Mercosur, the Southern Cone Common Market, which also comprises associate members Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru and Suriname. Mexico is an observer and Bolivia is in the process of becoming a full member.

Membership of Mercosur provides Uruguay with preferential trade access to the markets of Mercosur members and its associates. However, Uruguay has expressed an increasing dissatisfaction with the trading benefits that Mercosur has provided and increased protectionism from some other members, and has mooted external FTAs (an idea opposed by its Mercosur partners as inconsistent with Mercosur rules).

Uruguay is also a member of several regional organisations, including the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), the Community of Latin America and Caribbean States (CELAC) and the Organization of American States (OAS), that seek to advance a variety of regional political and economic interests.

In November 2012, Uruguay, along with Australia, became an observer of the Pacific Alliance, a group of outward-looking pro-trade liberalising Latin American economies comprising Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru. Vice-President Danilo Astori (who will be Vázquez’s Economy Minister) attended the Pacific Alliance Ministerial Summit in Cali, May 2013, and announced Uruguay’s intention to pursue full membership of the bloc, subject to its Mercosur commitments.

Uruguay maintains positive relations with the United States, based on economic ties and regional cooperation aimed at combatting drug trafficking and terrorism. Uruguay and the United States have, in the past, put in place agreements to establish trade and investment relations, including the 2002 Joint Commission on Trade and Investment and a bilateral investment treaty, which entered into force in 2006. In 2014, at the US’ request, Uruguay took in six former inmates released from the US offshore detention facility in Guantanamo.

Relations with China and India are growing. In June 2012, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited Uruguay to strengthen ties and meet leaders, and in 2013 President Mujica visited China and met Chinese President Xi Jinping with a view to increase exports and attract investment into developing Uruguay’s infrastructure. In February 2013, India and Uruguay entered into an agreement for exploring and encouraging investment in Uruguay’s mining sector.

In March 2011, Uruguay declared its recognition of a Palestinian State.

Bilateral relations

Australia is expanding its bilateral relationship with Uruguay through trade and people-to-people links, such as student exchanges and academic linkages, particularly in the agriculture, energy, mining, and education sectors. In April 2010, Australia signed an MOU on Strengthening Bilateral Trade and Investment with Uruguay. The signing of the MOU took place during the visit by then Trade Minister Simon Crean to Uruguay, during which he co-chaired the Cairns Group Ministerial meeting with Uruguayan Foreign Minister Almagro.

In 2011, the Australian Uruguayan Chamber of Commerce was established. The Chamber, based in Uruguay, operates under the form of a non-profit civil association. It focuses on promoting and developing relations between Uruguay and Australia.

In November 2012, Australia and Uruguay signed an MOU for a work and holiday visa arrangement between the two countries which came into effect on 1 April 2013, with a quota of 200 visas per year.

Australia and Uruguay also work together on issues relating to the Antarctic, especially in efforts to address illegal fishing through the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR).

In 1981, there were almost 9,300 Uruguay-born in Australia, rising to 9,715 in 1996. With the restoration of democracy in Uruguay, numbers of Uruguay-born in Australia began to decline. The latest Census in 2011 recorded 9,237 Uruguay-born people in Australia. More information on the Uruguay-born community in Australia can be found at the Department of Social Services Community Information Summary page.

The Sustainable Minerals Institute of Queensland University has provided ongoing advice to the Uruguayan Mining and Environment Ministries with regard to environmental best practices and mine safety.

In 2001, the Australian Government established the Council on Australia-Latin America Relations (COALAR) which aims to enhance commercial, political and cultural relations between Australia and Latin America. Since its inception, COALAR has been active in promoting business, education, tourism and cultural links between Australia and Latin America. For updates on COALAR activities and information on the annual grants program, follow COALAR on Facebook.

Development assistance

From 2010 to 2014, Australia provided $100 million in development assistance to Latin America, including 250 Australia Awards scholarships. Under this program, five Australia Awards scholarships and seven Australia Awards fellowships were awarded to Uruguayan students. The regional program has now closed, though some activities which have already been funded will continue until 2017.

For further detail on Uruguay’s development indicators refer to the World Bank.

Economic overview

At a glance

For latest economic data refer to the Uruguay fact sheet [PDF 38 KB]

Economic outlook

Uruguay’s economy is highly dependent on agriculture and the economic cycles of its close trading partners and neighbours, Argentina and Brazil. It was severely affected by the Argentine debt default in 2001 (Uruguay repaid its outstanding debt to the IMF in December 2006). Uruguay's economic ties with Asia, in particular China, have grown substantially. Brazil was Uruguay’s principal export destination in 2013 (taking some 18.9 per cent of Uruguay’s exports), followed by China (14.2 per cent) and Argentina (5.4 per cent). China surpassed Brazil to become Uruguay’s largest import source in 2013, with 16.9 per cent of Uruguay’s imports coming from China, 15.8 per cent coming from Brazil and 14.2 per cent from Argentina.

The Uruguayan economy has grown strongly since the 2001 Uruguayan banking crisis, averaging 5.7 per cent real GDP growth per annum from 2003-2013, largely caused by robust private consumption, high employment rates and strong real wages. Economic growth in 2012 was 3.7 per cent, in 2013 4.4 per cent and was estimated to have dipped to 2.8 per cent in 2014. In 2013, Uruguay’s total goods and services exports increased by around 1.4 per cent to reach a historic high of US$13.6 billion. The economy is based on solid macroeconomic fundamentals including strong reserves, low debt, high domestic demand and a diversified production structure. Recent economic growth has been broadly based, and the agriculture and livestock sectors are doing well. Initially this was due to growth in Brazilian and Argentine import demand as these countries recovered from their own economic crises. However, more recently the sectors have been buoyed by growth in the volume and value of Uruguay's agricultural trade with the United States. Uruguay's main exports include beef, rice, wool, leather, dairy products and wood. Tourism and motor vehicles are also significant and growing components of Uruguay’s export sector. The government has announced plans to expand Uruguay’s wind energy sector and produce 90 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2015, which has increased private and public investments in the sector.

The challenges for the Uruguayan government will be to reduce the budget deficit (an estimated 3.6 per cent of GDP in 2014) and reduce inflation (estimated 8.2 per cent in 2014), while containing public-sector workers' wage demands, maintaining high levels of social spending and increasing investment in infrastructure. As part of its successful effort to regain investment-grade credit ratings, Uruguay has also sought to reduce the public debt ratio from an estimated 52.3 per cent of GDP in 2011 to below 40 per cent. GDP growth will likely be sustained by continued domestic demand, strong trading links with China and Brazil, and Mujica's plan to boost infrastructure expenditure in railways, ports, telecommunications and energy (to reduce reliance on expensive oil imports) through public-private partnerships. Despite diversifying its trade and investment links away from Argentina in recent years, the weakening of the Argentine peso and a struggling Argentine economy are expected to weaken the Uruguayan manufacturing and services industries.

Foreign direct investment (FDI)

Incoming Economy Minister Danilo Astori, like his predecessors, will seek to continue to increase private investment as a share of GDP. Investment reached an estimated 35 per cent of GDP in 2013, helped by projects in the cellulose, agriculture, forestry, communications and logistics industries.

Uruguay's strong GDP growth, political stability and low corruption levels have made it an attractive destination for investment. FDI has increased substantially in recent years, particularly in utilities, telecoms and finance. Uruguay is expected to continue attracting foreign investment through concerted efforts which include increasing transparency and the new public-private partnership scheme. In 2013, FDI inflows into Uruguay was estimated at US$2.8 billion, a five-fold increase over the 2000-2006 average. FDI stocks in 2013 totalled more than US$20 billion.

In July 2011, Congress approved public-private partnership legislation, which created opportunities to work with Uruguay. The law allows the Uruguayan government to enter into individual contracts with private companies, including foreign companies, in areas such as mining, transportation and infrastructure.

The government of Uruguay has introduced additional incentives for foreign investors including corporate income tax exemptions (of up to 100 per cent of the investment), tax free zones, free ports, free transit of goods and no foreign exchange controls.

The UPM pulp mill, the largest foreign investment project in Uruguay's history, is providing a significant boost to the national economy. The mill was initially the subject of controversy between Argentina and Uruguay after Argentine environmentalists protested that it polluted the Uruguay River, on the border between the two countries. Argentina took a case against Uruguay in the International Court of Justice, which was decided in Uruguay's favour in 2006. In July 2010, the Presidents of Uruguay and Argentina agreed to create a bi-national commission in order to monitor river pollution levels.

Planning for other large scale projects, including in mining and infrastructure, is underway. In 2013, several major new public-private partnerships were announced, signalling an unprecedented increase in infrastructure FDI. Discussions continue between environmental organisations and government officials about implementation of the US$3 billion Aratirí project to develop a large iron mine and associated infrastructure projects including a deepwater port. The project is to be carried out by the Zamin Ferrous mining group.

Bilateral economic and trade relationship

In 2013-14 Australia’s two-way merchandise trade with Uruguay totalled around $25.3 million, with Australian imports from Uruguay totalling around $19.8 million. Imports mainly comprised edible products, oils and perfumes and carboxylic acids and derivatives. Exports to Uruguay totalled $5.4 million in 2013-14, comprised mainly of animal oils and fats and crude vegetable materials.

Australia and Uruguay participate in the CER-Mercosur Dialogue, bringing together Australia, New Zealand and Mercosur members (the most recent dialogue took place in Brasilia in October 2012). The dialogue was established in 1996 as a mechanism to strengthen cooperation on global trade policy issues and to promote inter-regional trade and investment.

Trade and Investment

Similarities in the primary exports of Uruguay and Australia present opportunities for the export of Australian agriculture-related technology and services, including animal genetic material. One strategy for Australian companies looking to invest and trade in Uruguay is to extend existing interests they may have in Argentina and Brazil. Australian companies with existing interests in Argentina and Brazil may find that the close commercial ties that these countries have with Uruguay facilitates entry into the Uruguayan market.

New opportunities for Australian investment are opening up in the areas of agriculture, mining and infrastructure. The public-private partnerships initiative presents additional opportunities for Australian companies to invest in Uruguay through infrastructure projects, such as deep-water ports, roads, rail, river transport, energy (oil, gas and wind farms), irrigation dams, tourism infrastructure, recreational ports and marinas, hospitals and jails. Australian company Petrel Energy, in association with US Company Schuepach Energy International, has interests in significant oil and gas discoveries in Uruguay, particularly in the Norte Basin.

High-level visits

May 2012: Uruguayan Minister for Industry, Energy and Mining Roberto Kreimerman visited Australia for the inaugural Latin America Down Under conference, at which he delivered a speech and met then Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Carr. He was the first Uruguayan minister to visit Australia since Foreign Minister Enrique Iglesias García visited Cairns for the inaugural Cairns Group meeting in 1986.

December 2011: Then-Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs Richard Marles attended the XLII Mercosur Summit in Montevideo.

July 2007: The first bilateral Australian parliamentary delegation visit to Uruguay. The delegation, hosted by the Uruguayan Parliament, held discussions with the International Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives and senior Uruguayan Government authorities, including the Foreign and Agriculture Ministers.

Last Updated: 1 August 2014