Since the period of military dictatorship until 1985, education has been invested as part of the country’s economic recovery. Uruguay has the highest literacy level in Latin America. The school system, which is essentially state, consists of six-year primary school (starting at age 6) followed by a secondary school in two stages of each three years, the “basic cycle” and “baccalaureate”. The latter stage is divided into a university preparation and a vocational preparation program. In 1996, 91% of children went to primary school and 36% to secondary school. Investment in adult education has been made to correct illiteracy, which in 1995 was 2.7%. The country has two universities, one state that accepts the majority of students and one Catholic.
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The population is almost exclusively of European descent – the last Native Americans were exterminated in 1832. Uruguay is therefore the only country in Latin America without an indigenous population. Population growth is the lowest in Latin America. This is partly due to massive emigration as a result of the economic crisis and political repression in the 1970-80’s. About half of the country’s population lives in the capital Montevideo.
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The fertile lands east of the Uruguay River have been inhabited for at least 10,000 years. In the early 16th century, the area was inhabited by three peoples: the Charrúa who were hunters and led a nomadic life, the Chanas who developed a burgeoning farming community along the banks of the Uruguay River, as well as the Guaranians, in addition to mastering various agricultural techniques mastered the manufacture of ceramics and the sailing of the river in canoes.
In 1517, Juan Díaz de Solís, as the first Spanish conqueror, sailed up the Río de la Plata River, where he was killed by the natives. In 1527 Sebastián Gaboto was the first European to navigate the Paraná and Uruguay rivers and founded the first Spanish settlement in the region. But the Spanish conquerors ignored the eastern part of Uruguay for the next hundred years. That first changed when the governor of Asuncion – Hernando Arias de Saavedra (Hernandarias) – introduced cattle in 1611 and began to transform the area into a “sea of cattle.” The excellent pastures and temperate climate enabled large-scale cattle farming, which attracted “faeneros” – people who worked to pull the skins of the dead animals – all the way from Brazil and Buenos Aires. The indigenous population and these faeneros was mixed and this was the origin of the “gaucho”. The indigenous people had already completely changed their culture with the introduction of beef in the cooking and of the horse in the work in the plains.
The proliferation of cattle farming in the 18th century led to the extinction of some mammal species, reduction of vegetation and depletion of the soil. The indigenous population was displaced to the Jesuit missions in the northern part of the country, and was subject to a definite extinction policy that peaked in the 19th century.
In search of cattle and access to the rivers, the Portuguese gradually entered the Banda Oriental. It was the name of the area of present-day Uruguay and a significant part of the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul. It had been collected in 1680 and was for decades the subject of strife between Spaniards and Portuguese. By 1724, Spain had ordered its governor of Buenos Aires, Bruno Mauricio de Zabala, to cross the La Plata River and to set up a fort in the Gulf of Montevideo. Like Buenos Aires, until 1776, Uruguay was subject to the Viceroy of Peru. This year, the Spanish royal house divided the old viceroyalty and formed the Viceroy of Río de la Plata, headquartered in Buenos Aires. Montevideo served as a naval station from then on.