José Batlle y Ordóñez (1856-1929) was a Uruguayan statesman and newspaperman. The dominant political figure in his country's history, he was twice president of Uruguay and made it the most stable and democratic country in Latin America.
José Batlle was born in Montevideo on May 21, 1856, to a politically active family affiliated with the Colorado party. His father, Lorenzo, a general in the army, was president of the republic (1868-1872); he was ousted by an uprising, however, and the family lived in modest circumstances after that time.
Batlle was deeply committed to socially progressive goals from early youth. After completing preparatory school in Montevideo, he entered the National University in 1873. He led a student group working for social reform, but the coming of Uruguay's first true military dictator in 1876 discouraged him. In 1879, without having obtained a degree, Batlle went to Paris in a self-imposed partial exile; he returned after 17 months, impoverished and frustrated by inaction.
In February 1881 Batlle began work as a journalist and political critic for La Nación of Montevideo. In 1886 he participated in a military uprising against the current dictator and was jailed briefly. Three months later, in July, he founded El Día, which remained his personal and partisan journal until his death. When the dictator Máximo Santos went into exile in November, Batlle undertook the goal of reorganizing the Colorado party and of cleansing it of its record of supporting oligarchic and dictatorial governments.
In 1887 Batlle briefly was jefe político (presidentially appointed governor) of Minas Department. He was sharply critical of the party's leadership, however, and resigned to run for the Chamber of Deputies. In what he felt was a rigged election, he was defeated. In 1890 he was elected a Colorado deputy for Salto Department but continued his strong criticism of national and party leadership. After a short civil war in 1897, he was elected a senator for Montevideo Department in 1898, despite the antagonism of senior Colorado leaders. Batlle was elected president of the Senate in a bitter fight that split his party, then in 1902 was elected president of the republic for the term 1903-1907. He remained the real chief of the country until his death.
Batlle's first presidential term was partially taken up by the country's last great civil war, in 1903-1904. As during many earlier clashes, conservative, rural, and oligarchic Blancos (the opposition party) fought Colorados. Peace in 1904 was facilitated by a division of influence between the great Blanco ranches of the interior and the Colorado-led urban groups. Batlle introduced reforms that were disappointingly mild in relation to his partisan language. The bases were laid for broad change, however.
Batlle was not allowed to succeed himself and spent the interim term (1907-1911) required by the constitution in Europe. He returned to the presidency in 1911. The state became deeply committed to progressive and democratic socialism, anticlericalism, broad government ownership of basic enterprises, extended rights for urban labor, greatly extended rights of popular democratic participation in politics, and broad programs for social improvement and distribution of goods and services. Batlle respected his bargain with the landowners, and reforms did not affect the interior.
Batlle influenced the country to adopt a unique political experiment, the plural executive, in 1918. This National Council of Administration had nine nationally elected members who shared some powers formerly given the single president. The office of president was retained, however. The plan was very inefficient and failed under the stress of the world depression of 1933. Batlle's goal had not been efficiency, however, but to preclude power to any one strong man. He was very successful in this goal.
Batlle remained politically active and held a seat in the Council for one term. He died in Montevideo on Oct. 20, 1929.
Batlle's 30 years of party dominance permitted him to implant his values in the country. He was modestly successful in training successors. Unlike any Latin American politician before or after, he held nearly all power, yet used it not for personal gain but to create a consensus in favor of modernizing and liberalizing middle-class goals. His political system survived, and although bitter economic and political crises began in the middle 1950s, the norms of his system endured to preclude military seizure of power, political dictatorship, or successful extremist attacks on the constitution by harshly persistent, radical Castroites.
Further Reading on José Batlle y Ordóñez
The major works on Batlle are in Spanish. In English see Milton I. Vanger, José Batlle y Ordóñez of Uruguay: The Creator of His Times, 1902-1907 (1963). General works on Uruguayan politics include Simon G. Hanson, Utopia in Uruguay (1938); Russell H. Fitzgibbon, Uruguay: Portrait of a Democracy (1954); Philip B. Taylor, Government and Politics of Uruguay (1962); and George Pendle, Uruguay (3d ed. 1965).