Fructuoso Rivera

Fructuoso Rivera (ca. 1788-1854) was the first president of Uruguay. Better known for his military spirit and leadership than for his statesmanship, he was a principal actor in the first 45 years of the country's history.

Fructuoso Rivera was a rancher in his youth. He volunteered for the army fighting for Uruguayan independence under José Gervasio Artigas in 1810. Rivera rose gradually to general, although he was not one of Artigas's principal lieutenants. When Artigas was forced into exile in 1820 by occupying Brazilian troops, Rivera fought on for a time. Brazil finally settled with him, however, recognizing his rank and granting him a pension.

In 1825 Juan Lavalleja and his "33 Immortals" landed in Uruguay from exile in Argentina. With Argentine support, including troops commanded by the Argentine general José Rondeau, they made the Brazilian claims to the region untenable. Rivera was closely associated with Lavalleja from the beginning, although there is disagreement as to whether Rivera joined voluntarily. A skilled opportunist, Rivera was commander of troops at two important battles, Rincón and Sarandí. Disagreements forced him to leave the country for a year, and he was not present at the final battle of Ituzaingó in 1828.

As the newly independent government was being formed, Rivera returned and engaged Lavalleja in bitter feuding. Rondeau briefly became the compromise provisional president. Rivera was elected constitutional president for the term 1830-1835 but spent at least half this period leading troops against Lavalleja.

In 1835 Rivera designated Gen. Manuel Oribe as his choice for the presidency. Rivera stepped aside to become commander of the armed forces. Within a year, Oribe found it necessary to break with Rivera; although the two had joined in the field to defeat another uprising by Lavalleja, Rivera refused to recognize his subordinate role. The official excuse was Rivera's profligate habits with official funds, from 1830 onward. Civil war broke out, and Oribe was defeated in 1838 and forced to flee to Buenos Aires. It was at this time that Oribe's followers, wearing white identifying colors, became the so-called Blanco political party; similarly, Rivera's followers became Colorados, or reds.

Rivera regained the constitutional presidency for the term 1839-1843. In the meantime Oribe accepted a commission from the ambitious Argentine president-caudillo Juan Manuel de Rosas to invade and occupy Uruguay. Thus began the Guerra Grande, or Great War. Rivera spent most of his presidential term in the field, leading troops against Oribe and his allies. Finally, in December 1842, Oribe defeated Rivera in the battle of Arroyo Grande. Rivera fled to Montevideo; Oribe established a parallel government for the rest of Uruguay, just outside Montevideo's walls, at Cerrito. In effect Montevideo became "Colorado" and the rest of the country "Blanco."

Rivera remained de facto chief of government until 1847. His eccentric behavior made him many enemies, and he finally was forced into exile in Brazil, where he remained until 1853. In September the constitutional president of Uruguay, Juan Francisco Giró, was forced to resign after a troop mutiny. A triumvirate of officers—Lavalleja, Rivera, and Gen. Venancio Flores—was organized to take power. Lavalleja died almost immediately; Rivera died in northern Uruguay, en route to Montevideo, in January 1854.

Rivera's colorful personality, personal machismo, and popular support permitted him to indulge in many irregularities. Especially during the siege of Montevideo, he was virtually a law unto himself. On the other hand, his stubborn resistance to Rosas's ambitions preserved Uruguayan independence, and his leadership of the Colorado party gave stability to the political system at a period of national crisis.


Further Reading on Fructuoso Rivera

Works in English referring to Rivera are Philip Bates Taylor, The Executive Power in Uruguay (1951), and John Street, Artigas and the Emancipation of Uruguay (1959).