José Batlle y Ordonez

José Batlle y Ordonez
José Batlle y Ordonez

José Batlle y Ordonez was the president of Uruguay from 1903 to 1907 and again from 1911 to 1915 and remains one of the great politicians in the history of Uruguay. He was a passionate believer in panAmericanism and introduced many social reforms that made Uruguay one of the most liberal countries in the world.

José Batlle (pronounced "Bajé") was born on May 21, 1856, the son of Lorenzo Batlle y Grau, who was one of the major figures in the Uruguayan Colorado Party. Lorenzo was minister of war during the siege of Uruguay's capital, Montevideo. In 1868, when José, Jr., was 12, his father became president of Uruguay, a post he held until 1872.

José spent four years studying at Montevideo University and then traveled around Europe, returning to Montevideo in 1881. He followed his father into the Colorado Party and on June 16, 1886, founded the newspaper El Día, which became the party's paper.

In the following year José Batlle became political chief of the department of Minas, an area near Montevideo, and in 1890 he reorganized the Colorados. His wife, Matilde, was also from an important Colorado family. Her father was Manuel Pacheco y Obes, who had fought in the defense of Montevideo with José's father.

From February 15 to March 1, 1899, José Batlle was acting president of Uruguay, and he made an unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1900. Following his narrow victory in elections four years later, on March 1, 1903, he succeeded Juan Lindolfo Cuestas. Many people knew José Batlle as the son of a former president and a man of great intellect.

However, when he was elected he had no public platform to implement. This was in spite of his being one of the most prominent journalists in Montevideo. When he was elected, Aparicio Saravia, the leader of the rival party, the Blancos, launched a rebellion that lasted for 18 months.

When the Colorados defeated the Blancos at the Battle of Masoller on September 1, 1904, it marked the end of fighting as a way of sorting out political problems in the country. Saravia was mortally wounded in the fighting, and his forces were annihilated.

Batlle promoted discussion on social reform and gave Uruguay much of its heritage of democracy and the system of the welfare state, almost alone in Latin America. In 1905 he ended the payment of income tax by low-level civil servants, encouraging people to join the government service. In the following year by presidential decree, he established secondary schools in every city in Uruguay.

His third major reform, in 1907, was to allow women to divorce their husbands if they were being cruelly treated, while men could only divorce on grounds of adultery. That bill spent two years in the Uruguayan congress before it was finally made law. Other social reforms included the removal from public oaths of references to God and other Christian beliefs and the removal of crucifixes from hospitals.

When his term of office ended on March 1, 1907, Batlle went to Switzerland, where he became an admirer of the plural presidency. He was also hugely influenced by the social reforms in Europe during this period, and when he returned to Uruguay he was determined to establish a complete welfare state. His first move was to shore up the financial side of his government, and in 1912 he established the Banco de Seguros, the state insurance bank, and took over the state mortgage bank.

In 1913 Batlle wanted to introduce a collegiate head of the executive branch of government on the Swiss model. This caused a massive split in the Colorados, which lasted until 1966 and was blocked by dissident Colorados and the Blancos until Batlle threatened in 1919 to run for a third term. This forced his enemies to decide to back the project as a way of reducing any future power he would have.

In 1914 Batlle instituted social security for people who were unemployed. He also legislated for employers in bakeries and textile factories to provide chairs for women employees. In the following year he finally pushed through a law that had taken four years of debates. This established the eight-hour workday. At the same time the government took over the telephone services and power generation facilities.

The two were merged to form the Usinas Eléctricas y los Teléfonos del Estado (the State Telephone and Electrical Facilities). Many secondary schools were created around the country, and everybody was guaranteed a free high school education. The university was enlarged and also allowed to admit women.

Many of these reforms were paid for by the increasingly wealthy beef industry, which expanded dramatically. It was to provide much of the meat required by the British war effort during World War I. José Batlle stood down as president on March 1, 1915, and went into retirement. He died on October 20, 1929.