December 11, 2013
It takes two to tango. Argentina and Uruguay are the two countries where you don’t need to explain that saying. Ties between the two nations are so close that at times Buenos Aires and Montevideo are seen as having one and the same River Plate culture. But those ties were always going to grow more complex as the world grew more complex, and ultimately could never be reduced to the charming cliché of arguing about whether tango legend Carlos Gardel was born in Argentina or Uruguay. The border runs deeper; it entails more than one river, more than one music. Uruguayan President José Mujica’s decision to allow the Finnish-owned pulp mill UPM to increase production on the banks of the River Uruguay, facing Entre Ríos province in Argentina, is a stark reminder of this.
Mujica announced his decision with a heavy enough heart, aware that he was irking the residents of the Entre Ríos city of Gualeguaychú who have campaigned against the pulp mill alleging it brings contamination to the area. But Mujica also grumbled that it was difficult to negotiate with Argentine officials in an election year, which inevitably raises the question of why then the president of Uruguay chose to shed any political sensitivity to make the announcement just when Argentina is readying to vote in midterm elections on October 27. Mujica got precisely what he expected when Argentina’s Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman and Entre Ríos Governor Sergio Urribarri (a Kirchnerite who won the primaries in his province in August) made public a report saying that the pulp mill is spewing alarming levels of pollution. Today the residents of Gualeguaychú will stage a protest, and the phantom of roadblocks on the bridge leading to the the Uruguayan town of Fray Bentos will return.
What a mess. Tango dancers have to tread carefully not to step on each other’s shoes, which kind of works as a metaphor to explain what diplomacy should be all about. The diplomats of Argentina and Uruguay, including Mujica, have taken no such care. The row is on the verge of landing on the desk of the International Court of Justice in The Hague once again, if Timerman delivers on his threats. But this is a diplomatic tragedy that only more diplomacy will solve.