March 11, 2014
The Uruguayan connection
President Cristina Fernández Kirchner has already departed for Cuba to attend the summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), scheduled to begin on Tuesday. The president’s decision to anticipate her departure has prompted speculation that she plans to meet with the retired Cuban strongman Fidel Castro. It is also Fernández de Kirchner’s first flight abroad since undergoing head surgery to drain a clot in October, a sign that she has recovered well enough to endure a long haul. Anticipating her trip abroad could have a lot to do with the local situation. In a week that the peso has suffered a drastic devaluation, perhaps the president has come to the conclusion that it is simply best to leave early for an international stage where the dominant issues will be foreign affairs. Aside from the ideological speculation surrounding a meeting with a veteran Communist commander, CFK is likely to bump into Uruguayan President José Mujica. Good fences make good neighbours. But so do good waterways if your border with the fellow next door happens to be a river. Ties between Buenos Aires and Montevideo have long been dominated by the controversy surrounding the Finnish pulp mill UPM, built with Uruguay’s full approval in the neighbouring town of Fray Bentos across the Uruguay River.
Now Uruguay’s Foreign Minister Luis Almagro has implied in an interview that he had urged Mujica not to unilaterally allow UPM to increase production last year because that would definitely turn ties with Argentina “rotten.” Argentina has not spared any place in the world from its Draconian protectionism, and that includes Uruguay, especially now that UPM has upped production. Yet Almagro, who said that his ministry did not have the last word in authorizing the pulp mill to produce more, came close to admitting that the Mujica administration is also torn by internal debates about Argentina. Mujica, especially by the opposition press, is often portrayed in Argentina as a man wisened by his long political life, which included Marxist armed struggle in his younger days.
But Almagro’s comments show that Uruguay was perfectly aware that a unilateral decision would prompt an angry diplomatic reaction from its big neighbour Argentina . The CELAC summit is another opportunity for Fernández de Kirchner and Mujica to sort out what is now officially a “rotten” relationship. But there are no bad guys in this story, just simply two nations trying to defend their interests.