December 21, 2014
The late hour of the nationwide presidential broadcast last night makes it impossible to give complete comment on yesterday’s adverse United States Supreme Court ruling immediately — instead we will pick up an issue from the end of last week. Not the happiest times for the other side of the River Plate — Friday’s return of pulp friction with Argentina was followed the very next day by Uruguay’s upset 3-1 defeat at the hands of World Cup minnows Costa Rica (almost a Maracanazo in reverse after Uruguay spoiled Brazil’s last World Cup in 1950). Yet while the vagaries of soccer are not exclusive to any one country (ask Spain), the revived problems with Argentina are largely of Uruguay’s own making.
The José Mujica administration was already pushing its luck last October when it upped the production of the UPM pulp mill from one to 1.2 million tons despite the environmental controversy over this activity and the protests in the Entre Ríos town of Gualeguaychú on the other side of the river during the eight years since the arrival of the then Botnia. On that occasion Argentina finally refrained from going to the World Court as threatened (although severe complications for Montevideo’s transit maritime traffic began from that point) but now the Broad Front government has taken the conscious decision to permit UPM to increase their production from 1.2 to 1.365 million tons, thus more or less obliging the Cristina Fernández de Kirchner administration to deliver this time on its threat to go to the World Court and complicating the relationship in general. The general interpretation is that the Mujica administration is determined to go through with this economically positive (if environmentally dubious) move in an election year with shrinking opinion poll leads despite the complications across the water. In addition, who knows if provoking Argentina might not be an equally attractive motive in order to rally votes with some cheap nationalism?
Bilateral disputes are almost never black and white and Argentina’s environmental objections would ring truer if there were more attention to these problems on other fronts including the pulp industry — the indulgence shown towards mining investors (including a long-sustained veto of the Glaciers Law), the shale alliance with a multinational locked in massive environmental litigation with other Latin American countries (with all due respect to the vast potential of Vaca Muerta) and the substandard heads appointed to the Environment Department (if culture can be upgraded to a ministry, why not the environment?). Amid the World Cup and after yesterday’s adverse ruling in the US, it remains to be seen how high a profile this dispute will take but an old problem has been added to pending issues.