An impulse for dialogue between Argentina and Uruguay

By Pablo Mieres (for Safe Democracy)

Pablo Mieres analyzes the mediating role of Spain in the conflict between Argentina and Uruguay over the installation of two cellulose factories along the banks of the river that divides them. In Mieres’ opinion, the dispute –which has been presented to the Hague and is starting to affect diverse sectors– may have some hopes for resolution now that the first timid steps have been taken at the meeting in Madrid.

Pablo Mieres has a PhD in Law and Social Sciences and a Master’s degree in Sociology for Development. He is currently the Director of the Social Science department at the Catholic University of Uruguay, and a professor of graduate and postgraduate studies both there and at the University of the Republic of Montevideo. He served as a Member of Parliament in Uruguay from 2000-2005 and was a candidate in the 2004 Presidential elections for the Independent Party, over which he currently presides. He is a columnist for the newspaper El Observador in Montevideo.

THE MEETING IN MADRID represented the first step for the government of Spain in administrating and mediating negotiations to resolve the grave conflict between Argentina and Uruguay.

Relations have not been this negative between both countries in decades. For almost two years, the neighbors of the River of Silver have gone through an intense process of confrontation over the Uruguayan decision to install two cellulose factories on the banks of the Uruguayan river.

Argentina claims that in constructing the factories, Uruguay did not conform to the procedures established in the Treaty that regulates state action on the Uruguay River.

Uruguay, meanwhile, has revindicated its right to build factories and has protested the blockades of the bridges that connect both countries over the Uruguay River. Argentina began these blockades following actions taken by activists along the Argentinean border.

The blockades have significantly affected the traditional tourist mobility from Argentina to Uruguay. Nestor Kirchner’s administration, meanwhile, has remained extremely passive in response, constituting a violation of the established obligations of the Treaty of MERCOSUR.

With things as they are, the attempts to build a bilateral dialogue a year ago failed enormously, and the possibilities of setting up a meeting between the leaders of the two states were frustrated again and again by various misunderstandings.

With bilateral negotiation failing, Argentina brought its claim to the International Tribunal at the Hague. In response, Uruguay brought its case to the Hague over the blockade of the bridges. Both claims are currently being studied.

In the worst moments of conflict, the integrity of the cellulose factories has been threatened, and as a consequence, it has become a key issue in the political agenda of both countries.

President Nestor Kirchner had converted it into political capital for his administration, backing the social movement that it has generated. The Argentinean opposition has seized upon it in its critiques of the current government. All politicians in Uruguay, meanwhile, have defended the installation of the factories across the board.

Uruguay also accuses the Argentinean government of inconsistency bordering on hypocrisy. While the Argentinean government has been so critical of the two cellulose plants, claming that they do not meet the most demanding international environmental requirements, it has done nothing to update the numerous plants on its own territory that are running on obsolete technologies and producing grave environmental damage.

With the situation as it is, Madrid allowed for two things: one, it allowed for the reinitiation of dialogue on both sides, and two, it allowed for the listing of the issues that need to be addressed in negotiations to come.

The meeting in Madrid was a very modest step forward, but at least preparations are being made to resolve a conflict that has strongly affected the relation between the two countries.

The first step has been taken.

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