(IPS) – Everything was in place for the beginning of the end of the long-running conflict: a friendlier face about to be sworn in as president in Argentina, a tiny bit of flexibility on the part of Uruguay, a few points of agreement, and a Spanish mediator appointed by the King.
But things fell apart in Chile and the paper pulp mill’s smokestack began to cloud relations between Uruguay and Argentina as never before.
Both sides dug their heels in once again, and Spanish Foreign Minister Juan Carlos Moratinos’ mediation efforts came to naught.
Nearly at the same time that Uruguayan president Tabaré Vázquez and his Argentine counterpart Néstor Kirchner embraced each other at the Ibero-American summit in Chile, it was announced that the Finnish firm Botnia had been given the green light for its new wood pulp factory to begin operating on the Uruguayan side of a border river between the two countries.
Hopes that a solution would finally be forthcoming, as insinuated earlier by both sides, as a result of Spanish King Juan Carlos’s efforts to broker an agreement were dashed during the 17th Ibero-American Summit, taking place in Santiago from Thursday to Saturday.
The two-year-old dispute over the pulp mill on the eastern side of the Uruguay river has marred the fraternal relations between Argentina and its much smaller neighbour Uruguay, which share a common history and culture. The conflict is seen as the worst row between the two countries in half a century.
Instead of signing an agreement that had been drawn up by negotiators over the last two months, the Argentine government once again demanded that Botnia’s Orion plant be moved away from the Uruguay river, and the Uruguayan government reiterated, for the umpteenth time, that it would not negotiate as long as traffic along the bridges linking the two countries continues to be blocked.
For the past three summers, protesters in the Argentine town of Gualeguaychú, 22 km from the plant, have been staging roadblocks across the bridges, causing significant damages to the Uruguayan tourism industry, which depends largely on Argentine visitors to the country’s beaches.
Although the number of protesters has dwindled over the years, they continue to mount periodic roadblocks on the main bridge joining the two countries over the Uruguay river, arguing that the plant will pollute its waters.
Botnia, which will convert eucalyptus trees grown in Uruguay into wood pulp, the raw material for paper, says it will use the most advanced technologies in order to minimise the risks of pollution. The 1.2 billion dollar plant is the largest foreign investment initiative in the history of Uruguay, a country of 3.3 million people.
This is the worst moment of a conflict "that everyone knew would be long-drawn-out because of the number of actors and interests involved and because the public tends to get drawn into disputes between countries, which are taken up as local political issues, and patriotism and national pride rear their heads," Uruguayan expert on international relations Romeo Pérez commented to IPS.
Pérez, director of the Latin American Centre on Human Economy, a private college, said the two countries have failed to "de-escalate" the conflict, and that he did not believe that the inauguration of a new president in Argentina on Dec. 10 would bring about any easing of tensions. (Kirchner’s wife Cristina Fernández was elected as his successor on Oct. 28.)
Not only did the tensions flare up again, but the Spanish government also expressed its consternation over the Vázquez administration’s decision to allow the Botnia plant to begin operating, and pulled out of the negotiations.
Foreign Minister Moratinos told journalists Friday that Spain is always open to helping "two sister countries, which are also neighbours, like Uruguay and Argentina, and therefore we express our surprise to a certain extent over this decision."
Kirchner had already freed King Juan Carlos of the burden that he had assumed a year ago, at the 16th Ibero-American Summit in the Uruguayan capital. "Your majesty, I want to apologise because I asked you to facilitate" in this conflict, "a task that you assumed without worrying about" the potential political costs.
Vázquez struck the same tone of contrite gratitude towards Spain. "I completely agree with the words of (Mr. Kirchner), in that the route to solving our problems, our discrepancies, is dialogue; there is no other way."
Before he also apologised to his fellow Ibero-American leaders for having put the bilateral conflict on the summit’s agenda, Vázquez expressed his confidence that an agreement would be reached, "because if we in the government fail to find the road to a solution, the people will do so, given that Uruguayans and Argentines are much more than neighbours; they are brothers and sisters."
But all roads seem to lead only to The Hague, where the International Court of Justice is considering the lawsuit brought by Buenos Aires accusing Montevideo of violating a bilateral agreement on the joint administration of the Uruguay river, on the argument that the Uruguayan government failed to consult Argentina before giving Botnia permission to build a factory on the border river.
The only slight hope still alive is that although she is the current president’s wife and belongs to the same party, Argentine president-elect Fernández may bring a new approach to the conflict.
Fernández, a senator, has sent out signals favourable to a solution, such as accepting the presence of the factory on the banks of the border river as a fait accompli.
But that was prior to the frustration in Santiago.
A few days before she takes office, Fernández plans to visit Montevideo to participate in a summit of leaders of the Southern Common Market (Mercosur) trade bloc, which links Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. (Venezuela is in the process of joining).
That tiny sliver of hope was encouraged by Argentine cabinet chief Alberto Fernández, who will apparently remain in his post under the new president. "When the Botnia plant begins to operate, we will verify how much it affects the environment in the region," he told an Argentine radio station.
"We will not be carrying out theoretical studies, but will be verifying real data," said the cabinet chief, marking his distance from the near-fanatic opposition to the factory maintained by the Environmental Assembly of Gualeguaychú, a town that is located on a tributary of the Uruguay river. The activists argue that the factory will affect its tourism industry (the town’s most picturesque beach resort, Ñandubaysal, is located on the Uruguay river).
"The outcome of our legal action will differ, depending on whether or not pollution is found," said Fernández, who clarified, however, that the lawsuit is based on an accusation that Uruguay violated the river treaty.
The cabinet chief reminded the Environmental Assembly that "the protests on the bridge are not an alternative to the civilised step of taking legal action in The Hague."
But Hugo Domato, one of the activists from Gualeguaychú who travelled to Santiago, told IPS that they would keep up their struggle "no matter what the cost," and that the movement is still strong because it cannot be beheaded, since it has no leaders and is "horizontal" in nature.
Another member of the Environmental Assembly, Cira Muñoz, expressed her anger in a telephone conversation with IPS from Gualeguaychú. "We knew that this would happen, but not this way; it caught us off guard." She added that Vázquez’s decision to give Botnia the go-ahead "was a slap in the face to the king of Spain."
Kirchner, who was in touch with members of the Environmental Assembly in Santiago, "should always have stayed close to us," and the president-elect "should come to Gualeguaychú" to inform herself of the situation, said the activist, responding to a remark by Senator Fernández who said that if the plant does not pollute, Argentina will have to accept it.
But Pérez does not believe that the president-elect "has the historical, statesman-like vision" needed to solve the conflict. Besides, if she reached a solution, where her husband failed, it would be like a snub to him.
In the political scientist’s view, resolving the dispute must be left to "professional diplomats," not politicians — or television cameras.
* With additional reporting by Marcela Valente in Buenos Aires and Daniel Estrada in Santiago.