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Uruguay

The Politics of Seduction

Alfred S. Hopkins, Montevideo, Uruguay, March 20, 2007

A sign in Montevideo, Uruguay that greeted President Bush on his visit to the country. (Photo: Alfred S. Hopkins)

Now that President George Bush and the 12 warplanes that accompanied him on his recent visit to Uruguay have left for perhaps greener pastures, people in all walks of life here are asking themselves what real purpose there was to the brief encounter here with Uruguayan President Tabaré Vázquez.

Most observers inside and outside this tiny country, sandwiched between Mercosur leaders Brazil and Argentina, see in Bush's lightning visit here and to Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico an attempt to thwart the steady growth of nonconformist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

There are certainly reasons enough to sustain that theory: the unending diatribes of Chavez against the United States; his courting with Fidel Castro, Iran and other outspoken critics of Washington; the splurge of development projects based on Caracas' petrodollars; backing for a regional investment bank; and an aggressive TV station propagating views of the situation in Latin America in sharp contrast to the more traditional notions of multinational influenced media.

Others ask why precisely at this time the Bush administration has, after years of shuteye, discovered the need to actively find "friends" to the south of Texas. One explanation: since the September 11th attack against the Twin Towers and the invasion of Iraq, the United States has been obsessively concerned with the Middle East. Another: the present United States' policy is based on dividing the world between "friends" and "enemies" of America. Since the Chavez regime is considered pretty close to an "enemy," it would logically call for cultivating "friends" to keep the "enemy" from growing.

Progressive or leftist-minded politicians and those sympathetic to the Peronist government of Nestor Kirchner in Argentina argue that what Washington really wants is to develop a wedge capable of thwarting the attempt to foment a Mercosur capable of resisting the free market politics of the United States. They say that Washington-backed mechanisms, such as the smashing of trade barriers, favor multinational corporations rather than local and regional interests. For example, Argentina and Venezuela are talking about setting up a Latin American finance bank to compete with institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the Inter-American Development Bank.

The development of ethanol as an alternative and "cleaner" fuel is clearly seen as a key objective of the Bush administration, reflecting economic, political and ecological necessities. Brazil and the United States account for an estimated 70 percent of the total ethanol production, while worldwide consumption of ethanol is growing by a whopping 30 percent per year. That sounds like good business. But it also involves not a few obstacles.

Ethanol is produced from corn, soybean or sugar cane. The United States is unable to supply itself with sufficient corn to continue increasing production of the fuel and at the same time respond to internal demand, so it has begun to heavily import corn from Mexico. This in turn has caused a steady increase in the price of corn and has raised questions concerning the effect the ethanol craze might have on the great number of persons in Latin America who suffer from hunger or malnutrition. The more attractive prices received for exporting corn or soybean will likely depress local supply and push prices upward.

Furthermore, ecologists point out that the ethanol frenzy is stimulating deforestation and conversion of natural reserves into corn, soybean or sugar cane plantations. Areas uncultivated until now, rich native species and ecological diversity, are under the threat of the ax.

Finally, there are also unabashed geopolitical goals in Washington's sudden desire to unearth a sort of buried "alliance for progress" in the area. In the context of the terrorism/anti-terrorism struggle, any country which opens its arms to President Bush automatically zooms into the focus of terrorists or others critical of American policies. In each of the countries visited by Bush there has been strong pressure to strengthen anti-terrorist and anti-drug measures, in exchange for promises of reciprocal security backing from Washington.

In the southern area of the continent, the United States has had its eye on the so-called "Triple Frontier" joining Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil — a triangle of nearly 745 square miles (1,200 square kilometers). Uruguay is just shouting distance away. Numerous persons of Muslim faith live in the area. But equally important: it includes part of one of the world's richest water reserves.

Was Bush's visit just aimed at improving trade relations? Uruguay and Paraguay, the smallest members of the Mercosur, feel that Argentina and Brazil are not paying enough attention to them. Vasquez argues, in addition, that without leaving the Mercosur it is convenient for the country to open up trade relations with other economic blocks, a policy being followed with considerable success by Chile, whose government is also left of center. Aware of this tension, the American attempt to warm up with Uruguay certainly has clear political implications.

Did Bush really need those 12 military escort planes? The four AWAC vessels whose radars acted as technological guards during the visit? The J.F. Kennedy aircraft carrier browsing around 400 miles from Uruguayan coasts? The several thousand security agents and other officers who completely occupied Montevideo's biggest hotel? Or might an over hefty security entourage have served as a negotiating tool to tip the cards in favor of Washington?

Inside Uruguay's left-leaning Frente Amplio there was profound debate concerning the wisdom of receiving the American president. The argument of Vasquez and his majority supporters was that the country urgently needs to expand its exports and receive investments, independently of ideological considerations. These sectors are not enthusiastic about staying exclusively in the Mercosur. José Mijica, minister of cattle, reflected the official view by telling readers of the pro-government La República that: "… as a member of the government I have the obligation to do everything possible to get work for my 'negritos.'"

An anti-Bush sign in Montevideo, Uruguay. (Photo: Alfred S. Hopkins)

Thousands of government supporters showed their opposition to Bush by marching to the barriers surrounding the Radison Victory Plaza hotel, where Bush stayed, to chant slogans against his policies in Latin America and in the Middle East. A declaration was also read, which seemed in sharp contrast to the government's clear intention to improve relations with the United States:

"Mr. Bush, president of the United States, you are not welcome here in the land of Artigas (a hero in the struggle for independence). You should not be here. You represent the worst that has occurred in our Uruguay, in Latin America and in the world during this imperial era of greed which you represent," exclaimed writer Ignacio Martinez, designated to read the proclamation.

The statement further asserted that while the Mercosur is attempting to unite Latin America:

"You are trying to divide us and for that reason want to sign individual agreements which besides giving big benefits to the rich in your country, make it impossible for we Latin Americans to look ourselves in the eye and seek the well-being of our nations. … Just three of your fellow citizens, Bill Gates, Paul Allen and Warren Buffet have a fortune superior to the GNP of 42 nations, in which 600 million people live."

Most observers conclude that important economic results are not likely in the immediate future, although Uruguay may get better access in the United States for beef and perhaps software products, or in bio-energy agreements. In any event, Bush's visit left $1.3 billion dollars in the country, according to the opposition daily, El País.

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