That is what President José Mujica of Uruguay accidently said about President Cristina Fernández of Argentina when he didn’t know the mike was live. The one-eyed man, by the way, is her late husband and former President of Argentina.
“Esta vieja es peor que el tuerto.” In Mexico, in this context, the use of vieja would not necessarily be an aspersion against President Fernández’s age, meaning instead something like “The wife is worse than the one-eye.” I am told, however, that in the Southern Cone it translates to something more like “hag.”
Uruguay is not happy with Argentina. The tension goes back a long way (Canadians should appreciate the psychology) but the recent imbroglios began with this. Short version: Argentine activists blockaded a bridge between Uruguay and Argentina in anger over a big paper mill a Finnish company was building in Uruguay.
President Mujica’s predecessor, Tabaré Vázquez, considered going to war over the blockade, but quickly realized ... well, take a listen:
So much for sending the Uruguayan army over the bridge. (Plus, well, even a successful action would have worked out about as well for Uruguay as Pearl Harbor did for Japan: you don’t get a country to reopen its roads to your commerce by attacking them.)
Ex-President Vázquez is telling the truth about the seriousness of the conflict over the Botnia paper mill. In 2006, the Uruguayans told the American government that the Argentines were “fascists” and asked the U.S. for help. “A brother slapping another in the face needs a big uncle to put a stop to it,” said the Uruguayans, although they feared that Argentina would cut off gas imports. (The U.S. tacitly supported Uruguay.) In April 2007, in the face of Argentine threats, Uruguayan newspapers revealed military contingency plans should the plant be attacked, although the Uruguayan military attache in Buenos Aires later contradicted those reports.
In November 2007, Vázquez ordered the mill to start operations, with the blockade still underway. But the Uruguayans feared the Argentine response, so they secretly asked for closer military relations with the U.S. and stepped up security around the plant.
Uruguayan fears notwithstanding, war was not going to happen — the U.S. embassy in Buenos Aires wrote: “There is absolutely no indication that GOA [Government of Argentina] is considering a military ‘solution’ to this dispute, and the GOA’s own military operational capacity is very limited. Any suggestions of a military ‘solution’ here actually brings about expressions of humor or disbelief. At the recent Embassy-hosted Veterans Day event, a military contact only barely jokingly said that as a matter of fact, right now, the GOU [Government of Uruguay] probably has more active and usable aircraft and other military assets than does the GOA.”
That said, it is ridiculous that Buenos Aires let the situation get so out of hand. With the plant running (and causing little pollution) the crisis passed, but the reverberations continued to mess up relations between the two countries. Argentina blocked Mercosur from funding a second frequency converter on the Uruguay-Brazil border. The converter would have let Uruguay import more electricity from Brazil ... freeing it from Argentine pressure. (As well as occasional power shortfalls: Uruguay wanted it for economic as well as political reasons. Tenders finally went out in 2011, without Mercosur money.)
Then the Argentines blocked joint dredging operations to maintain the Martín García canal, under the treaty governing the Rio de la Plata. The problem has kept big ships out of the Uruguayan port of Nueva Palmira. It looks like the dredging might finally happen, maybe.
Buenos Aires proceeded to add insult to injury by imposing import licenses on 6 percent of Uruguayan exports to Argentina. It also went after Uruguay as a putative tax haven and denied its national airline landing rights in Chubut. Then Argentina stalled on attempts to build a regasification plant to allow for LNG imports. (President Mujica announced on April 2 that a plant will go ahead “with or without Argentina.”)
The most recent insult was not aimed at Uruguay specifically, but angered Montevideo nonetheless: Argentina limited the amount of money that Argentines can take out of the country ... sucker-punching Uruguay’s tourism industry.
Uruguay tried to shoot back by delaying Néstor Kirchner’s attempt to become the first Secretary-General of the Union of South American Nations, but they failed. Kirchner took over the organization shortly before his death in 2010.
It has become about as dysfunctional a relationship as one can imagine between two democratic and culturally-similar neighboring states. Argentina fruitlessly and pointlessly bullies Uruguay; Uruguay impotently pokes back. Things will certainly not get any worse, but they also show no sign of getting better.
The next time a Canadian complains about relations with the U.S., point to the Southern Cone. It could be much much worse.