Pulp Friction


If you can convince your cabbie to hurry, you can make it from the neat and functional bus terminal in Gualeguaychú the capital of Entre Ríos, a province directly to the north of Buenos Aires to the Uruguayan border in less than half an hour.

Of course, convincing an Argentine to hurry is not an easy task the mañana mentality still reigns supreme and hurrying is not part of the national culture. Mention the word ‘papeleras‘ (Spanish for ‘pulp mills’) to a cabbie in Gualeguaychú, however, and he’ll burn rubber to get you to the border and thank you for your interest.

But, despite his enthusiasm, the driver still won’t be able to get you into Uruguay because the main bridge that joins the two countries is blocked by a clutch of cars and trucks. As you approach, you’ll see Argentinian flags, with people sitting in deckchairs, smoking cigarettes and drinking yerba mate (the local tea) in the sun. The land is a dry green colour, with plumes of escaped wheat blooming on the edge of the unsealed road.

It looks like a frontier outpost and, in a sense, it is. The bridge here spans the Río (or River) Uruguay, which forms the natural border between Argentina and its smaller, usually friendly, neighbour. Uruguay’s President, Tabaré Vázquez, is building two papeleras beside the river, saying the plants will contribute US$400 million to the country’s GDP, create 600 jobs, and boost exports by 15 per cent.

Gualeguaychú’s 80,000 residents have become unlikely experts on the topic. They can tell you in detail about the two pulp mills, and about the toxic contamination they fear will kill off the fish and other fauna in the river. And they can explain, with some satisfaction, how their refusal to lift the blockade, which marked its first anniversary on April 30, has effectively held Uruguay’s tourism industry to ransom.

Pulp Mills = Death

Local journalist Luis Molinuevo explains, ‘for a year, here in Gualeguaychú, we have blocked the main roads going in to Uruguay. The only other way for tourists from Buenos Aires to get to Uruguay is by boat or plane.’ The cost to Uruguay of this lost tourism, as well as the price of rerouting freight vehicles from Chile and Paraguay, is estimated at over US$400 million.

The political cost is soaring too what began as a local environmental campaign has snowballed into an increasingly complex and acrimonious international dispute between normally friendly neighbours. Anti-Argentinian nationalism has surged in Uruguay, and the two Leftist Presidents, Néstor Kirchner of Argentina and Vázquez of Uruguay, are in a serious bind wanting to maintain their natural political alliance at the international level, while appeasing their Left-wing constituencies at home.

The rift between the two countries could even threaten the viability of Mercosur the regional trade agreement between Brazil , Argentina , Uruguay , and Paraguay (soon to be joined by Venezuela and Bolivia).

The political editor of the Buenos Aires Herald, Guillermo Haskel, says it doesn’t matter how it started, ‘now Kirchner and Vázquez have a very significant international dispute to resolve. And Peter Mandelson, the European Union Trade Commissioner, says that this could damage South America’s ability to attract European investment because investors can’t trust the legal systems in these countries.’

South America is a mosaic of bilateral disputes, perhaps not as vivid as the papeleras one, but just as bitter and, seemingly, intractable. Bolivia ‘s recent nationalisation of its natural gas reserves is probably the most spectacular example. The small Andean nation’s move has highlighted the conflicting interests of the big boys in the neighbourhood: Brazil and Venezuela. Brazil’s state-owned oil company (Petrobras) stands to lose out from the move, putting President Lula Inácio da Silva in a difficult situation.

But Venezuela ‘s President Hugo Chávez has not only congratulated Bolivia’s move, he’s offered financial aid because nationalisations fit into his anti-imperial, anti-US agenda. And Argentina will probably have to accept that it won’t be getting Bolivian gas at a discount anymore.

Argentinians in Gualeguaychú protesting against the pulp mills

Why are these disputes important? Because the line from Washington is that the entire Latin American continent is shifting to the Left.

While it is true that a succession of elections has brought Leftists to power, there is more at play here than a shift of ideology, and it’s not necessarily something to be welcomed unconditionally. Each regime has its own agenda and sometimes they clash. While they might share an anti-Bush, anti-neo-liberal stance, this is actually the by-product of a less ideological and more familiar South American political current: nationalism.

Secretary of the Latin American Council of Social Sciences (CLASCO), Atilio Borón, says that democracy is in crisis in Latin America and that people in most countries with the ironic exception of a Chávez-run Venezuela have lost confidence in democratic regimes that fail to improve their economic circumstances.

In other words, they would be just as happy with a Right-wing government that undermined civil liberties, if the pay-off was a reduction in poverty for the more than 70 million people on this continent of around 370 million who, according to the World Bank, attempt to live on less than US$2 a day.

That’s not to say that Bolivia is wrong to nationalise its natural gas. It is the poorest nation in Latin America and, as such, there are good arguments in favour of reclaiming its resource sovereignty. But socialists and progressives in Australia and elsewhere should be more wary of other developments in Latin America especially when Chávez is involved. He has passed draconian laws against journalists in Venezuela and is using his oil money to back some unscrupulous political leaders whose track records do not bode well for democracy.

Socialism should not be seen as an alternative to democracy, but as its natural companion. But that is not necessarily the view from Latin America. As in the Middle East and the former Soviet Union, there is a popular backlash against anything associated with America, including the idea of democracy. Astute, populist politicians are harnessing that discontent to gather more power for themselves.

As the papeleras conflict shows, genuine popular movements that have nothing to do with nationalism can take on nationalist overtones. South America’s democratic history is a shaky one and in many countries democratic institutions are still weak.

Rather than simply applauding the defeat of neo-liberal policies in this continent, progressives should support local groups that promote and defend democracy. Because, what is going on here is not so much a transcontinental battle between Left and Right, but a disenchantment with democracy, riding on a popular surge of exasperation with a string of governments that hav
e failed to improve people’s daily lives.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.