Uruguayan president Jose Mujica said on Monday it “is not useful” for foreign ministries to publicly exchange letters following Argentina’s latest message accusing Uruguay of not collaborating in exposing claims of alleged bribes involving the works planned for the widening and deep-dredging of the River Plate access canal Martin Garcia.
Uruguay wants the Martin Garcia canal, one of two main accesses to the treacherous River Plate, widened from 32 to 39 metres and deep dredged to 34 feet so that bulk carriers operating in the country’s main grains, oilseeds and pulp export port can operate fully loaded, which is not the case currently.
However Nueva Palmira has become a strong competitor of the port of Buenos Aires and other terminals in the heartland of Argentina along the river Parana and Paraguay, and Argentina prefers to have the Mitre canal leading to the Argentine capital well dredged and maintained.
The problem for Uruguay is that the River Plate, rather an estuary is jointly managed with Argentina and all decisions are based on consensus through the River Plate administration committee, CARP, and the Argentine government despite public statements to the contrary has kept to its long established policy of privileging the Mitre canal to the detriment of Martin Garcia which is more exposed to the sedimentation from the Parana-Uruguay rivers basins.
CARP depends directly from the foreign ministries of Argentina and Uruguay.
The latest incident surfaced when after months of negotiations and yielding from Uruguay, both sides agreed to the tender terms for the widening and dredging of the Martin Garcia canal which had a several stages timetable for interested parties with the first up on Monday July 30.
But some time ago the company currently dredging the River Plate and which has been doing so for years by extension of contracts, Riovia, a subsidiary of the Dutch company Boskalis, tried to approach Uruguayan officials saying it was much faster and effective than having a new bidding process to simply make a further extension of the ongoing contract.
Uruguayan delegates who had been invited to a friendly lunch, got up and left when the insinuation of a million dollars bribe and so reported it to the Foreign Ministry, The host and emissary of such a meeting for the ‘fix up’ at a posh restaurant in Buenos Aires was none else than the Argentine delegate at the CARP committee, ambassador Roberto ‘Bobby’ Garcia Moritán.
“Bobby” as he is known by his friends had to resign in 2008 as Deputy Foreign Minister because of his involvement in a scandal over expensive imported cars for diplomats free of tax which were sold to private Argentine citizens. He was later indicted for “illicit enrichment” when it was discovered he had a bank account in Switzerland with half a million dollars which he never had declared. However it seems his Kirchner militancy rewarded him with the job in CARP.
Three Uruguayan officials confirmed the attempt before a secret committee in Parliament but later publicly dismissed such an incident in the hope of having the long awaited and cumbersome tender for the Martin Garcia canal take off.
But Uruguay’s independent Government Audit Office had to give its approval to the documents for the bidding of the canal and reported that in effect there had been “some improper activities” surrounding the whole process although it did not specify names or reference facts but effectively pointed to the contract extension of Riovia (until the final tender is awarded) as a source of “doubts”.
Once the news broke out Argentina immediately said it was banning Riovia from any River Plate tender or bidding process and later demanded Uruguay make public details of the alleged bribe attempts.
Under the heading of “Who’s protecting Ríovia? Argentine Minister Hector Timerman on Sunday night accused Uruguay of not collaborating in the investigation into the alleged bribe attempt to benefit Boskalis to keep dredging Martin Garcia.
“Less than 24 hours before the opening of the bidding process for the upkeep of the Martin Garcia Canal, Argentina has not been able to achieve the collaboration from Uruguay to clear responsibilities about the alleged ‘improper actions’ claimed by the Uruguayan National Audit Office based on secret documents to which Argentina has not been able to access”, says the release.
Further on it recalls that on December 2010 it was Uruguay that demanded to analyze the direct contracting of Riovia for the dredging and deepening of the Martin Garcia canal. The release from Timerman then claims there was a media campaign in Uruguay focused on the alleged bribe attempt to Ambassador Francisco Bustillo (Uruguayan delegate at CARP) and recalls statements from ambassador at large Julio Baraibar who confirmed that Bustillo had told him about the incident as well as to Deputy Minister Ricardo Conde.
“If the Uruguayan government really wants to investigate the facts that involve Ambassador Bustillo and the Riovia company, it could begin by asking why a few days before the final drafting of the document for the international tender for the Martin Garcia canal, a barrage of articles on the alleged bribe attempt, which apparently occurred two years ago to which neither ambassador Bustillo or Minister Luis Almagro ever referred, nor informed the Justice nor did they consider them serious enough to communicate it to the Argentine authorities”.
In the last paragraph the Argentine ministry states that with less that 24 hours for the opening of the bidding process, if the company Riovia presents an interest, Argentina will confirm its objection and requests Uruguay does the same”.
The final Argentine Sunday communiqué was the culmination of a previous public exchange of letters in which Uruguay stated it did not support or favour any specific bidder and only demanded a transparent process, plus recalling that CARP decisions are not unilateral in reference to Argentina’s banning of Riovia.
Nevertheless the Uruguayan foreign ministry said that if the bidding process does not advance it will be the responsibility of Argentina and hoped that the issue could be definitively resolved in coming contacts between the presidents and the foreign affairs ministers.
End of the day, Argentina again managed to delay the bidding process for the widening and deepening of the Martin Garcia canal.