Former Uruguayan Industry and Energy Minister, Jorge Lepra (*), described Néstor Kirchner’s government as ”fascist”, during a meeting with the US Embassy Chargé D'Affaires at Uruguay, James Nealon, in February 14, 2006, according to a cable revealed by Wikileaks in which Nealon reported to Washington the minister’s harsh words.
The conversations took place during a time when the Uruguayan leader Tabaré Vázquez was in power and the conflict held by Argentina and Uruguay for the installation of the Botnia pulp mill in Fray Bentos was reaching its apex. Uruguayan officials even sounded the possibility of US military support given the extreme tension with the Kirchner regime over the pulp mills dispute.
”We were a bit surprised by his tough thoughts on the Peronist government of Argentina, which he (Lepra) considered to be more like 'fascist brown-shirts than a left wing government'”, Nealon wrote in his reports.
Following the transcript of the cable it showed that the US embassy in Montevideo was rapidly moving from a ‘neutral’ position on the dispute to one clearly supportive of the Uruguayan government.
Lepra during the meeting with Nealon said Uruguay was ‘seriously’ concerned about the terms of the conflict with Argentina and asked for US suggestions to find a possible solution and referred to the Kirchner administration as the ‘worst expression of the Peronist party” and the pickets as ‘fascists’.
Basically Lepra said that “when a brother slaps a brother in the face, what is needed is an older uncle to put an end to the incident”. He was extremely pessimistic that either the OAS (Organization of American States) of the World Bank could have an influence, according to the Wikileaks cable.
Further on Lepra said he was convinced the Argentine government was capable of going as far as cutting the gas supply to Uruguay, in spite of Mercosur and other agreements. “That is why Uruguay is considering purchasing natural gas from Bolivia through Brazil to satisfy Uruguay’s energy needs”. However this never happened.
On 3 February 2006, the Environmental Assembly from Gualeguaychú, where the (fascist) pickets protesting the pulp mill were concentrated, decided its first blockade of the international bridge linking Argentina with Uruguay.
The main access for tourists from Mediterranean Argentine to Uruguay was locked, but the Kirchner government actions did not stop there.
Between 2006 and 2008, the Kirchner administration appealed to all sort of measures first to impede the construction of the pulp mill and later the operations of the Botnia plant. Argentina blocked a Mercosur solution and took the dispute to the International Court of The Hague. It put pressure on the World Bank to cancel loans for the mill and even considered direct reprisals such as effectively cutting the gas supply.
The dispute was followed with increasing interest by the US embassies in Montevideo and Buenos Aires.
“The Botnia conflict went out of control when Argentina held the rotating chair of Mercosur. Nobody expected a conflict of this magnitude, not only because of the traditional good neighbourly relations between both countries, but also because of the initial perception of an ideological affinity between presidents Kirchner and Vazquez”. “It has surfaced that President Vazquez is particularly angry and offended because President Kirchner did not reply a personal letter requesting a special Mercosur meeting to address the issue of the pulp mills”, reported the US diplomat Nealson in March 2006.
This happened just a few days before a meeting in Santiago of the two presidents when Michelle Bachelet took office in Chile.
At the time it was believed an understanding had been reached. A huge political rally in Gualeguaychú followed when it was decided to lift the blockade of the international bridge
However on his return to Montevideo President Vazquez realized any chance of an agreement had vanished. Argentina’s request to suspend the construction of the Botnia plant 90 days was simply brushed aside by Uruguay.
On 5 May 2006, Kirchner organizes a massive rally in Gualeguaychú and openly declared that the struggle of the Environmental Assembly had become a “national cause” and announced that on the following week Argentina would take the case to the International Court of The Hague.
But behind these massive (fascist) demonstrations the Kirchner administration appealed to more subtle pressure mechanisms, according to reports from the US ambassador in Buenos Aires, Luis Gutiérrez.
“The Argentine government is aware of our neutral position, and any decision related to issue in the orbit of the (World Bank’s) International Financial Corporation will be strictly based on technical arguments. Our impression is that (Foreign Affairs minister) Taiana was more interested in sounding possible ways to delay the consideration by the board of the IFC of Botnia loans, than in a US abstention or negative decision when the vote was taken. Taiana gave the impression the Argentine government was interested in gaining time to reach an acceptable solution to what has become a serious hurdle in relations between Argentina and Uruguay”, wrote Gutierrez following his meeting with Taiana.
But the US ‘neutral’ position would rapidly change in support of Uruguay with the following months.
Meantime in Uruguay a Senator from the (left-wing) ruling coalition of President Vazquez in an interview with the head of political affairs from the US embassy in Montevideo remarked that “the dispute with Argentina over the pulp mill included everything but an armed conflict”.
He immediately recalled that during President George W Bush visit to Uruguay he told President Vazquez “if you need me, just call me”
The incumbent Senator, and a close Vazquez confident, then went on to say that “it’s not a bad idea to reinforce our military relations with the United States”, wrote US Ambassador Frank Baxter from Montevideo in November 2007.
(*) The former minister of Industry and Energy and currently ambassador in Paris, although from a different political background has a long close relation with former president Vazquez who as an oncologist cared for his mother. Lepra, considered a self-made man and of very modest backgrounds, --as President Vazquez--, was head of Texaco interests in Uruguay until the company left Uruguay.