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U.S.-Uruguayan Bilateral Relations in Transition

by The Honorable Martin J. Silverstein, United States Ambassador to Uruguay

Posted: June 25, 2005 The Ambassadors REVIEW / Spring - 2005  

During its economic heyday in the first half of the 20th century, Uruguay was often called the “Switzerland of Latin America.” While economic crises have challenged its social fabric, on a regional basis Uruguay still does remarkably well in most social, economic and political indicators. Like Switzerland, it is also often called on to be a neutral broker in regional and international fora, where it enjoys the esteem of the United States (US) and other countries. As host of the Uruguay Round of world trade talks in the 1980s, and seat of regional organizations such as MERCOSUR, the South American common market, and ALADI, the Latin American Integration Association, and as the world’s largest per capita contributor of peacekeeping forces, Uruguay is a more important player in world affairs than its size might indicate.

After enduring a military dictatorship from 1973-1985, Uruguay has firmly re-established its two hundred year tradition of constitutional democracy, political pluralism and individual liberties. Its international relations historically have been guided by the principles of non-intervention, multilateralism, respect for national sovereignty and international law. The interpretation of these principles continues to define the relationship Uruguay has with the United States, drawing it closer or distancing it from “the North” depending on the course of international events. Traditionally, however, while sharing many American values, Uruguay has had stronger political, economic and cultural links with its neighbors and Europe—where a majority of its citizens have their roots—than with the US. Only in recent years, and largely through growing commercial linkages and globalization, have Uruguay’s ties to North America noticeably strengthened.

Since the end of the dictatorship, Uruguay has worked cooperatively with the United States bilaterally and internationally, while manifesting its differences freely when its national interests are at stake. Under President Jorge Batlle (2000-2005), Uruguay was particularly open to increasing ties with the United States, and he met three times with President Bush. Batlle’s government sponsored resolutions on human rights in Cuba and was a positive force in the World Trade Organization (WTO), in Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) negotiations and on Summit of the Americas goals. The US, in the period encompassing the Batlle administration, granted Uruguay a $1.5 billion loan during its 2002 financial crisis, and expedited re-approval of beef exports to the US after an outbreak of foot and mouth disease. In 2002, Uruguay and the US formed the Joint Commission on Trade and Investment (JCTI) to discuss economic and commercial topics of mutual interest. The JCTI discussions led to the signing of a Bilateral Investment Treaty in October 2004, which currently awaits legislative ratification. In the same month, the US and Uruguay also signed an Open Skies Agreement, and as of this writing a Science and Technology Agreement is pending final approval by the Uruguayan government.

One bump in these positive developments has been Uruguay’s inability thus far to sign an agreement under Article 98 of the statutes of the International Criminal Court. This agreement would exempt US persons from surrender to the court’s jurisdiction. As required by US law, failure to reach such an agreement has led to the cut off of most military assistance to Uruguay. Although this was a blow to Uruguay’s military, this has not affected the overall positive tenor of bilateral military relations, and discussions on such an agreement are still being contemplated. The US remains appreciative of Uruguay’s record of international peacekeeping, and cooperation in other security areas, such as terrorism, counternarcotics and international crime, remains strong.

Although Batlle’s ties with the US undoubtedly helped the Uruguayan economy at a crucial time, they did not have a similar effect on his popularity. A majority of Uruguayans recognized that bilateral relations with the US were good under Batlle (generally about 80 percent); nevertheless, few had a favorable impression of the US (generally less than 40 percent). Influenced by US actions in Iraq and with their strong social democratic and multilateralist traditions, many Uruguayans criticize the US as unilateralist, and perceive the US as trying to dominate the hemisphere. For example, 80 percent of Uruguayans were opposed to the Iraq war (according to a 2003 Gallup poll of several dozen countries). Nonetheless, there is little hostility to Americans in general, and with increasing emigration to the US by Uruguayans and growing US tourist arrivals in Uruguay, some of these misperceptions are bound to diminish.

This complicated and somewhat paradoxical relationship has much to do with Latin American history, from the Monroe Doctrine down to the years of dictatorship. As elsewhere in the hemisphere, the suspicions of US motives are less prevalent in the classes with relatively close ties to the US, such as the business sector. However, in Uruguay, a negative view of American motives and actions is not uncommon across a wide educational spectrum, from the less educated poor to highly educated leftist intellectuals, and it is particularly strong among those who suffered under the dictatorship. Whether it is based on lack of knowledge of the US or ideology, softening this sentiment will continue to take a concerted effort by opinion makers on both sides.

The recent election of Tabare Vazquez as the first leftist President in the history of Uruguay presents a number of challenges and opportunities for US policy. Countering negative sentiment toward America is but one. Though fully open to dialogue, it is undeniable that President Vazquez and his coalition are cooler to some US policies than are the traditional centrist parties. While we are hopeful and expectant of very positive relations with Vazquez, the bilateral relationship will likely be different than it was under President Batlle. Much will depend on specific bilateral initiatives; however, Vazquez’s relations with his Latin American neighbors and support for US hemispheric initiatives also will be an important factor. In this regard, his administration’s relations with Cuba and Venezuela will be of particular interest to Washington. We are hopeful that Uruguay’s strong views on human rights will come into play in these situations.

To balance the disparate seven major parties within his Frente Amplio coalition, Vazquez appointed several traditional socialists and former Tupamaro guerrillas to cabinet posts, as well as prominent moderates. For bilateral relations with the US, the two key ministers in his cabinet are Minister of Foreign Relations Reinaldo Gargano and Minister of Finance and Economy, Danilo Astori. These experienced politicians have sometimes manifested opposing views on Uruguay’s international relations, so President Vazquez will be called on to set the overall tone.

Astori has received high marks from the international financial institutions and most of his international interlocutors, and it appears that Uruguayan macroeconomic policy will largely follow the same macro path it did under the Batlle administration. As other governments in the region have shown, governing from the left is not incompatible with pro-growth policies. As such, there will be few discrepancies in the macroeconomic area with the US. Astori’s ministry also may take an active role in trade, investment and commercial policy.

Gargano has stressed the need for close commercial ties, but has freely manifested his differences with a number of US policies. He has vowed to prioritize regional integration in South America, and has not clearly voiced his support for the FTAA. The coming months will give a clearer picture of whether the Vazquez administration can combine its regional activism with larger hemispheric initiatives such as the Summit of the Americas, of which the FTAA is but one important part. There are several potential areas of policy agreement between the Secretary Condoleezza Rice-led State Department and the Minister Reinaldo Gargano-led Uruguayan Foreign Ministry. These include cooperation on terrorism, international crime and international security issues such as peacekeeping, as well as support for democracy, human rights and economic development worldwide. There may be important nuances and differences in strategy, but many of the goals should be similar.

A final important ingredient in US-Uruguayan bilateral relations is how the new government will fit into the regional context. There are a number of different visions for South America, including among Uruguay’s neighbors. Vazquez recognizes the importance of the commercial relationship with the United States and will have to decide where Uruguay’s national interests lie, balancing his heartfelt belief in regional unity with other economic and political realities.

Since Vazquez’s party has never been in power, many of the foreign policy issues it faces are new and its final foreign policy stances will take time to develop. Vazquez will pursue that which is in Uruguay’s national interest, while balancing the different views within his coalition. There is substantial room for cooperation with the US—cooperation that is beneficial for both parties and for the hemisphere in general. It is my sincere hope that Uruguay, which is blessed with an educated populace and still remains mostly free from the intractable problems of many Latin states, will remain a constructive interlocutor and partner for the US and a positive example in the hemisphere.

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