The White House has announced an upcoming visit by Uruguay’s President José “Pepe” Mujica to meet with President Obama in two weeks, on May 12. On the agenda for the upcoming visit are methods to increase bilateral trade between the two countries, intergovernmental cooperation on science and technology, global peacekeeping, and increasing education and cultural exchanges.
“The visit will highlight the close partnership we enjoy with Uruguay and our strong support for the Mujica Administration’s leadership on human rights, social inclusion, and global peace and security,” said White House Press Secretary Jay Carney in a statement.
According to Mujica, one topic on the table for discussion is Uruguay potentially accepting five Guantanamo Bay anti-terrorism detainees, but in exchange, Mujica is mandating that Washington release a number of jailed Cuban convicted spies. The Obama administration has since denied this conversation is taking place. Mujica is well known as a left leaning politician and former guerilla member of the Tupac Amaru communist rebellion, though governs with a less confrontational tone than some of his South American “New Left” allies.
On April 29th, the Uruguayan parliament debated the possibility of accepting the detainees from the USA, and any potential security risk. “Why have they been detained for more than a decade?” Asked Senator Sergio Abreu, of the National Party of Mujica’s Chancellor (Foreign Minister) Luis Almagro during floor debate. “What links did they have with Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups?”
Abreu, versed in international law, said that while it was “laudable” that Uruguay’s government wanted to assist with the closing of Guantanamo, he advised that any asylum given the detainees must not protect people who could represent a security risk to the country or the region.
For the Obama administration’s part, while denying any negotiation involving Cuban spies, spokesman Carney said that Mujica’s visit will underline the close US alliance with Uruguay “and our strong support to the leadership of Mujica’s administration in human rights, social inclusion, global peace and security.”
Economy Growing, But Still Vulnerable
Uruguay is a relatively well-off country situated between much larger Brazil and Argentina. Inevitably, its economy is closely tied to these two neighbors, as evidenced by Uruguay’s banking crisis precipitated by Argentina’s early 2000 debt insolvency. Now the country is in a much more capitalized position and is enjoying a surge in foreign direct investment (FDI), thanks in large part, to Argentines looking for a safer venue for capital as Argentina continues to struggle with financial and political instability.
This FDI is a benefit to the Uruguayan economy, but the close trade ties with Argentina also indicate the danger for Uruguayan business—such as tourism, to any further downturn in the Argentine situation. Closer trade ties with the US may act as a hedge against this contingency. Whether intentionally or organically, Uruguay has already moved to insulate itself from Argentine difficulties; Uruguayan exports to Argentina are down from over 15% in 2001 to less than 6% of total Uruguayan exports in 2013.
Precedent to Mercosur
Mujica’s upcoming meeting with Obama comes before the convocation of Mercosur’s December meeting—in August, to be held in the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo. The December meeting has been postponed ever since Venezuela took the Mercosur chairmanship in July 2013, and with it, the responsibility to organize the next December meeting. Venezuela was unable to organize a meeting, marking the first time since the founding of Mercosur that a summit was postponed. As Uruguay has a presidential election in October, the White House visit gives Mujica a chance to bring home deliverables, as skepticism remains about much being accomplished at Mercosur with Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela and Uruguay absorbed in domestic politics, and with the entire continent absorbed in the FIFA World Cup, also taking place in August, right next door in Brazil.