Thursday, January 31, 2008

Who's in Charge Here?

Even as Argentina has returned to a reasonable normality after the political and economic upheaval of 2002, one phenomenon that has endured is the presence of piqueteros (pickets) who block city streets, highways, and bridges to advertise their grievances. Public opinion polls suggest that Argentines are fed up with pickets, and the topic exploded onto the front pages yesterday when the Buenos Aires daily Clarín revealed that Gualeguaychú pickets (known as asambleístas) who have been blocking the international bridge to Fray Bentos, Uruguay, have been issuing "passes" that allow selected parties to cross the bridge. They have also collected "tolls" of up to US$100 for Argentine tourist vehicles to cross into Uruguay.

The asambleístas have, for the last year or so, been blocking the bridge to protest against alleged pollution by a Finnish-built pulp mill, a topic on which I wrote in an earlier post. Recent developments are summarized well in an item in today's Mercopress (in English). The independent Buenos Aires newspaper Perfil provided some surprisingly positive coverage of the Botnia plant in last Sunday's edition, but unfortunately it's not posted to their website.

Uruguay, for its part, is outraged not only that a vital international crossing has been blocked, but also that the Argentine government appears to have abdicated its own authority to control the border (even in the privatization frenzy of the 1990s, nothing quite like this happened). Argentine opposition figures have also been outspoken in their criticism of both the pickets and the government's alleged timidity. The Buenos Aires Herald has editorialized that "the government is tolerating flagrantly lawless behaviour which tramples on one of the most basic norms of Mercosur: the free movement of goods and people."

This coming Monday, I will be hydrofoiling across the River Plate to Uruguay for several days. While the asambleístas were picketing Buquebus's Puerto Madero terminal--with greater government oversight and less disruption than in Gualeguaychú--I purchased a passage to the World Heritage Site of Colonia at the company's Recoleta offices. I may continue to Montevideo and Punta del Este, or else return to Buenos Aires and revisit Uruguay the following week. All of these destinations get coverage in my Buenos Aires guidebook; look here for updates.

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