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Last Updated: Thursday, 25 January 2007, 12:58 GMT
Uruguay's neighbour problems
By Jonathan Fryer
BBC News, Montevideo, Uruguay

For more than a year, there has been a bitter stand-off between Uruguay and Argentina with Argentine protesters blocking access to bridges linking the two countries in protest over the building of a controversial pulp mill.

The Finland Botnia pulp mill construction site
The mill is being built by a Finnish company close to the Uruguay River

On clear summer days, when the sun burns fiercely, what seems like half of Montevideo's population migrates to the Ramblas, the waterside promenades that edge the peninsula city.

Matrons walking their dogs politely make way for joggers both young and old.

Children hurtle by on roller skates and bicycles.

And courting couples sit looking out over the calm waters of the River Plate, the broad estuary that separates Uruguay from Argentina.

Each couple cradles a thermos flask of hot water and a decorated gourd or cup.

With these almost ritualistic items, they take turns to drink mate, the bitter herb infusion without which no self-respecting Uruguayan - or indeed, Argentine - is complete.

In this hot season, the affluent middle classes who live in more fashionable parts of town stake their claim to what in winter is the preserve of more humble folk.

It is the latter who inhabit the rather grim and basic blocks of flats that line the downtown waterfront.

Opponents gather to hear International Court ruling
Opponents have vowed to continue their protests.
And it is the left-wing slogans of the radical parties that many of them support which provide the inspiration for local graffiti artists.

But the seafood restaurants that have been multiplying in recent years rely on the custom of more prosperous families, driving in from the suburbs.

Hungry people on a tighter budget head inland, to one of the low-cost 'buffets', which allow customers to eat as much as they want, and have a glass of juice, all for a flat fee, typically about 150 pesos - almost $6.

Wine or beer is extra. These buffets have proved immensely popular among the very young, the very old, the very poor and the very fat.

My favourite, opposite the Dickens English language school, is a vast hangar-like affair, much frequented by students. It offers not only 30 different types of hot dishes, and a salad bar, all of which you can help yourself to, but also a couple of grill counters. There, cooks will prepare steaks, chops and sausages to order, all included within the fixed price.

The amount of meat that Uruguayans can consume is staggering to unaccustomed Europeans.

Uruguay is as physically vulnerable to its giant neighbours as a walnut caught in a nutcracker.
Of course, you find the same thing in Argentina and southern Brazil, though the Uruguayans claim that their meat is much better.

"Besides, in Brazilian buffets they charge for the food you eat by the kilo!" one outraged patron of the buffet opposite Dickens' said to me the other day.

As this particular gentleman had the demeanour of a rampant bull, red-faced and at least a hundred kilos, perhaps 16 stone, himself, I meekly nodded assent.

I did not dare confess to him that when in Brazil, I have often eaten in those establishments that are so mean that they weigh the food you consume.

Rival nations

Actually, that has always struck me as rather a good idea, and it certainly avoids wastage by customers whose eyes are bigger than their stomachs.

But in Uruguay, it is often not wise to profess admiration for Brazil or, worse still, for Argentina.

This isn't just a matter of football rivalry, though that can get pretty heated. Uruguay is as physically vulnerable to its giant neighbours as a walnut caught in a nutcracker.

Demonstrators in Buenos Aires
Demonstrations against the pulp mill spread in Argentina

Perhaps partly as a result of this, Uruguayans are passionately proud of their country and its culture.

"Which Uruguayan painter is most popular in Britain?" one local journalist asked me the other day.

He was incredulous when I replied honestly, "Well, er, no-one!" This fervent nationalism is rather endearing in a nation of just three million people. It can comes across as arrogance from a nation of 30 million - Argentina, for example.

And it is absolutely insufferable from a nation of 300 million. Let's not mention any names.

The irony is that Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay are meant to be forging closer links through a South American common market called Mercosur.

This infant organisation has its headquarters on one of the Montevideo Ramblas, in a wedding-cake of a building that was an old fashioned hotel when I first visited the city, more than 20 years ago.

The Mercosur secretariat exudes inactivity, and one can almost hear the snorts of derision from the joggers running by.

One way to guarantee an explosion of offended pride is to ask a Uruguayan what he or she thinks Mercosur has done for their country.

Recently, the first meeting of a new Mercosur inter-parliamentary assembly was held in Brasilia, at which the Brazilians said they wanted to inject new life into the organisation.

But when the Uruguayans protested that the Argentine blockade of bridges linking the two countries was strangling Uruguay's economy, the Brazilians metaphorically threw their arms in the air and declared, "What can we do about it?"

The raging bull in the buffet opposite Dickens' literally threw his arms in the air when I asked his view about this Brazilian impotence. "Well," he replied, to the admiration of nearby diners, "What do you expect from a nation which charges for food by the kilo?"

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 25 January, 2007 at 1100 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Uruguay 'strangled' by Argentina
18 Dec 06 |  Americas
Argentina-Uruguay dispute deepens
24 Nov 06 |  Americas
Mill protests shut Uruguay border
14 Oct 06 |  Americas
Court allows Uruguay pulp mills
13 Jul 06 |  Americas
Country profile: Uruguay
08 Dec 06 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Uruguay
14 Dec 06 |  Country profiles

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