Ahead of the herd
Like Uruguay’s famous national dish, the ‘chivito’ (a beef sandwich), the country makes a meaty ‘filler’ sandwiched between two regional giants, says its Ambassador to London Fernando Lopez-Fabregat.
“Being a buffer between Argentina and Brazil is closely connected to the origin of [Uruguay] and our diplomatic ties with Britain – without prejudice of other important factors that refer to the definition of Uruguay as an independent country,” he explains.
An effectively independent Uruguay was brokered by the British and not for unselfish reasons: Britain wanted an ally to gain access to the South American interior.
The same logic applies in the 21st century. “Our location in the Southern cone makes us a strategic gateway to Mercosur and the Southern Cone of South America,” explains Lopez, an experienced commercial diplomat who was Director General of International Economic Affairs in Montevideo. He has lived through 11 Canadian winters in the Uruguayan Embassy in Ottawa and the Consulate General in Toronto and has participated in trade missions around the world.
Commercial diplomacy will be the focus of his work in the UK, but he admits the volume of bilateral trade with one of Uruguay’s oldest partners “could be better”.
“It’s not easy to penetrate European markets. We are pushing hard towards the negotiations between the EU and Mercosur to improve our market access.” Uruguay views Britain, a powerful pro free trade voice in the EU, as an important partner.
But bloc-to-bloc trade negotiations should not divert efforts to overcome the inertia in the Doha round of WTO talks, cautions the Ambassador.
Liberalising trade in agriculture has proved “polemical” admits Lopez, but it is an issue that Uruguay (where cattle outnumber humans by four to one) wants to see resolved.
“The future of the WTO as an international organisation depends on finding a solution that takes into account the interests of agricultural producing countries,” says Lopez. “We have to make a huge effort to save the Doha round, and the WTO itself, otherwise we are going to lose a multilateral instrument which is so important, particularly for smaller countries.”
In addition to boosting trade ties with the UK, the Ambassador wants to attract more British investors. “We are convinced that our strategic location, our links with neighbours which have huge local markets, our infrastructure, our human resources, our solid democratic institutions make us a good choice.”
Once hailed as the Switzerland of Latin America, Uruguay’s financial sector is back to full strength and better regulated after the 2002 banking crisis, says Lopez, who wants to strengthen ties with the City.
Another success story is the burgeoning Tech sector – Uruguay is the largest per capita exporter of software in Latin America. Plan Ceibal – a programme initiated in 2007, that gave a laptop to every primary school pupil, is starting to bear fruit. Combining agriculture and IT, Uruguay’s techie gauchos have the most advanced livestock tracking system in the world.
Tourism is another focal point, with British visitors recently increasing fourfold, from 4,000 to 16,000.
All this has contributed to “Chinese” economic growth rates combined with the narrowing of the inequality gap, says Lopez. “In Uruguay we have a tradition that no-one is left behind. This goes back to the roots of our welfare state introduced more than a century ago. When economic growth returned, it was combined with income redistribution.”
Uruguay’s charismatic Presidents have led by example. Outgoing President ‘Pepe’ Mujica donated 90% of his salary to charity; incoming President Tabare Vazquez, now in his second term, vowed to look after society’s most vulnerable, with a new program called National Care System.
Promoted to a High Income country, Uruguay no longer qualifies for development assistance, the Ambassador points out. Instead it is offering aid to others particularly in agriculture technology and its famous sweet water plants which are deployed in emergencies such as floods or tsunamis.
In education, the country is offering scholarships to those in developing and developed nations (Britain included) to study for free at its highly regarded state university.
Latin American pioneer
A pioneer in Latin America, Uruguay legalised cannabis as part of a broader strategy to clamp down on narco-traffic. It led the way in women’s rights, introducing female suffrage before Britain.
“We also defend minority rights,” adds Lopez referring to Uruguay’s recent legalisation of gay marriage.
The country’s liberal values chime with those of Britain making the two countries natural partners says the Ambassador. The two also share a passion for rugby and Lopez, a one-time rugby player, plans to use the spectacle of the Rugby World Cup this autumn to showcase Uruguay to the British public.
It’s the Ambassador’s second post in a rugby-playing nation, the first being South Africa. “It was a wonderful period in South Africa, not just for the political environment but also because we were re-opening the Embassy to show our solidarity with the transition process.”
For the 2015 Rugby World Cup even the Ambassador admits the almost all-amateur Uruguay team won’t be a match for some its professional rivals. But in the international scrum for markets, investment and influence, agile Uruguay is gaining ground.