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Heads up – Embassy 22 – January 2010

Portrait of a diplomat

A portrait of José Artigas, Uruguay's national hero, dominates the office of Julio Moreira, the country's new Ambassador to London.

It's a striking reminder that Uruguay, along with a slew of Latin American nations, is celebrating its bicentennial this year. "And from the start, Britain and Uruguay's histories have been intertwined," says the Ambassador.

If fact, two botched British invasions in 1806 and 1807 during the Napoleonic wars stirred up such nationalistic fervour in the people along the Rio de la Plata that they joined the independence revolution in 1810. Later Britain helped negotiate Uruguay's borders and built many of the public utilities.

Another milestone this year is the 80th anniversary of the first Football World Cup, which Uruguay hosted and won. The country was experiencing a golden age, ushered in when President José Batlle pioneered the first welfare state in Latin America. Standards of living were high, earning Uruguay the epithet of the 'Switzerland of Latin America'.

"Today we don't have large inequalities in wealth, and we have always had a very high literacy rate," says the Ambassador. "So we are hoping that in this century we will enter another golden age," he adds.

The country has recently emerged from a deep economic crisis when neighbouring Argentina suffered the largest sovereign debt default in history. "This was a tough experience for us, but it forced us to tackle banking reform, which allowed us to survive the recent financial crisis without going into recession," says Moreira.

A new government is poised to take over in March, under the leadership of José Mujica, a rebel leader turned politician. This shows how far Uruguay has come since the dark days of the military regime. Uruguay has investigated the abuses and is setting up its own human rights institution.

The new administration promises to focus on social and economic rights, says the Ambassador. "The new president has declared that he will be putting great emphasis on social welfare issues to reduce poverty and to improve housing."

The government plans to invest in education, particularly the sciences. Having served as Ambassador to the Scandinavian and Baltic countries for five years, Moreira thinks Uruguay would do well to emulate their success in science and technology.

Boosting bilateral trade and investment is another priority, and the Ambassador hopes to land some big investors during his posting, as he did when he helped secure a US$1.2bn investment from Finnish forestry firm Botnia – the largest single investment in Uruguay's history.

With its extensive sugar plantations, biofuels is an area ripe for investment, as well as other renewable sources of energy. "We are going to reform our energy matrix," he says, adding: "Getting energy is difficult and the costs are high. So we are trying to find alternative sources, while at the same time fighting against climate change. Only 6 per cent of our energy comes from renewable sources at the moment but we are planning to reach 15 per cent by 2015."

Free trade remains critically important and the Ambassador hopes Britain will push the trade liberalisation agenda within the EU. Uruguay recently completed its presidency of Mercosur, during which it floated the idea of re-starting trade talks with the EU that broke down a few years ago.

Moreira, who spent years observing EU politics during postings in Paris and Stockholm and as Deputy Director of International Political Affairs in Montevideo, feels Europe has neglected Latin America while it concentrated on enlargement and institutional reform. Now is a good time for re-engagement, he says.

But while the Lisbon Treaty has given Europe one telephone number, Latin America still has several – two of them with the dialling code of Montevideo, the headquarters for the trading body, Mercosur, and Aladi, Latin America's integration organisation. "We have so many integration organisations. It is important that we streamline them," stresses the Ambassador, who was involved in the negotiations to establish UNASUR and arranged many meetings between Latin American heads of state during his time as Director of Protocol.

Moving from the regional to the international stage, Uruguay has been a generous contributor to peacekeeping missions and the Ambassador hopes to get Britain's backing for Uruguay's bid for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council in 2016.

Culture will also figure prominently during Moreira's posting. His wife, Ana Maria, was a celebrated prima ballerina, while he is a trained painter who studied at the studio of  renowned artist Edgardo Ribeiro.

While painting may have taken a back seat during his career of almost 40 years, the Ambassador has always been able to see the bigger picture.
HE Mr Julio Moreira

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