Trans-border Mobilities at the Uruguay River Border Space: a Geopolitical Approach to Regional Infrastructure under MERCOSUR and UNASUR
By Alejandro Rascovan, IMICIHU/CONICET – FSOC/UBA
This post launches the new season of content at Mobility in History Blog! It is adapted from the conference paper and presentation that the author developed for the 2016 meeting of T2M in Mexico City. Alejandro is a Posdoc Fellow with Argentina’s CONICET and instructor at the University of Buenos Aires. His on-going work focuses on the trans-border mobilities at the Uruguay River and the border space between Argentina and Uruguay through a geopolitical framework.
Since the times the nation-states and their borders were defined (second half of the 19ht century) the Uruguay River has played the part of a border between countries. But, east-west mobilities through the river have also developed in a dual expression. On one side the regional mobilities that are possible thanks to the introduction of infrastructure (road and railway bridges, gas pipes and power lines) between Argentina and Uruguay and Argentina and Brazil, and on the other side, the local trans-border mobilities at the many twin cities.
We consider regional transport infrastructure (bridges) to be crucial, as they serve multiple scales, connecting cities and their populations, used for trafficking goods between nations, and allowing those goods to move through the continent to ports where they are shipped elsewhere. Therefore, regional infrastructure, set at the Uruguay River, which is also the border between Argentina and Uruguay and Argentina and Brazil, can be analyzed through a geopolitical framework to better comprehend those separate layers of mobilities. Geopolitics allows us to consider the political implications and the power struggle that involving national actors in the context of territory. Crossing theses borders implies a dual mobility, from neighbors and workers, small smugglers and doctor’s appointments to regional merchants and tourist. Between political geography and international relations, border mobilities can be comprehended as representations and expressions in the exercise of power in the territory. This means that a multi-scale gaze will be needed to review local-global configurations.
The Uruguay River is a major river in South America that flows from north to south. It begins at the Serra do Mar mountain range in Brazil and ends at La Plata River between Argentina and Uruguay. Since pre-Hispanic times, its 1838 km have been involved in a wide range of mobilities by indigenous peoples, Spanish and Portuguese settlers, the national states that emerged after independence, and later, global markets. My research has two main issues: 1) which public and private actors are involved in trans-border mobilities in the Paso de los Libres – Uruguaiana and Salto – Concordia borders and which are their dynamics and how do they relate to transport infrastructure and 2) which are the local, national and regional impacts of this kind of mobilities.
There are several infrastructures crossing the Uruguay River. The oldest of the infrastructures is the Agustin Justo – Getulio Vargas bridge between the cities of Paso de los Libres, Argentina and Uruguaiana, Brazil. Opened in 1945, it included not only two lanes for road transportation, but also rail tracks with both gauges. Even though railways were falling behind the use of trucks for both freight and passenger transportation the construction of the dual gauge connection was a major cornerstone in Argentina – Brazil relations. Thirty years passed before a second bridge over the Uruguay River was built. In 1975 the General Artigas Bridge connecting the cities of Colon, Argentina and Paysandu, Uruguay was inaugurated. One year later, the Libertador San Martin at Gualeguaychu, Argentina and Fray Bentos, Uruguay bridge was opened. The last of the infrastructures constructed between Argentina and Uruguay was the Salto Grande Bridge in 1982. Conceived as a hydroelectric dam, the top of the structure has a route connection as well as railways. It remains the sole point where Argentinean and Uruguayan railways meet. Finally, in 1997 the Integration Bridge at Santo Tome, Argentina and São Borja, Brazil was inaugurated. This is the northernmost bridge along the Uruguay River.
Let’s focus on the cities of Paso de los Libres – Uruguaiana and Concordia – Salto, highlighting why they are special. These bi-national urban systems share the only international railway connection between each country. Of the eleven international railways ever built in South America, as of 2017 there are only five are still working. But, if international railways were so scarcely used, why has the South American Infrastructure and Planning Council (UNASUR) dedicated most of its projects to that method of transportation? South America transports its goods by truck and moves its people by automobile or airplane, and exports to other continents by boat. When analyzing future projects, the conclusion is that the new railways will only serve to link the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
In order to answer those questions, we have analyzed regional, national and local statistics on the mobility at the borders, although this can be difficult as information is lacking in some cases. For example, Argentinean law forbids the Transport Ministry to publish statistic on the buses that cross the border at Paso de los Libres – Uruguaiana, because they are controlled by a private company that controls a monopoly on this route. According to the law, it would be in breach of confidential information. As a result, field work becomes necessary to create statistics and better understand local dynamics.
As this is still a work in progress, the statistics have not been fully analyzed. Nevertheless, we can conclude that the several layers of politics, embodied in nation/provincial and local states, infrastructures, international organizations, private and public companies, and citizens at the borders, coexist in a complex set of rules and practices. While Mercosur seeks to homogenize border regulation, UNASUR plans to integrate the region into world markets by creating new transport infrastructure. At the same time, as nation-states debate over the finer points of policy, they operate institutions that exercise control and power at the borders and, in parallel, those practices and regulations crash with the needs of those who inhabit the cities at the borders.
 Argentina uses the standard gauge (1.435mm) at the provinces of Entre Rìos, Corrientes and Misiones and their link to Buenos Aires city. Brazil uses the narrow or metric gauge (1.000mm) in most of its territory.