Argentina’s neighbours have sharply criticised its tax against commercial boats travelling through the key Paraná River, a rare rebuke from the country’s allies amid worsening relations with Paraguay.
Brazil, Uruguay and Bolivia joined Paraguay in decrying a “unilateral and arbitrary” tax that Argentina started charging this year as a violation of international law, according to a joint statement.
It’s an unusual criticism in particular from Brazil and Bolivia, governments that tend to side with Argentina’s Peronist government on foreign policy.
The Foreign Ministry in Buenos Aires noted that Energy Secretary Flavia Royón met with Paraguay Foreign Minister Rubén Ramírez Lezcano Monday in the country’s capital, Asunción, but declined to comment further.
"We have addressed the aspects of the bilateral agenda. Considering that we are in a process of discussions and with the need for consultations with the respective authorities, we have agreed to keep the details of the issues discussed in reserve, until the negotiations have been completed," Ramírez declared at the end of the meeting.
Paraguay's Public Works & Communications Minister, Claudia Centurión, added that the talks "were extremely positive.”
Argentina’s government has justified the tax in the past to fund waterway dredging and maintenance. The government in Asunción had previously threatened to sue Argentina before the Mercosur authorities over the row.
Paraguay’s President Santiago Peña faces his first major foreign policy test less than a month after taking office amid an escalating dispute with Argentina. Shipments through the Paraná River, which leads to the Atlantic Ocean, account for about 80 percent of Paraguay’s foreign trade, making affordable access an economic lifeline.
Peña said his government will fight the river tolls in court and cease backing Argentina at multilateral lenders due to about US$150 million in arrears with the Yacyreta hydroelectric dam jointly owned by both countries.
“We aren’t going to provide our support at any multilateral organisations, and we are going to inform about these debts Argentina owes Paraguay,” Peña said at a press conference September 8.
Argentina’s deepening economic crisis is spilling over into neighbouring countries. Uruguay and Paraguay are losing consumer spending to Argentina as their citizens flood across the border to buy cheap consumer staples. Hard currency shortages have led the cash-strapped Alberto Fernández administration to restrict imports from its regional trade partners.
The transit fee of US$1.47 per metric ton is especially sensitive for landlocked Paraguay, which operates one of the world’s largest fleets of river barges. Argentina has started to aggressively collect, detaining vessels in order to extract the toll.
Last week, Argentine authorities detained a convoy of barges – including one with 30 million litres of fuel from multinational Shell – for almost a week at Km 171 of the Paraná River until a toll was paid. The 10 ships involved in the diplomatic-commercial disagreement were released on Monday.
”The seizure of Paraguayan barges with Paraguayan products is a tremendous problem,” Peña said.
The Paraguay-Paraná waterway is the main channel for the entry and exit to and from Paraguay, according to the Centre of River and Maritime Shipowners of Paraguay.