Uruguay's president apologizes for comment

Wednesday, June 5, 2002

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- Uruguay's president offered a teary apology Tuesday for calling Argentines a "bunch of thieves" and for sharply criticizing leadership in the neighboring country.

Jorge Batlle went on national television with President Eduardo Duhalde at the Argentina leader's suburban compound to say he was sorry for his outspoken comments, broadcast a day earlier.

"To err is human. I also know that when one makes a mistake, one should recognize his mistake and asked for forgiveness," Batlle said in the five-minute appearance.

Looking straight at Duhalde, seated beside him, Batlle added: "I apologize both to you and the Argentine people."

He then pulled out a white handkerchief and blotted away tears as TV cameras rolled.

Duhalde accepted the apology and said he considered the episode concluded.

He spoke of the Argentine and Uruguayan peoples as being closely bound by history and by the current struggle to end intertwined economic problems.

"Not only will we forget this episode, but no one will be able to break our common bond," Duhalde vowed.

Interview broadcast

Batlle's apology came after a taped interview that was widely broadcast in Argentina, marring otherwise close ties between the South American neighbors.

After excerpts of the interview aired on Monday, Batlle said he thought he was speaking off the record when he was asked about the efforts of Argentine leaders to pull the country out of a four-year recession. The comments, which he said were intended to be "private," came at the end of a formal interview focused on Uruguay's own economic troubles.

"The problem with the Argentines is that they are a bunch of thieves from start to finish. You know the amount of corruption in Argentina," Batlle said in the interview with Bloomberg TV.

Batlle also said he had grown weary of trying to offer solutions to Duhalde on ways to end the crisis. "With Duhalde I can't propose anything. He doesn't have political strength, he doesn't have backing and he doesn't know where he is headed," he said.

Batlle had signaled Monday that he was sorry for his comments. He also accused his interviewer of being aggressive.

The Bloomberg office in Buenos Aires, reached Tuesday, declined comment, citing a company policy of not commenting on its editorial decisions.

Duhalde is trying to pull Argentina out of a recession that has left half of Argentina's 36 million people impoverished and 18 percent jobless. Argentina has defaulted on its $141 billion foreign debt and devalued its currency.

Batlle has since said he intended his critical comments to be private and that they came at the end of a formal interview focused on Uruguay's own economic troubles.

During his presidency, Batlle has been a staunch supporter of Argentine recovery efforts before the international community. His mother was born in Buenos Aires, his first wife was Argentine, and his children have spent much of their lives here.

Withering under its own recession since 1999, Uruguay has suffered more than any South American neighbors from the brunt of the Argentine downturn. The Uruguayan leader recently accepted a $3 billion international aid package to help bolster its banking system and economy. Uruguay also plans to raise taxes, which has triggered frequent protests.

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