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Uruguay: President-Elect Mujica Tackles Botnia Issue Before Taking Office

Uruguayan president-elect José “Pepe” Mujica is trying to intervene in a conflict that started more than seven years ago, and which still makes headlines in Uruguayan and Argentinean Media. Since the opening of Finnish pulp mill Botnia in Fray Bentos (Uruguay) along the Uruguay River—a natural border between Argentina and Uruguay—environmentalists and locals from the area and its neighboring Argentinean city Gualeguaychú have been protesting against alleged environmental and health hazards caused by the mill.

Botnia Pulp Mill. Picture taken by Flickr user Gonzak and used under a Creative Commons license.

Botnia Pulp Mill. Picture taken by Flickr user Gonzak and used under a Creative Commons license.

Blogger and industrial designer Julián Ballesteros Riveros [es] spent recent Carnival celebrations in Gualeguaychú where he witnessed firsthand the activism against Botnia:

Una bella ciudad con gente muy amable, vale la pena conocerla si se tiene la oportunidad; tiene termales, zonas para acampar y playas a lo largo de la costanera del río Gualeguaychú. Sin embargo, aunque lo más atractivo resulta ser los recursos naturales de la zona, es llamativa la constante exposición de avisos en las casas, en los establecimientos comerciales y hasta en los automóviles oponiéndose al unísono a la amenaza contra el medio ambiente que supone la instalación de “papeleras” y de Botnia en particular en límites con Uruguay

A beautiful city with very nice people, it is worth seeing if one has the chance: it has hot springs, places to camp, and beaches along the Gualeguaychú river. However, even though the most attractive things are the natural resources of the zone, the constant exposure of signs on homes, commercial establishments and even on cars opposing the environmental threat which the installation of pulp mills and Botnia in particular within Uruguay, is striking.

Skepticism about the plant posing an actual environmental or health hazard opposes the claims made by environmentalists, as various organizations have denied that the mill contaminates the air. According to local news organization from Entre Rios, Agencia de Noticias de Entre Rios APFD [es] , Marisa Arienza from Green Cross reported that the there have not been any changes in the levels of sulfur dioxide in the air since the plant began operations.

Still, the strongest and most established protest came from the “piqueteros” who are discontent with the pulp mill and have used protest tactics like the takeover and blockade of bridges that act as important passage ways between the two countries for tourism and commercial purposes.

Blockade from Fray Bentos, Uruguay and anti-Botnia slogans. Picture taken by Flickr user sebaperez and used under a Creative Commons license.

‘I Said No!’ Blockade from Fray Bentos, Uruguay and anti-Botnia slogans. Picture taken by Flickr user sebaperez and used under a Creative Commons license.

Mujica, who will not be sworn into office until March, has paid special attention to this conflict and wants the blockades lifted before he takes office. Mujica met with Cristina Kirchner, president of Argentina, and with the governor of the Argentinean region Entre Rios, Sergio Urribarri, where Gualeguaychú is located. However, environmentalist Lilian Melnik sees no progress in these meetings, as reported by local Uruguay River newspaper Rio Uruguay Digital [es]:

[Mujica y Urribarri] son ‘traidores a una causa noble’ hacia quienes ‘defienden el levantamiento del corte sin argumentos y sin querer verdaderamente que se vaya Botnia’

[Mujica and Urribarri] are ‘traitors in a noble cause’ who ‘defend the lifting of the blockade without valid arguments and without really wanting Botnia to leave’

Melnik also said that environmentalist will have to defend the blockade even harder, now that Mujica has tried to mediate.

In an editorial, Ignacio de Posadas [es] criticizes these attempts made by the president-elect to reach out to the Argentinean side:

El Presidente electo, por sus gestos (sobre todo la visita a los piqueteros) y por sus palabras (describiendo la violación de tratados y de normas y usos, como “un asunto interno” de la Argentina), dio razón al gobierno Kirchner y a los patoteros de Gualeguaychú, banalizando el asunto, debilitando la posición jurídica y de principios del Uruguay y enviando a La Haya el peor mensaje posible (¿qué juez se parará en los pedales si la parte agraviada dice que todo es negociable?).

The president-elect, with his actions (especially the visit to the “piqueteros”) and with his words (describing the violation of treaties and of laws and uses as “internal affairs” of Argentina) agreed with the Kirchner government and the thugs of Gualeguaychú, decreasing the seriousness of the matter, weakening the judicial position of Uruguay and its principles, and sending The Hague the worst possible message (what judge would put his foot on the break if the aggravated side says that everything is negotiable?)

Shortly after taking office, Mujica will have to face the verdict from the International Court of Justice at The Hague, where Argentina issued a formal case against Uruguay in 2006. Mujica’s close relationship with Kirchner and his recent attempt to reach out to governor Urrubarru will also be tested when he becomes the official president.

Argentinean journalist and blogger Pepe Eliaschev [es] condemns the blockades as useless and contrasts Mujica’s close connection to the Kirchners with the current Uruguayan president Vázquez’ tumultuous relationship with the neighboring government:

En pocas palabras, el corte de la frontera con Uruguay no sirve para nada y es un pastiche siniestro que solo ha provocado daño. La planta de Botnia, inaugurada hace ya dos años, trabaja y produce con absoluta y total normalidad, y lo hace en toda su capacidad. El corte no solo no redujo el flujo de turistas, sino que lo incremento, demostrando la pasmosa estupidez de la medida. De la famosa “contaminación” nada significativo ha vuelto a aportarse, mientras que en el inicio del conflicto la llamada asamblea “ambientalista” de Gualeguaychú llegó a decir que la fabrica instalada en Uruguay era equivalente al Auschwitz, el campo de exterminio que los nazis instalaron en esa ciudad polaca durante la Segunda Guerra y donde fueron aniquilados centenares de miles de judíos. […] Operativo seducción: el viejo guerrillero quiere engullirse a la pareja presidencial argentina para que levanten el corte de la frontera. El septuagenario tupamaro imagina que podrá extraer de los post montoneros argentinos lo que le severidad del oncólogo socialista Vázquez no pudo.

In a few words, the blockade of the border with Uruguay doesn’t serve any purpose and it is a sinister pastiche that has only caused damage. The Botnia plant, inaugurated two years ago, works and produces at absolute and total normality, and to its fullest capacity. The blockade has not only reduced the flow of tourists, it has also increased it, showing the stupidity of the measure. Of the famous “contamination” nothing significant has arisen recently, while at the beginning the so called “environmentalist” assembly of Gualeguaychú said that the installed mill in Uruguay was equivalent to Auschwitz, the concentration camp that the Nazis installed in that Polish city during the Second World War and where hundred millions of jews were annihilated […] Operation seduction: the old guerrilla man [Mujica] wants to swallow the Argentenian presidential couple [(the Kirchners)] so that they lift the blockade from the border. The seventy-year old Tupamaro imagines that he can get out of the Argentinians what the severity of the socialist oncologist Vázquez could not”

Mujica has said he will not negotiate with “piqueteros,” and the “piqueteros” in turn, say they will not take action until the Hague pronounces its verdict.

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