In spite of the simultaneous blockading by Argentine pickets of the three bridges leading to Uruguay, President Tabare Vazquez reiterated during a joint press conference on Saturday next to visiting US President George Bush that he will not negotiate while the blockades persist.
President Vazquez said the conflict with Argentina over the construction of pulp mills in a shared border river was not in the agenda of the bilateral meeting with Bush but nevertheless ratified the strong Uruguayan position. "I didn't talk (with President Bush) about the dispute, among other things because in the coming days both sides will be dialoguing, not negotiating because as long as the bridges remain blocked we're not negotiating, but yes we are making all efforts to find a friendly solution to overcome this sad difference with our Argentine brothers", underlined Vazquez. The blockade was programmed to last until Sunday 22:00 hours as part of the protest plan organized by environmentalists and residents from Gualeguaychu, the Argentine city just across from where Finland's Botnia is building a 1.3 billion US dollars pulp mill in Uruguay. Pickets with the passive support of the Argentine government, alleging pollution reasons, have tried to impede the construction of the pulp mill, so far unsuccessfully, and are now pushing for the relocation of the plant. The irritating dispute between the neighboring countries that has gone on for almost two years is currently under consideration by the International Court of The Hague, a Mercosur disputes tribunal and lately by the Spanish Crown that has offered to act as a "dialogue facilitator". This does not mean mediation but rather trying to bring both sides together to sit and talk, which apparently is scheduled to happen sometime in the coming weeks. Uruguay's position all along has been that with pickets cutting bridges no dialogue is possible much less negotiations. Meantime the Botnia plant continues to advance and is scheduled to begin production sometime in the fourth quarter of 2007. Uruguay estimates losses to trade and tourism in the range of 500 million US dollars because of the pickets. The Botnia project has the support of the European Union and the World Bank which is partially financing the plant and has contracted accumulative environmental impact assessment studies which show a minimum pollution impact. Gualeguaychu residents and environmentalists argue the studies were done by companies linked to the World Bank and are demanding independent assessments. Argentina claims Uruguay ignored and keeps ignoring a 1975 bilateral joint management agreement for the river Uruguay and its waters. Since Argentina is holding presidential elections next October, the issue has become extremely sensitive.