The Uruguayan government decided Sunday to close the bridge that connects the city of Salto with Concordia after making a similar decision on Saturday regarding the bridge linking the cities of Paysandú with Colón in Argentina.
The actions were taken in response to a demonstration scheduled for this Sunday by the members of the Gualeguaychú assembly that are protesting against the Botnia-Orion pulp mill which recently begun production. The protesters against the pulp mill originally announced they would cross the Paysandú-Colón bridge and spend the day at the Las Cañas beach next to Fray Bentos where Botnia is operating its one billion US dollars plant. In practical terms this means that the three bridges linking the neighboring countries have been closed since the Fray Bentos-Gualeguaychú was shut down last November 9 when Botnia officially begun pulp production. According to Uruguayan Ministry of Interior sources the issue will be analyzed Monday by the Council of Ministers headed by President Tabare Vazquez. In Buenos Aires Uruguay's ambassador Francisco Bustillo was summoned to the Foreign Affairs ministry to express the Argentine government's "concern" and "dissatisfaction" with the Uruguayan decision. Unable to cross, on Saturday night tens of Gualeguaychu residents protested with torches at the head of the bridge a sight which could be easily contemplated across the river Uruguay from Fray Bentos. That same night one of the Gualeguaychu protestors' leaders Jorge Fritzler announced that in spite of the closed bridge, a caravan of vehicles would drive north and cross in Colon or Concordia. This prompted Uruguayan authorities to close the two remaining bridges. The Uruguayan government policy since Botnia begun production has been "zero risk" and thus closing any or all the bridges if necessary to avoid any of the Argentine protestors from crossing over and giving origin to any possible incident. "We must ensure the security and safety of our citizens, besides avoid incidents since the residents of Fray Bentos are fed up with the damage caused by Gualeguaychu pickets and will not tolerate any further provocations; we can't allow provocations becoming incidents", said a Uruguayan Interior ministry source. Before the Uruguayan government decision to officially close the Fray Bentos Bridge, Gualeguaychu pickets had been blocking access to Uruguay for over two years to protest the construction of the Botnia plant with Argentine authorities acting passively. Meanwhile, Gualeguaychú's tourism secretary Santiago Bel admitted the installation of the Botnia pulp mill affected the investment in hotel infrastructure, but not the tourist industry. Bel revealed tourism is growing at a steady 8% since the last four years, but investments remained stable during the same period while the construction of some costly resort projects was suspended due to negative effects caused by Botnia's installation. Gualeguaychu residents allege the pulp mill is highly air and water contaminating while Uruguayan authorities insist the plant has been built and will operate with the latest state of the art pollution controls.