President Jose Mujica’s prized Rocha port project

Cementing international support for the port will be one of Uruguayan President Jose Mujica’s last major initiatives as his presidential term comes to an end.…
President Jose Mujica’s prized Rocha port project

Uruguay’s President Jose Mujica speaks on the second day of the CELAC Summit in Havana, Cuba, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014. (AP Photo/Ismael Francisco, Cubadebate)

Cementing international support for the port will be one of Uruguayan President Jose Mujica’s last major initiatives as his presidential term comes to an end.

On Monday, June 9, President Jose Mujica gave a speech to the Parliament of MERCOSUR, a South American trade bloc based in Montevideo. The focus of his remarks was to express his full support for the construction of a deep water port in Uruguay’s Rocha department which, as the South American leader explained, will benefit not only Uruguay but South America in general.

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Nevertheless, the speech was not the most notable development that occurred, as an unidentified person called in a fake bomb scare to MERCOSUR’s headquarters prior to Mujica’s presentation. It seems that the Uruguayan leader will have some significant challenges if he wants to make his shipping dream a reality before his presidency ends.

The Rocha port

President Mujica has put a lot of his presidential eggs in the Rocha port basket. While the charismatic leader gained international notoriety due to his decision to legalize marijuana, the future of the Rocha port will similarly be a defining part of his legacy.

The Uruguayan leader signed a decree almost two years ago, on June 27, 2012, which authorized the construction of a deep water port. The port in question is to be built in the Rocha department, close to the border with Brazil, between the coastal areas called El Palenque and San Francisco.

Media reports explain that MERCOSUR has already pledged to donate $500 million USD to construct the proposed port’s basic infrastructure, though another $500 million USD will apparently be needed to finish it.

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During his recent speech to MERCOSUR’s Parliament, President Mujica declared that the Rocha port is “essential” for Latin America as “this port is not Uruguay’s, [but rather] it belongs to the entire region.”

The Uruguayan government certainly has big plans for the proposed port apart from the expected benefits to the country’s domestic industries (it will lower the cost of local exports). Montevideo hopes to finalize a deal with Bolivia before the end of the year to ensure that the landlocked nation can utilize the port for shipping its goods.

Uruguay’s ambassador to Bolivia, Carlos Flanagan, has reportedly invited Bolivian President Evo Morales to visit Montevideo to sign a Memorandum of Understanding; which would be a preliminary agreement for an eventual deal over Rocha. As a landlocked nation, Bolivia is perpetually searching for a corridor for oceanic access.

The Spanish news agency EFE adds that Paraguay, South America’s other landlocked nation, also has a special interest in the Rocha port, as it provides Asunción with an alternative to export its products. EFE explains that nowadays, 36% of Paraguay’s soy exports rely on the Nueva Palmira port, also located in Uruguay, to reach the global market.

Protests and opposition

Nevertheless, some Rocha communities and environmental groups have protested against the project. A major concern is that it would destroy the local beaches which are a major source of tourist-related income for local communities. A report published in April by the Uruguayan daily El Pais, explains that, out of 887,000 tourists that arrived in Uruguay between January and March this year, 80,000 travelled to Rocha.

There seem to be various civic movements opposing major industrial projects that might compromise Uruguay’s environment. For example, the news agency Infobae has reported that there have been similar protests against the excavation of a mine by the company Aratiri.

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But things went awry this past Monday when a phone call issuing a bomb threat was made to the offices of MERCOSUR, shortly before President Mujica’s speech. The MERCOSUR building was evacuated while the Uruguayan Army and the fire department searched for the explosive. Ultimately, no bomb was found and the organization’s staff was allowed to return to their offices.

According to the Uruguayan media, the anonymous phone call had a digitally-created voice which warned of a bomb and finalized with the statement “no to the port.”

At the time of this writing, the Uruguayan police have not reported whether any suspects have been arrested for issuing the threat, and there is not enough evidence to speculate.

Development forward!

During his speech, President Mujica acknowledged that there is a global environmental crisis, but further regional integration is also important. In addition, he declared the port would help the MERCOSUR bloc become more competitive vis-à-vis major trading entities such as the European Union, the United States, and China.

President Mujica has gained international affection for his laid back, informal attitude, but it seems that one of his most ambitious projects has not been well received at home. Now the president is in a race against time as he is constitutionally banned from running again in the country’s elections this upcoming October (though his successor will only be inaugurated next March 2015).

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The construction of the Rocha port, if it does occur, will be an important milestone for both Uruguayan trading capabilities and South American integration. It will also be one of President Mujica’s major accomplishments for his nation.