LARRY ROHTER / Simón Romero
New York Times
January 18, 2007
South American leaders began gathering here on Thursday for discussions focused on a single, contentious issue: should the Mercosur trade group continue to emphasize economic integration, as Brazil and Argentina prefer, or transform itself into a political alliance with an “anti-imperialist” tint, the path President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela favors?
The conference’s Brazilian hosts tried to minimize the prospect of tensions, with Foreign Minister Celso Amorim talking of a “reinforced Mercosur” that he said “belongs to everybody.” But Mr. Chávez declined to play along with diplomatic niceties, bluntly staking out his position the instant he got off the plane on Thursday morning.
“The press says that Chávez is coming to ideologize Mercosur, to poison and contaminate it,” he said. In reality, he continued, his goal is “to contribute with something we consider to be absolutely necessary: the reformatting of Mercosur” and “decontaminating the contamination of neoliberalism.”
With memories of a murderous outburst of gang violence here still fresh and heads of state or foreign ministers from at least 10 countries expected to attend, security for the event was unusually heavy.
Mercosur, sometimes called the South American Common Market, was founded in 1991 with Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay as original members with full voting rights. Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru are associate members. Venezuela’s application to become a full member was hurriedly accepted last year, even though the details have yet to be negotiated and Mr. Chávez’s commitment to what he calls “21st-century socialism” clashes with Mercosur’s support for open markets and free trade.
“In one word, it’s a mess,” said Rubens Barbosa, a former Brazilian ambassador to the United States and Britain. “In the European Union, they negotiate the terms of entry, and then the country joins. Here we’re doing it the other way around, which is craziness because Venezuela now does not want to accept the conditions it has to accept for membership.”
In private, the four original members have also expressed concerns about Venezuela’s ability to adhere in the future to the group’s requirements that members follow democratic practices, which was important in Paraguay’s transition out of a military dictatorship. As they see it, recent moves by Mr. Chávez raise the specter of a one-party state, perpetual re-election, a controlled press and doubts about respect for private property.
In Caracas on Thursday, the National Assembly voted unanimously in a preliminary vote to grant Mr. Chávez the power to enact laws by decree for a period of 18 months. A final vote on the measure is expected next week.
His supporters already control the legislature, the Supreme Court and most state governments, but the president sought the decree powers to speed changes to Venezuela’s political and economic structures. Critics say the new powers would move Venezuela toward authoritarianism.
“It was a tremendous error to allow Chávez into Mercosur, not only because he wants to control it, but also because he is Lula’s biggest rival,” said Felipe Lampreia, who was Brazil’s foreign minister from 1995 to 2001, referring to President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. “Lula is moderate and pragmatic, while Chávez is a revolutionary, socialist and international agitator who sees himself as the leader of Latin America.”
With Mr. Chávez’s enthusiastic support, Bolivia, led by his ally Evo Morales, is expected to apply formally for full membership in Mercosur. But that has created divergences within the group, because Bolivia wants a special exemption on tariff and other issues that has not been granted to the group’s other smaller members.
Uruguay, in fact, has been so unhappy with its status in Mercosur that, though led by a Socialist president, it has been seeking closer ties with the United States. Next week, the two countries are to sign a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement in Montevideo, which some experts see as the prelude to a free trade agreement that would require Uruguay’s exit from Mercosur.
“At this moment, there are two Mercosurs, with the old one obviously dying,” said Gilberto Dupas, director of the Institute of Economic and International Affairs, at the University of São Paulo. “Chávez wants to bring his anti-American discourse into the group, but that is not desirable for Brazil, and the little partners will never accept it, especially Uruguay.”
Among the proposals Mr. Chávez brought with him was one to create a Mercosur development bank, which he envisions as an alternative to the World Bank. But Brazil’s minister of finance, Guido Mantega, reacted warily to the idea, saying it was “complicated” because it would require “a new structure” that might compete with existing regional financial mechanisms.
Mr. Lampreia, referring to his former colleagues, said, “They’re starting to realize they’ve fallen into a trap.” He added: “They thought they could influence Chávez, but he can’t be influenced. He’s the owner of the ball, rich and all-powerful, and says and does what he wants.”