August 17, 2007
Presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Hugo Chávez just concluded parallel tours of Latin America. Lula visited Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua, Jamaica and Panama while Chávez traveled to Argentina, Uruguay, Ecuador and Bolivia. Media that were paying attention feasted on their travels. Was Chávez doing a sequel to his jaunts during President Bush's Latin American trek in March?
The Brazilian and Venezuelan foreign ministries took pains to deny any hint of competition. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar but not this time. What's it all about? Ethanol and oil were the immediate drives of Lula's and Chávez's journeys.
At every stop, Lula reached agreements on biofuels based on sugarcane or African palm. Most of his hosts had reservations about corn-based ethanol, which increases the staple's price. Lula didn't argue the point, even though last March he and Bush -- the United States is the world's largest corn-ethanol producer -- shook hands to join forces in the production of biofuels. Everywhere Lula tendered trade deals with Mercosur, the Southern Common Market established by Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay in 1991.
Chávez dwelled on bolstering his allies, offering oil-and-gas deals in Argentina and Uruguay, a refinery in Ecuador and a gas plant in Bolivia. The itinerary ended in Tarija, Bolivia, where he signed energy-security accords with his counterparts, Bolivia's Evo Morales and Argentina's Néstor Kirchner. Chávez mentioned in passing the mega-pipeline that would have sent Venezuelan natural gas to the Southern Cone. Financial and environmental costs as well as Brazil's opposition have apparently scuttled it.
Mercosur was likewise on Chávez's mind, though he conveniently sidelined his ultimatum -- either accept Venezuela by September or see its application withdrawn. He boasted that Washington would fail to keep Venezuela out of Mercosur and implied full membership would materialize by year's end. The Brazilian and Paraguayan parliaments have yet to vote on the matter.
Lula and Chávez evidently represent more than alternative sources of energy. Integration has long been a Latin American aspiration. It's yet to be seen whether ALBA -- Chávez's answer to U.S. free-trade agreements -- or the FTAs or an expansive Mercosur can fulfill this aspiration. Their foreign ministries notwithstanding, Brazil and Venezuela put on the table two competing visions of Latin America's future.
Brazil proffers a basically sound domestic profile: a strong economy and democratic political stability. Corruption in Lula's government and possible clouds on the economic horizon can be handled by Brazilian institutions. Free, fair and competitive elections are the mainstay of Brazilian politics.
Venezuela's internal matters couldn't be more different: an oil-driven economic boom and an autocratic political stability. PDVSA -- the state oil company -- is faced with rival charges: increasing oil production and funding Chávez's social agenda. Its technical personnel is, moreover, not what it used to be in quality and numbers.
Politically, Chávez is set on emulating Fidel Castro by reigning for life via indefinite reelection. Venezuela's political and electoral systems roam free of the indispensable checks and balances that make democracy work. Autocratic political stability could turn rather quickly on falling oil prices or unforeseen events.
Not open confrontation
Stark divergences also mark Lula's and Chávez's views on foreign affairs. Brazil has good relations with the United States, the European Union and within the BRIC quartet -- itself with Russia, India and China. Lula's trip underscored his ability to bridge ideological differences, meeting with Mexico's Felipe Calderón and Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega.
Chávez's world view centers on oil to buy influence and arms deals to deter a self-concocted U.S. invasion. Mended relations with Mexico aside, a Chávez-Calderón summit is unlikely.
The Brazilian and Venezuelan foreign ministries are partly right. What are, in essence, competing agendas have not translated into open confrontation. More often than not, countries with divergent interests engage one another to the extent possible. That's realpolitik.
Still, I wonder what in the world persuaded Lula to concur with inviting Venezuela to join Mercosur last year. Chávez -- anything but an institution-builder -- has galloped away from the democratic principles proclaimed in its charter.
We'll see if, in fact, Brazil and Paraguay relent on their recent misgivings. If one or both don't, it'd be for their own reasons, not the Yankee boogeyman's.
Marifeli Pérez-Stable is vice president for democratic governance at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C., and a professor at Florida International University.