Venezuela Pushing to Join Latin America Bloc

| Dec. 23, 2011 |

Published by Minyanville

Just a few weeks on from President Hugo Chávez’s much touted but unsubstantial Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) summit in Caracas, the Venezuelan leader made a trip to Uruguay for a meeting of Mercosur—the South American trade bloc consisting of Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay.


Chávez made the trip to push for Venezuelan membership in the group, an inclusion Paraguay has vetoed since 2006. The Paraguayan senate is not convinced that Chávez will respect the group’s democratic ideals.


“We need to link the continent from north to south,” Chávez said in typically grandiose language as he landed in Montevideo. “Mercosur is lacking a lot of things; one of them is an exit to the Caribbean Sea… We can open Mercosur’s chest to the Caribbean; we can link the River Plate with the Orinoco.”


Many within the group believe Venezuela should be admitted; however, both the Executive and Congress of each member state must approve the decision. Congress leaders in Paraguay have warned President Fernando Lugo that they will push for impeachment if Mercosur is allowed to skip that constitutional hurdle to admit Venezuela.


Senator Oviedo Matto, president of the Paraguayan Congress, was very critical of the bloc. “We won’t be losing much,” he said, as he threatened to push for his country’s withdrawal from Mercosur if Venezuela were admitted.


"We need to solve the Venezuela issue because it can't keep waiting as a second-class citizen,” Argentine Foreign Minister Hector Timerman told The Wall Street Journal. “Venezuela has been a partner and friend to countries who have needed it in the most difficult times.”


Uruguay is keen for Venezuela’s membership, and Brazil’s former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva convinced his Congress in 2009. Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa, a close ally of Chávez, is also pushing for his country to become a full member.


Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru are associate members of Mercosur, which was formed in 1991 to promote free trade and ease of movement across the region. It currently has a combined GDP of $2.9 trillion.


The trip to Montevideo was Chávez’s first foreign engagement since his recovery from cancer, which he announced in October.


While groups like CELAC are at the shallow end of international diplomacy, Mercosur does have economic impact. “It's not one of those nominal integration organizations in which a group of presidents hang out and talk once or twice per year and then is forgotten,” writes James Bosworth for the Christian Science Monitor, who points out a number of issues Chávez may have should Venezuela be admitted:


If Venezuela joins, one of two things will occur. Either they will follow those Mercosur rules and regulations, which could have a major political, legal, and economic impact that few have foreseen and which will greatly benefit Brazil. Or, Venezuela will flaunt Mercosur's rules, making a mockery of the organization and leading to other countries, particularly Paraguay and Uruguay, asking why they can't also break some of the rules that would benefit them.


Talks at the summit did cause some waves, particularly in London, as British diplomats’ ears pricked up on hearing mention of the Falkland Islands, or the Malvinas as they are known across much of Latin America. Nearly 30 years after the conflict between Argentina and Britain, Mercosur has agreed to ban ships flying the Falklands flag from its members’ ports.


The timing is significant, points out the Financial Times. Britain’s Prince William, second in line to the throne, will be posted to the islands in February with the Royal Air Force. April marks the 30th anniversary of the conflict, and a Margaret Thatcher biopic, due for release next month, will be just one more reminder.


Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is expected to jump on the bandwagon, with populist rhetoric on the islands playing to the 80% of Argentineans who believe the islands are theirs.


The 1982 conflict between Britain and Argentina led to nearly 1,000 deaths across both sides and is much criticized as a war fought to play to domestic markets in both countries, notably to bolster public support for then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Britain has controlled the islands since 1833.


Economic crises across the world were also big talking points at Mercosur, with Brazilian Finance Minister Guido Mantega pushing for the organization to defend Latin American markets from cheap Chinese goods—an issue that has plagued Brazil’s economy. To this end, tariffs are to be raised on imports by each member nation.