Venezuela joins trade bloc

Venezuela_s inclusion in Mercosur, founded in 1991 by Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay and now clearly dominated ... Venezuela_s inclusion in Mercosur, founded in 1991 by Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay and now clearly dominated by Brazil, followed a long diplomatic struggle. While Venezuela was provisionally admitted in 2006, its formal entrance was stalled by resistance in some member nations, notably Paraguay, where the Senate refused to ratify Venezuela_s admission.

But Brazil, drawing support from Argentina and Uruguay, overrode those objections by having Paraguay suspended from membership in Mercosur after the ouster of President Fernando Lugo in June. Brazil justified the suspension by citing concerns about the impact of Mr. Lugo_s removal on Paraguay_s democratic institutions. Once Paraguay was sidelined, the other three nations moved swiftly to formalize Venezuela_s membership.

The three nations have been working for some time to forge closer economic ties to oil-rich Venezuela. Its president, Hugo Ch__vez, who is campaigning for re-election, leapt at the opportunity to fully join Mercosur, describing the outmaneuvering of the Paraguayan Senate as a _failure of U.S. foreign policy._

Mr. Ch__vez, who appeared well rested in Bras__lia, his first international trip since receiving treatment for cancer in Cuba in March, said, _The hand of U.S. diplomacy was behind that authoritarian Paraguayan enclave._

He was an hour late in arriving at the accession ceremony, and he skirted protocol by insisting on walking up the ramp to the palace of Brazil_s president, Dilma Rousseff, rather than taking an elevator. Her aides acquiesced.

The benefits to Brazil of Venezuela_s Mercosur membership were made clear almost immediately when Mr. Ch__vez signed an agreement to buy as many as 20 passenger jets from Embraer, the Brazilian aircraft manufacturer, in a deal potentially worth $900 million.

Mercosur has been grappling with internal disputes over protectionist measures, largely originating in Argentina, and the rise of another regional bloc, the Pacific Alliance, whose four members _ Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru _ have enjoyed fast economic growth.

Mercosur_s four original members already have a trade surplus of $4.8 billion with Venezuela, which relies heavily on imports of food and other goods. Brazilian companies have done especially well there since relations warmed between Mr. Ch__vez and Ms. Rousseff_s predecessor, Luiz In__cio Lula da Silva.

For Brazil, Venezuela holds longer-term strategic importance, in the form of its oil reserves, estimated to be among the world_s largest. Venezuela is known for galloping inflation, food shortages and unpredictable treatment of foreign investors, but its oil revenues buoy one of Latin America_s largest economies.

Still, the way Brazil maneuvered Venezuela into Mercosur makes some critics of Mr. Ch__vez apprehensive. They say Brazil is ignoring reports of Mr. Ch__vez_s concentration of power and the erosion of judicial independence in Venezuela while it expresses concern over Paraguayan democracy.

_This sets a terrible example for the region,_ said Elsa Cardozo, a professor of political science at Central University in Venezuela. _It reveals Mercosur_s political weakness at a time of precarious protection of democratic rights in Venezuela._

by Maria Eugenia Diaz

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