While Brazilian Senators Debate, Venezuela is on the Brink of Being Confirmed as Mercosur’s Fifth Member

– President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has been championing the entry of Venezuela into Mercosur for the past two and a half years. His wish has never been closer to coming true.

Lula’s Persistent Cause

On July 4, 2006, representatives of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay met in Caracas to sign the protocol for the entrance of Venezuela into the Southern Common Market (Mercosur). After two and a half years, the protocol was approved by the legislative bodies of Argentina and Uruguay, and as of now it may be only days away from being ratified by the continent’s economic megalith, Brazil. Already, Brazil’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee has approved Caracas’ long-running attempt to achieve full membership in Mercosur- the common market of the Southern Cone.

On December 17, 2008 the plenary of the House of Representatives in Brasilia approved “Legislative Decree 387/07,” which summarized the protocol for the entrance of Venezuela into Mercosur. Just a few days ago, on October, 29, the Committee for International Relations and National Defense of the Brazilian Senate voted in favor of the entrance of Venezuela into the South American Southern Cone economic bloc, which means that the matter will now await the plenary vote of the Senate. Although Paraguay postponed its congressional vote until 2010, (after the debate in Brazil is over), it is expected that Asunción will follow Brazil’s lead. Thus, the entry of Venezuela into Mercosur may well lie in the hands of Brazilian senators, and despite President Lula’s support, its approval will be no easy task.

Reasons Invoked for Resisting Venezuela’s Admission to Mercosur

There are two main arguments that have been invoked by opposition figures in the senate to negate granting Venezuela Mercosur membership. Senator Tasso Jereissati, a member of the Senate Committee for International Relations and National Defense, has opposed the ratification of the protocol for the entrance of Venezuela. He argues that Venezuela does not have free and fair elections, since many of its institutions that espouse opposition to President Chávez are persecuted. This argument makes reference to the non-renewal of the Radio Caracas Television (RCTV), which frequently has criticized the Chávez administration. On that occasion, several Brazilian congressmen publicly denounced President Chávez, who in sharp terms, boasted in 2007 that the Brazilian Congress, “repeats as a parrot what the U.S. Congress says about Venezuela.” Now, it is up to a number of those congressmen to decide Venezuela’s future regarding Mercosur.

In addition to the claims that Caracas lacks basic democratic standards to qualify for the Mercosur membership, Brazilian senators, both allied with Lula’s administration, as well as arranged against it, agree that accepting the volatile President Chávez into Mercosur might bring political instability to the bloc. Opposition figures, like Senator Heráclito Fortes, have adamantly stressed Chávez’s splenetic relations with the United States and Europe, which reached their peak when Chávez called former President Bush the devil, and when Spain’s King Juan Carlos charged that President Chávez should “shut up.” Allies, like Senator José Sarney, former Brazilian President and currently President of the Senate, have also have stressed the ongoing combative relations between the Chávez administration and other South American countries. These tensions became particularly acute a few days ago, after President Chávez called upon Venezuelans to be ready if Colombian forces struck out against Venezuela.

Reasons for Granting Mercosur Membership to Venezuela

The likely arguments that will be used to defend Venezuela’s entry into Mercosur are composed, in fact, of two counter-arguments and one projection. Regarding the accusations that Venezuela does not meet democratic standards, senators in favor of granting Venezuela Mercosur membership may claim that the alliance is an economic bloc and that it cannot impose measures of internal politics. Ironically, many of those who oppose Chávez are in favor of his country’s entrance into Mercosur. In order to support this latter claim, Senators might be wise to invoke the position of Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma who, albeit a political adversary of the Chávez administration, is currently in Brasilia lobbying Brazil’s senate chamber to allow Venezuela in the economic bloc.

Regarding the claims that Caracas’ entrance would transmit political instability to Mercosur, many experts like Professor Gil Marques of the Faculdades Integradas Rio Branco, have highlighted that instability is not new to Mercosur. For instance, since early October, products from Argentina have been held in Brazilian customs indefinitely, instead of receiving automatic authorization to enter the country. As a result, numerous cases of wheat, flour, wine, olive oil and currant have spoiled. Although Brasilia refuses to admit it, this may be a form of retaliation against Buenos Aires for toughening up on the requirements allowing Brazilian shoes and electronics to enter Argentina.

Moreover, Venezuela has a population of almost 30 million that has limited access to products made in Brazil. With Venezuela as a new addition to Mercosur, Brazilian enterprises might be able to export more industrialized products to Venezuela, especially in the automobile, agricultural, livestock, textile and electronics sectors. Brasilia also has a strategic interest in increasing commerce with Venezuela, which could provide an economic boost to Brazil’s northern region, one of the least developed parts of the country.

The Future of Mercosur

The dream of a more integrated South America is generally shared by several of the Mercosur leaders, and is also strongly advocated by Chávez. However, it is unclear whether the boost in economic integration experienced by Mercosur would translate into increased political integration as well. Regardless of Venezuela’s participation in Mercosur, it will be interesting to see how much Mercosur will grow in volume of trade in the future, if at all. That is, the question can be raised, whether Mercosur will remain as an exclusive economic bloc, or if it will seek new members over time. This is a question that the leaders of Mercosur will need to answer, with or without the sometimes prickly President Chávez.