Bringing to close a year-long internal debate over the role of Venezuela in South American political and economic affairs, Brazil's Senate, by a vote of 35 to 27, voted Tuesday to approve the entrance of the country's northern neighbor into the Mercosur trade bloc.
With the vote, only Paraguay's approval remains for Venezuela to gain admission as a full member of the group, which until now has included Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay as regular members.
While the measure gained easy approval in Brazil's lower house, a vote on the matter in the Senate was postponed several times as opposition party members questioned Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez' commitment to so-called democratic clauses in the Mercosur charter and his possible use of the entity to gain greater influence in regional political and economic affairs.
Government-allied Brazilian lawmakers, however, successfully argued that the inclusion of Venezuela in the group would bring distinct economic advantages to Mercosur, and that Chavez' government didn't have the power to unduly disrupt the long-term goals of the entity.
They further argued that Chavez' regional political maneuvering would be constrained by his government's adherence to Mercosur regulations.
The vote to approve Venezuela's entrance into the Mercosur bloc was strongly supported by Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who submitted the request to congress in 2007.
In addition to its four regular members, Mercosur also includes Chile, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru as observer members. Alongside its function as a regional common market, Mercosur has also aimed to become a regional political forum.
The group has agreed to establish a regional parliament by 2012, with at least 18 representatives from each member country.
Message to Paraguay
In the wake of this week's Brazilian Senate vote to for the incorporation of Venezuela as a Mercosur full member, only Paraguay's support is pending, but the Paraguayan Senate is divided on the issue.
Moreover President Fernando Lugo had to withdraw the initiative last August when he was informed the divided coalition that took him to office could not garner the sufficient votes to ensure support.
However if the two-year battle in the Brazilian congress is indicative of what can be expected the message from Brazil's Foreign Affairs ministry celebrating the event is more than explicit:
"With the participation of Venezuela, Mercosur becomes a block of almost 270 million population equivalent to 76% of South America's GDP."
Furthermore Venezuela "is already the second buyer of Brazilian goods in South America, rates as the sixth destination for Brazilian exports in the world and represents Brazil's second largest trade surplus."
The first reactions in the Paraguayan Senate where the ruling coalition does not have a majority have been as expected fractious including, inside the catch-all coalition supporting Lugo. But even when they would not vote the incorporation of President Hugo Chavez Venezuela, they are willing to listen to "country-interest arguments."
Other Senators from the coalition support the initiative of having Venezuela inside Mercosur because it would help to counter-balance the Brazilian hegemony in the block, even when the Chavez democracy is "a doubtful democracy."
With summer recess ahead a relative period of arm twisting can be expected. President Lugo and Vice-president Federico Franco are not in speaking terms, only respecting official protocol, and the opposition Colorado party, which ruled Paraguay for over six decades is insistent in keeping some sources of influence in government structure and has blocked the nomination of new ministers to the Supreme Court..
This week Paraguayan Foreign Secretary Hector Lacognata admitted during an EU funded governance forum that the "government is divided", but not stalled, and in an interview with the foreign press President Lugo claimed that since taking office "they have been trying to oust me."
To make things more complicated President Lugo, or "bishop of the poor" as he was known when in the Catholic Church has been accused by the conservative opposition of having links with a small insurgent group known as the Paraguayan Popular Army, EPP, that has been involved in the kidnapping of cattle ranchers and claims land for the destitute peasants.
Apparently, according to unconfirmed intelligence sources, some of the alleged kidnappers were former religion students at seminars directed by Lugo.
However Brazil's Foreign minister Celso Amorim message was very clear as to the economic and political importance Brazil attributes to Venezuela's incorporation including arguments from those who strongly oppose President Hugo Chavez in Caracas: "It's better to have Chavez inside than outside Mercosur" and "Venezuelan democracy has more chances of surviving inside Mercosur."
"Venezuela is good for South America and for the integration process. And is even better for Venezuela to improve transparency so that we can have more and better mechanisms to demand for more democracy and respect for human rights", according to Senator Romeo Jucá the main ally of President Lula da Silva's coalition during the upper house debate.
But Senator José Agripino from the opposition recalled an interesting fact: Mercosur has signed a trade agreement with Israel with which Venezuela broke diplomatic relations following the Gaza strip invasion.
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