Mercosur leaders push to bring Venezuela into bloc

AP News
Posted: Dec 20, 2011 5:34 PM
Mercosur leaders push to bring Venezuela into bloc

South America's Mercosur trade bloc approved a Palestinian free trade deal Tuesday and then pushed to admit Venezuela as a full member, even at the cost of threatening its founding principles.

The agreement with the Palestinian Authority is the first between the territories and a bloc of nations outside the Arab world, but it is mostly symbolic because Israel strictly controls imports and exports involving the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Exterior Minister Riyad Al Maliki thanked Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay for following through on their recognition of the Palestinian territories as a sovereign and independent nation.

In the West Bank town of Beit Jala Monday evening, chief negotiator Saeb Erekat called the agreement very important to Palestinian institution building, but complained that Israeli controls are stifling his people's economy.

"How can anyone plant or plan or transport if an 18-year-old kid with an Israeli jeep can prevent them from moving?" Erekat asked.

Israel's business attache in Montevideo, Ron Gerstenfeld, told The Associated Press that the accord "is not the best way to promote peace" in the Middle East. But he said Israel respects Uruguay's decision.

The Mercosur group also debated a range of measures to protect their developing economies against the dumping of goods that can't find markets elsewhere because of the financial crisis in the United States and Europe.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, meanwhile, appeared to cause the most controversy at the meeting. Venezuelan membership has been stalled for six years because critics of Chavez dominate Paraguay's legislature and have refused to endorse Venezuela's entry. Mercosur rules require approval of both the executive and legislative branches of each member country.

A proposal for full Venezuelan membership was well received by the group's foreign ministers on Tuesday, according to Uruguayan Foreign Minister Luis Almagro, who declined to explain how they plan to get around the Paraguayan veto.

Venezuelan membership has been approved by Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, but the Paraguayan senate insists that Chavez won't respect the rules of democracy.

That view has some support in Uruguay as well. Sen. Luis Lacalle, who co-founded Mercosur during his 1990-1995 term as Uruguay's president, called it a "death sentence, because the treaty has its legal requirements and they've ignored them. They are mortally wounding Mercosur."

Paraguay has yet to officially react to any effort to include Venezuela over Paraguayan lawmaker objections, which Lacalle called "an attack" against the country. Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo favors Venezuela's inclusion, but he has hardly any votes in his country's legislature, which remains dominated by the same Colorado Party that controlled the country for more than six decades, including during the 35-year Alfredo Stroessner dictatorship.

The arrival of Chavez at the summit suggests Mercosur countries are pushing ahead with a proposal by Uruguayan President Jose Mujica to facilitate Venezuela's entry as a full member. But the Venezuelan leader sought to downplay the development, saying his country's membership would not be immediate, or imposed without Paraguayan approval.

Mujica, Lugo, President Cristina Fernandez of Argentina and President Dilma Rousseff of Brasil were joining the summit, along with Rafael Correa of Ecuador, which also is pressing for full membership.

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Trade barriers are also on the agenda. Argentina and Brazil are seeking to protect their local industries from cheap imports that threaten to flood the developing world due to economic problems in the north. Uruguay and Paraguay, which are less industrialized and depend more on imports, oppose blanket protections.

The Mercosur bloc also decided to close its ports to boats from the British-controlled Falklands, which Argentina claim as its own territory. The dispute involves a vast swath of potentially mineral-rich South Atlantic waters and has created a fresh diplomatic headache for Britain.

Mujica insisted that solidarity among South America's neighbors is key to Uruguay's foreign policy, and that "for the moment, this means accepting that this territory is a colonial British position in our America."

Uruguay will allow British-flagged civilian ships that may supply the islands to use its ports, but not military vessels, Mujica said.

Argentine Foreign Minister Hector Timerman thanked Uruguay for taking the position.

Earlier Tuesday, Ivan Heyn, an Argentine deputy commerce secretary and close friend of the president's son, Maximilano Kirchner, was found hanging with a belt around his neck in his Montevideo hotel room.

Inspector Jose Luis Roldan, Uruguay's top police spokesman, called it an apparent suicide, but said the investigation was continuing.


Associated Press Writers Joseph Federman in Beit Jala, West Bank; Almudena Calatrava and Debora Rey in Buenos Aires and Ariel Gonzales in Montevideo contributed to this story.