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Leftist Presidents Take Spotlight at Trade Summit

A South American common market welcomes Venezuela, underscoring the bloc's new politics. Cuba's Castro steals the show.

July 22, 2006|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

CORDOBA, Argentina — Riven with internal disputes, the South American trade bloc known as Mercosur sought to project a renewed sense of vigor and unity Friday as member nations welcomed oil-rich Venezuela to the group and lauded the attendance of Cuba's Fidel Castro.

The presence of Castro, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Bolivia -- Latin America's three most outspoken leftist leaders -- added a jolt to Mercosur's normally staid summit, held in this provincial Argentine city about 475 miles northwest of Buenos Aires.

"Many people didn't know I was coming here," Castro, whose prospective attendance provided the most pre-summit buzz, told his fellow leaders. "In fact, even I didn't know."

Friday marked the first meeting that Venezuela attended as a full member, joining Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay as participating nations in Mercosur, the Spanish acronym for Common Market of the South.

The group was founded 15 years ago with the goal of competing with the United States and the European Union, but internal divisions and the collapse of the Argentine economy in 2001-02 have slowed progress. Presidents of the five-member nations expressed hope that the bloc could show renewed muscle, especially with the entry of Venezuela and its vast energy reserves.

Argentine President Nestor Kirchner, whose nation has enjoyed steady economic growth in recent years, called Venezuela's entry a "historic moment." Chavez vowed that Mercosur would not shrink from confronting social inequality, poverty and unemployment.

"We are entering a new stage for Mercosur," declared Chavez, who said his efforts to integrate the continent's gas and petroleum reserves were vital for the region's economic independence.

Castro's presence practically stole the show in Argentina, where newspapers had been reporting for days on whether the Cuban leader would accept the Mercosur members' invitation. On Friday, the Cuban leader dropped his traditional olive greens for a conservative gray suit and red tie.

Posters throughout the city boasted of the attendance of Castro, Chavez and Morales. The Cuban leader did not disappoint, donning his regular garb after the Mercosur meeting and speaking at an "anti-imperialism" rally before tens of thousands at the state university.

Morales was present at the summit because Bolivia, like Chile, is an associate Mercosur state, although Bolivia is considering full membership. Chilean President Michelle Bachelet also attended.

The presence of Castro, Chavez and Morales at the summit underscored what appears to be a distinctly leftist tilt in the new Mercosur. Four of the group's presidents are left of center, of which three -- Kirchner, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil and Tabare Vazquez of Uruguay -- are considered moderates with close U.S. ties.

Whether the arrival of the outspoken Chavez augers a more activist, more overtly political stage for Mercosur remains to be seen, analysts said. Some leaders are clearly wary of transforming the economic group into more of a political soapbox, and even Castro, Chavez and Morales seemed to tone down their customary anti-U.S. rhetoric in the interest of presenting a united front.

Castro, in his speech to the Mercosur presidents, alluded to the U.S.-backed attempts on his life and the economic boycott of his island, but he spent much of the time speaking proudly of the work of Cuban doctors and teachers fighting illness and illiteracy in Latin America, Africa and elsewhere.

The ample handshakes and pledges of solidarity among Mercosur members could not completely mask the divisions in the five-member trading bloc.

Rumors have swirled that Uruguay could be seeking a separate free-trade deal with the U.S., and Paraguayan President Nicanor Duarte Frutos has publicly threatened to walk out of Mercosur unless his country is granted greater access to Brazilian and Argentine markets.

Brazil's Lula, who on Friday assumed Mercosur's president pro tem post, stressed cooperation among members. He also spoke of a new generation of Latin American leaders at the Mercosur table.

"Many still don't realize that we have changed the political profile of our America, and we are changing the social profile," he said.

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