World Bulletin / News Desk
On his first foreign trip since undergoing cancer treatment in Cuba earlier this year, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez hailed his country's welcome by fellow South American leaders into a regional trade bloc on Tuesday.
"Our north is the south," the Venezuelan president said, evoking Simon Bolivar and other revolutionaries who wrested the continent from colonial rule. "Mercosur is, without a doubt, the most powerful engine that exists to preserve our independence."
Chavez, who recently declared himself cancer-free, stood at a podium throughout his 20-minute speech in Brazil's capital and spoke in a clear, strong voice. Later, after a meeting at Brazil's foreign ministry, he jigged and declared that his health "is very good, as you can see."
Mercosur also includes Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay. The grouping now accounts for about $3.3 trillion in combined gross domestic product, and the leaders said it would be the world's fifth-largest economy if it were a single nation.
After years of stalled negotiations with Caracas, the group accepted Venezuela despite the objections of Paraguay, a marked absence at Tuesday's meeting. The other three countries made their invitation to Chavez after suspending Paraguay in June because of the controversial impeachment there by conservative legislators of leftist president Fernando Lugo.
That move troubled critics, who said it was emblematic of the decline of a bloc that was founded in 1995, at a time when a group of free-market reformers was dominant in the region.
"What was once an economic bloc has now been reduced to a political sideshow," said Mario Marconini, a former Brazilian trade secretary who is now a business consultant in Sao Paulo. The inclusion of Venezuela despite the veto of a full-fledged member, "is a fatal blow to its economic credibility."
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff said on Tuesday that Paraguay's suspension is justified until the country "normalizes" its internal politics. Brazil and other neighboring countries have argued that Paraguay must proceed with its regularly scheduled presidential elections next year before they consider its government to be stable.
Tuesday's ceremony was accompanied by a trickle of business as Chavez and Rousseff formalized a previously disclosed plan by Conviasa, the Venezuelan airline, to purchase 100-seat jets made by Embraer, the Brazilian aircraft manufacturer. Under the terms of the agreement, Conviasa will pay about $270 million for six Embraer 190 jets, with an option for 14 more.
Meanwhile, Venezuela and Argentina signed an agreement for greater investment in each other's oil sector. PDVSA, Venezuela's state-run oil producer, will invest in Argentine petrochemicals, and YPF, its Argentine counterpart, will invest in Venezuelan oil fields, according to the agreement.