In a divided vote, Brazil's Senate foreign relations committee approved this Thursday, October 29, Venezuela's request to join Mercosur despite concerns over President Hugo Chavez's authoritarian style of government. The vote comes when Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva flies to Caracas to sign huge contracts for Brazilian corporations.
Following a heated debate the committee voted 12 to 5 in favor of Venezuela joining South America's main trade block started 18 years ago. The proposal must now go to the floor of Brazil's full Senate, and Paraguay's parliament must also approve before Venezuela can join.
At stake are tens of billions of dollars in trade and investment with the oil-rich nation and potentially affecting Venezuela's geopolitical ties to the region. Denying Venezuela membership could isolate Chavez from South America's major democracies and push him to deepen ties with distant allies such as Iran, Russia, and China, analysts summoned to the committee have repeatedly stated.
President Lula, who traveled to Caracas this Thursday, lobbied hard for Venezuela joining the group that is made up of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay with Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia as associate members.
Opposition senators who voted against the proposal said Venezuela did not comply with Mercosur's democratic principles because Chavez did not respect constitutional rights of opposition politicians and suppressed the media.
Some analysts have also cautioned that Venezuela's eclectic economic policy, which includes the nationalization of several industries, could further undermine the unity of Mercosur and hamper potential trade negotiations with the European Union and other groups.
"Chavez is rapidly marching toward dictatorship. We are burying Mercosur," said Senator Arthur Virgilio of the opposition PSDB party.
Brazil has a trade surplus of around US$ 5 billion a year with Venezuela, with Brazilian contractors holding US$ 20 billion worth of orders for public works projects including the building of Caracas underground.
"I admit Venezuela has problems, internal disputes, but the solution is not isolation," said Romero Jucá, government leader in the Senate.
Opposition Senator Tasso Jereissati, the rapporteur of the committee, had recommended keeping Venezuela out of the trade bloc, in a report that harshly criticized the alleged "authoritarian character" of President Chavez.
During the debate, the opposition reiterated its rejection of Venezuela's entry into Mercosur, due to the alleged "lack of freedom" in the South American country, which they described as "violations of the democratic clause" that is in force in the bloc.