The president of Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, said today, January 19, at the opening of the meeting for Mercosur heads of state, in southeastern Brazilian city Rio de Janeiro, that "there never have been such favorable conditions" for the integration of the bloc and of South America as a whole.
Lula made an assessment of Brazil's term in the rotating presidency of Mercosur, which ends today and will be passed on to Paraguay.
Lula recalled the implementation of the Mercosur Parliament, in December, and the approval of the first projects to be financed by the Mercosur Structural Convergence Fund (Focem).
"The implementation of Parliament inaugurates a new institutional era for the bloc, and the Focem will bring undeniable benefits to the smaller countries," he said.
The Focem is aimed at financing development projects in the bloc's countries. According to Lula, resources are already available for carrying out the projects that have been approved.
The president also mentioned the bloc's first Social Summit, also held in December. "Social dialogue is essential," he claimed. The Common Market Council approved the creation of a Social Institute, of a Training Institute and of a Democracy Observatory.
In the financial field, he talked about the US$ 200 million invested by the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES) in the Andean Development Corporation (CAF). He also highlighted the decision made by Brazil and Argentina of making bilateral transactions using local currency. "This may extend to the remaining countries," he said.
The Mercosur is comprised of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela. Lula said a group will be created to deal with the bio-fuels sector, with the objective of creating projects for production and consumption among member countries.
In the foreign realm, Lula called attention to the advance in negotiations for a free trade agreement with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a bloc comprised of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Oman.
Lula also spoke on the entry of Venezuela in the bloc, which took place during the last semester, and on the entry request made by Bolivia. "Our brothers in Bolivia are welcome, as well as other who wish to join us," he said.
Lula recalled, though, that the reasons that prompted the creation of Mercosur, namely to attain regional integration in order to face globalization, still exist, and are even more apparent now.
Lula also spoke of the need to create a Southern Bank and to build the Gas Pipeline of the South, to link the gas producing regions in Venezuela to Brazil and, later on, to other countries in the region.
The president of Argentina, Néstor Kirchner, said, in turn, that Mercosur must grow deeper and larger. "We need to commit ourselves further to the creation of a shared strategic view," he said. Kirchner suggested the establishment of a reflection group to devise an "ideological agenda" for the region.
The president of Paraguay, Nicanor Duarte, said in his speech that the bloc's member countries must let go of disloyal competition. Paraguay will be the president of Mercosur during the next six months.
Duarte called for a new phase in the bloc, one of building the needed physical infrastructure for the region's integration. Most of all, he highlighted the need for integration in the energy field.
"Integration in the energy sector is of utmost importance for reducing our differences, as energy is a key development factor for poorer countries," he claimed. "For the countries that have neither oil nor gas, the future is uncertain," he said.
Duarte also called for fairer trade. Paraguay and Uruguay, the bloc's smallest countries, have been requesting special treatment regarding certain trade issues in Mercosur.
Along the same lines, the president of Uruguay, Tabaré Vásquez, defended more flexible regulations for poorer countries, including rules of origin of goods. "The people want the commitments to be met," he said.
"There is a need for more flexibility, especially for smaller economies," Vásquez claimed. He said, for instance, that Uruguay has a US$ 1 billion deficit in trade with the remaining Mercosur countries.
Uruguay is currently negotiating a free trade agreement with the United States, but Vásquez said, though, that his country believes in the process of regional integration, and wants a bigger and better Mercosur. For such, he stated that fair treatment must be dispensed to all member states.
Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, in turn, spoke for greater governmental presence in the economies of the countries in the region.
He criticized "imperialism" and institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. Chávez called for the resumption of ideological and political debate. "The neo-liberal age in Latin America is over," said Chávez.
The president of Venezuela also defended the establishment of trans-regional companies – such as one Petrosul, for instance -, turned to oil prospecting.
Also participating in the Mercosur Summit are presidents of countries associated with the bloc and invited guests, such as Michelle Bachelet, from Chile, ílvaro Uribe, from Colombia, Rafael Correa, from Ecuador, Ronaldo Ronald Vanetiaan, from Suriname, and the Prime Minister of Guiana, Samuel Archibald Anthony Hinds.
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