South American leaders sought to refocus their fractured trade bloc last Thursday on the needs of the region's poor as Venezuela's outspoken president called for remaking Mercosur to fit his vision of 21st century socialism.
Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, hosting the two-day summit attended by all of the continent's leaders except Peru's Alan Garcia, said it is time for the region to map its own economic future to benefit South Americans who live with little hope for the future. "Integration depends only on us. It doesn't depend on the United States, Europe, Japan and China. It depends on our courage and political competence," Silva said. Venezuela's Hugo Chavez Chavez, an avowed socialist, went farther ÃÂ¢€" saying he wants to "decontaminate" South America's main trade bloc of U.S.-supported free market policies and privatization of state industries that swept throughout the region over the last decade. Chavez himself is exerting greater state control over key sectors of Venezuela's economy, but insisted he was not trying antagonize other South American leaders who don't share his contempt of the U.S. Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim acknowledged Chavez's concerns about Mercosur, saying it needs to be change to get "closer to the people. ... It's not just for businessmen." With some 600 federal troops deployed around the city and warships patrolling the waters in front of Rio's famed Copacabana Palace Hotel, the presidents discussed Bolivia's request for full member status in the trade bloc and changes in customs rules to help Paraguay and Uruguay, the bloc's two smallest economies. The biggest issue facing Mercosur is how it can meet the needs of the tens of millions of disenfranchised people in this continent with a yawning gap between rich and poor. "We came to approve accords, create space (for the disenfranchised), projects to strengthen the real integration of South America and contribute with something we consider absolutely necessary: the reformulation of Mercosur," Chavez said. He added Mercosur needed to "change in its structure, in its objectives, the social emphasis of Mercosur and the fair treatment of inequalities between countries." The Southern Cone Common Market, or Mercosur, was born 16 years ago when Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay pledged to seek economic integration and free trade ÃÂ¢€" goals that have been largely frustrated by bickering between member nations and a failure to synchronize policies. Analysts said the addition of Bolivia, with a leftist leader in President Evo Morales, could deepen divisions in a bloc with a longstanding history of disputes. If Ecuador is admitted to the bloc, that also could add to divisions. Newly elected President Rafael Correa has also been critical of privatization and other free market reforms, and may also ask to join Mercosur. Silva, who was elected as a leftist but governs from the center, has stepped up social programs. But unlike Morales and Chavez, Silva's government has done so while embracing free-market economic policies. The Bolivian and Venezuelan leaders are reasserting state control of national assets like energy, and trying to redistribute the profits to the poor.
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