The deep differences among Mercosur members as to who should hold the group's rotating chair this second half of the year surfaced openly in Montevideo with the surprise visit of Brazilian foreign minister Jose Serra and ex president Fernando Henrique Cardoso. The Brazilin delegation formally requested Uruguay, which currently holds the six/month Mercosur chair to suspend the transfer to Venezuela until at least August.
The announcement was made following a Tuesday morning meeting of Serra with Uruguayan president Tabare Vázquez, we're asking for more time. Let's wait until August, the Mercosur presidency must be the result of an unanimous decision, said the Brazilian envoy.
The administration of Brazilian interim president Michel Temer is requesting another month to give time to Venezuela to complete several institutional rules which president Nicolas Maduro has promised and despite the four years elapsed, remain unaccomplished.
The Brazilian request made public a deep difference inside Mercosur as to how to address the next six-month presidency, which has turned into an open controversy. While Paraguay argues that the presidency can't be transferred to a country which lacks the necessary domestic peace and tranquility, and thus Venezuela does not qualify, Brazil until today had kept a low profile on the issue, but now has clearly sided with Asunción, arguing its own reasons.
Argentina and Uruguay on the other hand admit that there are serious political problems in Venezuela, but no democratic or institutional rupture, so the group's rules must be followed and this means giving the administration of president Nicolas Maduro the chair for the next six months.
Paraguay was also the only Mercosur member to support at the Organization of American States discussion the implementation of the Democratic Clause against Venezuela which could go as far as suspending the country from the organization. Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil did not support the initiative believing negotiations and dialogue between government and opposition should be sponsored and given time.
Serra also held a meeting with Uruguay's foreign minister Rodolfo Nin Novoa, who said that the request from Brazil was under consideration.
The rotating chair transfer should have taken place sometime in June, but was delayed because of Venezuela's internal problems would not allow Maduro to attend the presidential summit in Montevideo, which is part of the twice a year ceremony.
Furthermore this time there was no urgency on the date since it has been previously agreed that even when the chair was to be handed to Venezuela, Uruguay would continue conducting the talks for a trade agreement with the European Union, which took off strongly, in the first half, after Argentina changed policy with president Mauricio Macri. Besides Venezuela is not part of the negotiations which were started almost two decades ago.
However the Uruguayan government also has its own internal problems. Even when president Vázquez and minister Nin Novoa favor a strong open policy to all world markets, a significant part of the ruling coalition despises such a policy, and wants Uruguay to express full support for Maduro, Venezuela and the ideological Mercosur of ex presidents Jose Mujica, Lula da Silva and Cristina Fernandez.
Vazquez also faces a tough road ahead to approve an austerity budget which that same significant percentage of his ruling coalition is not willing to support.
A fragile consensus was reached when Argentine foreign minister Susana Malcorra visited Montevideo last week and said there was an agreement to hand the chair to Venezuela next week in a formal ceremony with no presidential summit.
This is an institutional decision, keeping to the rules, we know about the political situation in Venezuela, maybe event with some authoritarian traits; but there will be no political argument to further suspend the handing of the chair to Venezuela, pointed out Nin Novoa, despite the protests from Paraguay.
No wonder the surprise landing of Serra and heavyweight ex president Cardoso in Montevideo.
The situation however will be addressed next Monday in Montevideo, at foreign ministers level. This was agreed by the four Mercosur original members, and responds to a request from Paraguay for such a meeting which had been postponed (when not ignored) several times by current chair Uruguay.
Another issue is the apparent change of position from Argentina following on president Mauricio Macri's very critical statements on Venezuela from Berlin. He described the Venezuela situation as painful with a government that is holding political prisoners and s condemning its population to starvation
The August request by Brazil also overlaps another critical issue in Venezuela: validation of signatures for a recall referendum to remove Maduro from office. The Venezuelan opposition says it has more than ten times the needed signatures to begin the process, but the Electoral court is dragging its feet. And Maduro is threatening to close the National Assembly which is dominated by the opposition. The catch is if the recall referendum is finally approved before September, it must take place in the following six months. If not it will have to wait.