Caracas to Become Mercosur Member; Chavez Request Seen as Political

Article excerpt

Byline: Kenneth Rapoza, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

SAO PAULO, Brazil - Venezuela will be welcomed as the fifth member of Mercosur, South America's largest trade group, when presidents of the member countries meet in Montevideo, Uruguay, today, a Brazilian official said.

Jose Eduardo Martins Fel'cio, Brazil's deputy secretary-general for South America, said member states Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay had agreed to accept Venezuela as a full-fledged member of the Common Market of the Southern Cone, better known as Mercosur.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez formally asked in July to become a member of Mercosur, which he sees as a counterweight to U.S. influence in the region. His country's acceptance into the group likely has more political than commercial ramifications because Venezuela's trade with Mercosur is minimal.

Argentine President Nestor Kirchner has been pressuring counterparts in the other member countries to bring Venezuela on board as quickly as possible.

"Argentina sees Chavez as a counterweight to Brazilian power in Mercosur," said Walder Goes, a political analyst in Brasilia.

Mr. Goes added that although Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva likes Mr. Chavez, he would not want to be seen as jeopardizing Brazil's strong relationship with Washington.

U.S.-Venezuelan relations have been rocky ever since Mr. Chavez took office in 1998. Mr. Chavez is dead set against Washington's plan to create a hemispherewide free-trade agreement, called the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), and has called for an alternative trade agreement to provide more government profits for social needs.

Mercosur negotiates as a bloc with the United States on all FTAA matters.

"Kirchner and Chavez are both anti-Washington and will have a lot in common on international economic policy and foreign trade matters," Mr. …