As we mentioned earlier this month, recent times have seen a degree of friction between the foreign ministries of various South American states.
The crux of these strained relations has been Venezuela’s upcoming presidency of Mercosur, the free trade bloc that encompasses many of the region’s larger economies: Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and, of course, the Bolivarian Republic itself. Several members – most notably Brazil – had moved to block Venezuela from taking up the rotating presidency, suggesting that a country in the throes of an increasingly authoritarian political situation and near-total economic collapse makes an unsuitable flag-bearer for an organization that promotes human rights and free trade.
But now, the situation has escalated, with efforts not just to relieve Venezuela of the presidency but also threatening suspension of its Mercosur membership.
On Tuesday, the 4 remaining members put on a rare united front, issuing a joint memorandum citing as grounds for suspension Venezuela’s broken commitment to civil liberties under the 2005 Asunción Protocol and failing to implement a joint economic accord, the core obligations Venezuela undertook when it ascended to full membership of the bloc in 2012. At the time, the country was given 4 years to comply but, beset by well-documented economic and political difficulties, the clock has run down without any meaningful progress being achieved. Under the terms of the latest agreement, Venezuela now faces a deadline of 1st December; otherwise it will revert to associate membership.
The ultimatum is an effort “preserve and strengthen” the bloc, according to a statement issued by the Brazilian Foreign Ministry. On the flip side Venezuelan foreign minister Delcy Rodríguez eschewed conventional diplomatic channels by rejecting the memorandum on Twitter, later accusing her nation’s former partners of using “an illegal ruse” to bring down Mercosur itself.
While the reaction of the latter may touch on the histrionic, this latest development probably ought not to be thought of as purely a matter of procedure. Indeed, there is precedent for Mercosur affiliation being leveraged as a political tool to intervene in the domestic affairs of its members.
In 2012, when the Pink Tide was still in full flood, the left-leaning governments of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay successfully lobbied for the suspension of Paraguay’s membership following the deposition of socialist president Fernando Lugo. 4 years on, and with the emergence of a “new right” across Latin America – notably in Mercosur heavyweights Brazil and Argentina – the organization is being used for a similar purpose: to apply pressure to the already-embattled socialist government in Caracas How stark an example of the Latin American political see-saw this polar reversal of internal Mercosur politics is.
In any case, President Nicolás Maduro will have to look beyond regional blocs to top up his increasingly diminished coterie of allies. And perhaps he will find some among attendees of the XVII Conference of Non-Aligned Nations, which kicks off tomorrow on the Isla de Margarita. At the very least, Bolivian premier and long-term supporter Evo Morales should provide a sympathetic shoulder to cry on.
In the meantime, the squabbling of its members has the side-effect of stalling official Mercosur business, most notably negotiations for a reciprocal trade deal with the European Union. However, hopefully both teams of negotiators can take heart from the fact that they are not the only trans-national economic union currently suffering a crisis of confidence.