24 November 2007

Argentina Breaks With Venezuela Over Free Trade And Middle East

(Nov. 24, 2007) Argentina's President Elect Cristina Kirchner distanced herself from the political agenda of Venezuela President Chávez on Monday by proposing a Mercosur-Israel free trade agreement (FTA) during her visit to Brazil. The proposal is a diplomatic counter punch to Venezuela's open support for Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the OPEC meeting in Saudi Arabia last week.

The proposal was greeted by Brazilian President Lula Da Silva and will be presented officially by Kirchner at the Mercosur reunion of heads of state in Montevideo, Uruguay in December. The announcement was also a signal that Chávez would not control the political agenda of Mercosur if Venezuela is accepted as a member, as seems increasingly probable after Brazil's Senate voted yes to Venezuela's petition to join the union. During the Senate debate it was noted that Chávez would do less damage inside the group than outside of it.

That the proposal was announced by Kirchner in Brazil and on her first visit as a future head of state signals a shift in Argentina's foreign policy. Until now Argentina closely backed Chávez's foreign policy because of the debt of gratitude it owed Venezuela for buying US$3.1 billion of Argentina's debt in 2006. However, Monday's announcement was a clear sign that Kirchner will support liberal economic policies over Chávez's brand of twenty-first century socialism, further isolating Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador within the South America community.

It now remains to be seen what effect the proposed FTA with Israel will have on the upcoming December reunion in Uruguay and whether Chávez will withdraw his country's bid for admission to Mercosur. Ironically, Ecuador's President Rafael Correa recently invited Venezuela back to the Andean Community (CAN) after it withdrew in 2006 in opposition to proposed FTA's between the U.S., Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador, in favor of the more "left-wing" Mercosur. It now seems that Chávez is rethinking this decision and will discuss Venezuela's possible return to the Andean Community at a meeting also to be held in December.

All of this shuffling between sub regional blocks begs the question of what happened to Unasur, the 12 nation South American union created in 2004 to unite Mercosur, CAN, and the non-member nations of Chile, Guyana, and Suriname. Internal disputes, largely by and about Chávez, seem to have distracted the region from issues of strategic interest. Perhaps Argentina's new tack will isolate Venezuela's president enough to allow the rest of the continent to rise above the petty squabbling seen at the recent Iberoamerican Summit in Santiago, enabling leaders to return to the more pressing challenge of alleviating poverty and developing their human resources at home.

By Nathan Gill - Southern Affairs