BENTO GONÇALVES, Brazil – The Mercosur trade bloc’s four members said during their biannual summit Thursday in southern Brazil that they remained committed to free-market policies and free trade, and delivered a clear message against protectionism and the ideologies of the past.
The summit was held in Bento Gonçalvez, a city in the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul, where Paraguay took over the trade bloc’s rotating presidency from Brazil.
The summit’s host, ultra-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, handed over Mercosur’s presidency to his Paraguayan counterpart, Mario Abdo Benitez.
The summit was also attended by Argentine President Mauricio Macri and Uruguayan Vice President Lucia Topolansky.
Mercosur, which was created by the 1991 Asuncion Treaty, counts Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay as members.
Macri, who will be succeeded by Alberto Fernandez on Dec. 10, bid farewell to the trade bloc in an address.
The Argentine head of state urged Mercosur’s members to pursue “intelligent integration” and expand efforts to bolster democracy and dialogue in “these times of turmoil and tension.”
“The problems in a democracy are resolved with more democracy and more dialogue,” Macri told Argentina’s Mercosur partners in his last appearance before the trade bloc as head of state.
Macri said Argentina was fully committed “to democracy, liberty and human rights.”
Some of the messages coming out of the summit, in fact, appeared aimed at Fernandez, a progressive Peronist who will not be in tune with the conservative bent of Mercosur.
Bolsonaro reviewed the policies implemented in Brazil since he took office on Jan. 1, telling the officials attending the summit that his administration’s free-market focus should be adopted by the trade bloc.
He offered a hand to Uruguay and Paraguay, the smallest economies in the trade bloc, saying that Brazil would provide 12 million reais ($3 million) for Mercosur’s Structural Convergence Fund (Focem).
The Brazilian leader criticized the “excessive rates” charged by the trade bloc, referring to the common external tariff, which Brazil has proposed reducing or completely eliminating with the backing until now of Argentina and Paraguay.
Fernandez, however, supposedly intends to reject any cuts to the common external tariff being negotiated and to impose protectionist policies to deal with Argentina’s severe economic problems.
Bolsonaro, who has called Fernandez a “leftist bandit,” has refused to congratulate the president-elect on his victory over Macri and said he would not attend the inauguration in Buenos Aires next week.
The ultra-right president said Mercosur’s members “cannot accept ideological reverses” that could create obstacles on the road to free trade.
Macri, a strong ally of Bolsonaro, discussed the situation in Bolivia following the resignation of leftist President Evo Morales, saying that the “only way to channel the will of the Bolivian people” was through new elections.
Macri urged the trade bloc to support the Venezuelan people as they continue to endure a “trampling” at the hands of leftist leader Nicolas Maduro.
Mercosur should “continue fighting ... to restore democracy” in Venezuela, Macri said.
Topolansky attended the summit in place of President Tabare Vazquez, who is battling cancer, and expressed a different view of the situation in the region.
“This meeting is being held amid a regional context of great concern,” Topolansky said, noting that “several countries in the region have been rocked by protests, economic and political crises, and even coups.”
A short time later, Bolsonaro, not realizing he was on a hot mike, appeared to make a comment about the address delivered by Topolansky, the wife of leftist former Uruguayan President Jose “Pepe” Mujica.
Bolsonaro approached Abdo Benitez and told him, “Every time they lose, they say it’s a coup.”
Abdo Benitez said the Paraguayan presidency of Mercosur would seek, among other goals, to speed up the legal review process for the trade deal with the European Union.
The process of reviewing the common external tariff will continue and efforts will be made to implement the agreements reached at the summit in Brazil, Abdo Benitez said.
One of the agreements authorizes police officers in other Mercosur member countries to enter the territory of other members of the bloc if they are in hot pursuit of criminals.