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Venezuela's Mercosur entry still uncertain

RIO DE JANEIRO, Dec. 11 (UPI) -- Venezuela's hopes of becoming a full member of the Mercosur trade bloc suffered another blow when the Brazilian opposition blocked a Senate vote that would have approved the country's long-delayed entry.

Opponents of Venezuela's incorporation in Mercosur want Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to reverse what they see as his undemocratic practices.

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During the heated debate in the Senate, critics of Chavez cited his suppression of the opposition and independent media and argued for postponement of ratification till they saw a significant change in policies in Caracas.

Business leaders and President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva want an early ratification, however. Lula favors continued engagement with Chavez despite his widely criticized policies, while Brazil's business community has its eyes on Venezuela's oil-fueled consumer market and opportunities for joint ventures.

Mercosur is made up of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, with Venezuela awaiting Brazilian ratification. Bolivia, Ecuador and Chile are associate members.

Venezuela asked to join Mercosur as a full member in 2006, but events triggered mainly by Chavez's fiery rhetoric left the ratification process in limbo. The Argentine and Uruguayan legislatures have already approved Venezuela's entry as full member but, in addition to Brazil, a vote is pending in the Paraguayan Senate, which is dominated by the country's opposition.

Chavez upset many Brazilian senators when he accused them of being puppets of "U.S. imperialism" and unrepresentative of the people.

The row has boiled over a few times and Chavez has indicated he takes ratification seriously. He is being backed by pragmatists and moderates in the Brazilian business and political communities.

Chavez has demonstrated in the past he thinks nothing of reacting to every slight by cutting trade, canceling projects or putting the offending country on his personal blacklist irrespective of economic consequences.

In a continuing bitter quarrel with Colombia over its agreement to host U.S. forces at military bases involved in the anti-narcotics fight, Chavez widened retaliation by canceling imports of Colombian goods.

Still, Brazilian opposition remains defiant and demanding of Chavez. "It's inadmissible that we should be discussing the incorporation into Mercosur of a country, of a president, of a dictator which practices a strange totalitarian democracy," opposition conservative Senator Katia Abreu said.

Although the opinion is shared even among adherents of Lula's Workers Party, the government has sought to calm the opposition and soften the criticism of Chavez within and outside Parliament.

As Caracas continues its attempts to isolate Colombia economically, Brazil has emerged as one of the beneficiaries. Trade between Brazil and Venezuela is booming.

At this week's Mercosur summit in Montevideo, Uruguay, Lula and Chavez frequently appeared together for photographs.

Political activists who seek to promote Mercosur as a viable trading bloc want the problems with Chavez ironed out at the earliest. The summit's failure to secure agreements on regional trade raised concern that the Chavez issue could drive further divisions within the bloc.

At the Montevideo summit, the 38th since the trade bloc was formed, member countries failed to reach a consensus on the elimination of a continuing double charge of the common external tariff. The unpopular law currently requires any product that enters a member country to be subjected to another tariff if it is transferred to a third member country.

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