ASUNCION, Paraguay, Jan. 7 (UPI) -- Venezuela's hopes of an early inclusion into the Mercosur trading bloc suffered a new blow as Paraguayan Vice President Federico Franco ruled out ratification of the pact while Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez harbored designs on the landlocked state.
Paraguay is the last stumbling block in Venezuela's long-drawn-out effort to win a seat on the Mercosur Council. Brazil ratified Venezuela's membership last year amid bitter arguments between pragmatists led by President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and critics of Chavez's suppression of the Venezuelan opposition and independent media.
The Brazilian Senate vote appeared to have brought Venezuela's membership closer to reality, but then problems began as the focus of the dispute shifted to Paraguay's Congress.
Chavez has angered politicians across a wide spectrum in Paraguay, as he did in Brazil, and opinions remain sharply divided over Venezuela's entry.
Brazil backs the inclusion, arguing Venezuela's voracious appetite for consumer goods and luxury items will boost regional trade. Critics see the Brazilian position as Lula's strategy to expand his power base within Mercosur and therefore are reluctant to see the motion for Venezuela's admission through. Still others are arrayed against Chavez himself, because of his fiery rhetoric that tends to singe all and sundry in its path. Chavez has made enemies where none existed until a few years ago.
Mercosur has ambitions to lead Latin America into a viable free-trade zone but currently has only four full members -- Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay -- that are in, and one, Venezuela, that is waiting in the wings. Venezuela applied to join in 2006.
Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru have associate-member status.
Moderate politicians fear the Chavez factor will further politicize Mercosur and open up divisions where they are cloaked in diplomacy. There is also widespread concern that Chavez will add Mercosur to his list of forums he uses to launch tirades against the United States, Colombia and Peru.
Franco indicated he foresaw no breakthrough until Chavez changed.
"Chavez has an imperial attitude towards Paraguay," he said in an interview with Paraguayan newspaper ABC. "He tends to accuse other countries of imperialism, but he's the only imperialist when it comes to Paraguay," said Franco, MercoPress reported.
Franco has a running dispute with President Fernando Lugo and differs on key policy issues with his senior. He said Paraguay as the last country holding out Venezuela's ratification had to choose between Mercosur's survival or death.
Within Congress, however, politicians hinted Paraguay may come round to the Brazilian view that it is better to have Venezuela within Mercosur rather than outside it.
Lugo openly supports Chavez and his administration, but he faces stiff resistance from the opposition-dominated Senate. The next round of congressional discussion on Venezuela's entry into Mercosur is expected to begin in March.