South American Giants Look to Mexico

By Leandro Prada | July 7, 2008 | 8:18pm EDT

Buenos Aires ( - The leaders of South America's two largest countries have visited Mexico in recent days in an effort to improve ties with a country viewed as an important regional player, energy source, and large-market economy.

Brazil's President Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva is currently visiting Mexico, fresh on the heels of Argentine President Nestor Kirchner, who during his visit last week criticized U.S. border fence plans and tried to lure Mexico into the South American Mercosur trade bloc.

Kirchner's visit also witnessed the signing of a Strategic Association Agreement seeking to align Mexican and Argentinean political positions in international forums such as the United Nations.

Kirchner was accompanied by his wife, Cristina de Kirchner, who recently announced she would run in October presidential elections.

Addressing Mexican lawmakers, Kirchner said a proposed 700-mile fence along the Mexico-U.S. border was "an insult" to Mexico and to "all the nations of Latin America and all the nations of the world."

Relations between Argentina and Mexico have been chilly since 2005, when -- at an Argentina-hosted Summit of the Americas -- former Mexican president Vicente Fox criticized Kirchner for his opposition to the U.S.-supported Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Kirchner responded by telling Fox to mind his own business.

With Felipe Calderon now serving as president of Mexico, Kirchner is not only trying to improve ties, but is also playing an intermediary role in encouraging better relations between Mexico and Venezuela. Due to differences between Fox and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, each of the two countries has not had an ambassador posted in the other's capital.

Asked about the issue during a brief joint press conference held by the Argentine and Mexican presidents, Kirchner said, "I have told my friend, the Mexican president, that Argentina advocates for the deepening and improvement of relations between Mexico and Venezuela, because we want all countries in the region working together, strengthening bilateral and bloc relationships."

Venezuela's anti-American president leads a regional drive aimed at solidifying a Latin American bloc and weakening countries' ties with the United States. Kirchner, who is viewed as an ally of Chavez, wields considerable influence as leader of South America's second-largest country.

Since 1998, Venezuela has wanted to join Mercosur, a regional trade agreement comprising Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay.

During his visit to Mexico, Kirchner said Mercosur members want Mexico also to become a member. Mexico is a member of the NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) with the U.S. and Canada.

Argentine political analyst Carlos Fara told Cybercast News Service that the Bush administration "will not be at all happy" about the developments. "But it has no choice," he added, echoing criticism by some foreign policy analysts in the U.S. about Washington's perceived neglect of Latin America. "They left the region alone for too long."

Even so, Fara played down Chavez's ability to rally Latin America behind his agenda and to exert leadership in the region. Among other things, he said, "Brazil will never stand behind anyone."

Carlos Germano, an Argentinean political campaign specialist, said despite Kirchner's differences with the U.S., he should not be viewed in the same light as Chavez.

He noted that when Chavez invited Kirchner to visit Cuba, the Argentinean leader had declined.

"This proves that the current Kirchner administration aims at holding a good relationship with the United States," Germano said. "Nestor Kirchner does not seek a government like the one held by Hugo Chavez, and the project of Argentina as a country may not be equated to the one presented by Venezuela."

The government of Brazil's Da Silva, who began his visit to Mexico on Sunday, has sounded less enthusiastic about the idea of expanding Mercosur membership to include Mexico.

Brazilian foreign ministry official Gonzalo Mourao told a press conference beforehand that Da Silva would not discuss Mercosur membership with Calderon as "the issue is not on the table for now."

Da Silva foreign policy advisor Marco Aurelio Garcia said in an interview published by the Argentine newspaper Clarin that a common tariff set by Mercosur -- which can be up to 35 percent for some imports -- "makes it impossible for Mexico to [become] a decision-making part of the Mercosur. Its association with the United States and Canada does not allow this."

Brazil's stance on Venezuelan membership in Mercosur has been mixed. Da Silva has approved Venezuela's entry, but the Brazilian Congress - which leans more conservative - has delayed its approval. Mercosur members' legislatures are required to approve any expansion of the bloc's membership.

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