Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva arrived in Montevideo on Wednesday to meet with his Uruguayan counterpart, centre-right leader Luis Lacalle Pou, with the future of the Mercosur trade bloc on the table.
The Brazilian leader, howevr, also found time to deliver a boost to the country’s left-wing opposition by sharing facetime with key leaders and his friend, former president José 'Pepe' Mujica.
"The visit will highlight the centrality attributed by Brazil to the relationship with Uruguay" and its "importance ... within the project to strengthen Mercosur, one of the priorities of the new Brazilian government,” the Brazilian Presidency said in a statement released before the trip.
Mercosur is going through a deep crisis due to Uruguay's decision to negotiate a free-trade agreement with China and attempt to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement without the support of its partners Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, who have warned that the bloc could collapse as a result of the moves.
While former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro (2019-2022) adopted a similar position to Uruguay, calling for a liberalisation of the trade rules of the bloc to explore bilateral trade agreements with countries outside the region, Lula agrees with the strong objections put forward Buenos Aires and Asunción.
The three countries argue that the bloc's founding treaty states that any free-trade agreement with nations outside Mercosur requires the approval of all members of the group, and that breaking that rule jeopardises its future.
Brazilian officials said on Tuesday in Buenos Aires, on the sidelines of the CELAC summit, that it believes Mercosur should remain as it is.
"We believe that Mercosur should be preserved," stressed Celso Amorim, the former foreign minister during Lula's first presidencies and now a senior adviser to the president, a day before landing in Montevideo.
"We are going to talk. The idea of preservation includes the common external tariff. This is something that is not a demand of Brazil or Argentina, it is the first article of the Treaty of Asunción," said Amorim.
That article of Mercosur's founding text enshrines "the establishment of a common external tariff and the adoption of a common trade policy in relation to third states or groupings of states, and the coordination of positions in regional or international economic and trade forums."
Uruguay considers that Argentina and Brazil have already adopted bilateral measures within the bloc, such as reductions in the Common External Tariff, and maintains that other founding principles, such as a customs union or a common market, have not been fulfilled.
At a press conference in Buenos Aires, President Lacalle Pou recalled that "the definition" of opening up his country's trade to third parties was adopted in Uruguay several governments ago.
His government has decided to move forward with an FTA with China, which has publicly expressed its interest in negotiating with Uruguay. The two countries are moving forward with talks after carrying out a feasibility study. The situation is creating problems with the governments of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, who have even threatened Montevideo with legal and commercial measures in response.
The tension within the bloc is palpable.
On Monday, Argentina's Economy Minister Sergio Massa, joined at an event by his Brazilian counterpart Fernando Haddad, said that "Uruguay is one of Mercosur's younger brothers and Brazil and Argentina have the responsibility to look after it like any other younger brother.”
Asked about this statement, Lacalle Pou replied: "It seems like Disneyland.”
Support for the opposition
After a meeting with Lacalle Pou at the presidential residence, Lula plans to visit the mayor of Montevideo, Carolina Cosse, one of the main figures of the opposition Frente Amplio (FA) coalition.
The left-wing coalition, which was in power for 15 years during the presidencies of Tabaré Vázquez (2005-2010, 2015-2020) and Mujica (2010-2015), used its social media accounts to call on supporters and activists to turn out in large numbers for Lula and "in defence of democracy and Latin American integration.”
The Brazilian will receive a medal for his contribution to the environment from the hands of Cosse, in a public ceremony from a balcony of Montevideo City Hall.
At the end of the trip, accompanied by his wife Rosangela, Lula will make a last stop at Mujica's farm in Rincón del Cerro, a rural area west of Montevideo. The president of the Frente Amplio, Fernando Pereira, could also take part in the meeting.
The meetings with Frente Amplio leaders have caused discomfort among some members of the government, as they are seen as a strong endorsement of the opposition in a pre-election year.
"It represents an act of internal politics by establishing a clear preference for a particular political party in the country," said former president Julio María Sanguinetti (1985-1990, 1995-2000) in statements to the local daily El País.
by Gabriela Vaz, AFP