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Vying for leadership, Lula heads north, Chávez south

LATIN AMERICA: Vying for Leadership, Lula Heads North, Chávez South

By Humberto Márquez

CARACAS, Aug 9 2007 (IPS) — Political and economic alliances with a view to strengthening Latin American integration are subtly shifting as Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva visits Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean this week and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez tours Argentina, Uruguay, Ecuador and Bolivia.

While Chávez is signing energy security accords and offering Argentina and Uruguay attractive deals on oil and gas, a refinery for Ecuador and a gas plant in Bolivia, Lula has reached agreements to boost production of ethanol or biodiesel based on sugar cane or African palm in Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama and Jamaica.

Lula invited Mexico to join the Mercosur (Southern Common Market) trade bloc made up of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, with Venezuela in the process of admission, as part of the search for "stronger integration in Latin America," and called for a free trade treaty between Central America and Mercosur.

Chávez maintained his anti-imperialist discourse at each stop along his tour. He warned that Washington is "moving its pieces to keep Venezuela from joining Mercosur, but will fail in its attempt" — an allusion to the delay by the Brazilian and Paraguayan parliaments in approving Venezuela’s application for admission as the bloc’s fifth full member.

Lula, whose administration has been marked by a pragmatic, moderate international policy, did not hesitate in Nicaragua, for example, in invoking the militant leftist past he shares with his host Daniel Ortega, who decided to welcome large-scale production of ethanol, although not based on corn but other crops.

Chávez and Cuban leader Fidel Castro have lashed out against Washington and Brazil’s ethanol offensive, arguing that crops should be produced for food, not fuel, even though Venezuela and Cuba have signed projects for producing ethanol from sugar cane, as an additive for gasoline.

The Venezuelan president "is throwing a cordon around Brazil, marking a greater regional presence based on a flood of agreements with its other neighbours, while the Brazilian leader has shown that he is not willing to engage in any degree of dependence whatsoever with his oil-producing neighbour," Ítalo Luongo, a professor of the geopolitics of oil at Venezuela’s Central University, told IPS.

"What happened is that geopolitics in the continent began to change after the Camp David (the U.S. presidential summer retreat) meeting" between Lula and his host President George W. Bush last March, "when Washington held out its hand to Brasilia to jointly establish an ‘ethanol empire’," political scientist Alberto Garrido at the University of Los Andes commented to IPS.

According to Garrido, "Brazil’s intelligent élite has seen a future as a global energy power, because ethanol will be for the United States, but from Brazil. That shift broke the Caracas-Brasilia-Buenos Aires hub, which is why we are now seeing that none less than the Brazilian giant is standing in the way of the projected gas pipeline of the south."

Chávez and presidents Néstor Kirchner of Argentina and Tabaré Vázquez of Uruguay have agreed on the construction of regasification plants for liquefied natural gas that Venezuela will transport in the next few years from its gas fields in the northeast to the Río de la Plata (River Plate) subregion, but by ship rather than the planned mega-pipeline.

The ambitious project for an 8,000-km pipeline that would cost more than 20 billion dollars and would have an as yet unestimated impact on the environment was referred to by Chávez on his tour as a mere possibility, after he complained in late July that the project was "cooling off" due to unspecified "attacks" from the project’s other partners.

"Who lies between Venezuela and the Río de la Plata?" asked Garrido. "Brazil, with Lula acting as a cushion between Brazil’s realpolitik and oil-geopolitics — Chávez’s project," he added, referring to the Brazilian parliament’s delay in approving Venezuela’s admission to Mercosur, which was formally announced in late 2005.

"For the first time, the ever preponderant Brazil is facing in the region another ‘star’ — Chávez — but Brasilia is not going to subordinate its interests nor withdraw its aspiration to become a global power and, for example, hold a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council," said Luongo.

Analysts like Michael Shifter at the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue also point to a growing distance between Chávez and Lula, neither of whom wants to subordinate himself to the other, although whenever either of the two leaders refers to the question, they say that nothing and no one will come between them.

The hinge, according to Garrido, lies in Bolivia, "the apple of contention in this geopolitics of energy since PDVSA (Venezuela’s state-owned oil monopoly) burst on the scene there last year as an investor, encroaching on Brazil’s Petrobras."

Chávez’s tour will end in Tarija, in southern Bolivia, where he and the presidents of Bolivia and Argentina, Evo Morales and Kirchner, will sign an agreement to build a natural gas liquids separation plant and other accords on "energy security."

Lula, meanwhile, in his drive for biofuels, has won over countries like Nicaragua and Jamaica — the latter is one of the leaders of the Caribbean Community, or CARICOM — which will also build (in the case of Nicaragua) and expand (in the case of Jamaica) refineries with Venezuelan capital.

 source: IPS