Mercosur Blues

SANTIAGO – When the leaders of Mercosur met in Caracas this week, the usual bluster about standing up to imperialism filled the air. But so did the unmistakable scent of decay.

Mercosur is usually described as a trade grouping; in fact, it has been a political creation from the start. Brazil, the regional powerhouse, always viewed it as a counterweight to the United States in hemispheric affairs. Peronist governments in Argentina used it to hype integration while doing little or nothing to remove actual barriers to trade. With the entrance of Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela in 2006, the lurch toward populism became unmistakable.

As a Chilean government minister late last decade, I remember the frustration of attending Mercosur gatherings (Chile is an associate member). They were long on posturing and endless speeches, but short on substantive agreements about anything.

At the 2006 summit in Córdoba, when Chávez and Fidel Castro dueled over who could deliver the longest and most rambling address, spirits were running high. Bolivia, also governed by a charismatic populist, was keen to develop closer ties. Ecuador soon followed suit. And a smattering of smaller countries in Central America and the Caribbean fell into political line in exchange for generous infusions of Venezuelan cash and oil. Back then, Mercosur leaders could claim to offer an “alternative development model” for the region. No more.