BRASILIA (AP) — The Brazilian president’s strong support of Venezuela’s authoritarian leader marred the unity Tuesday at a South American summit that Brazil convened in hopes of reviving a bloc of the region’s 12 politically polarized countries.
Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva proposed during his opening speech the creation of a regional currency to rival the U.S. dollar in his bid for the dozen countries to work more closely together.
But Lula’s warm embrace of Venezuela’s authoritarian leftist President Nicolás Maduro just ahead of the meeting drew pushback from some of his neighbors and threatened the sense of unity the Brazilian president was seeking.
Uruguay’s President Luis Lacalle Pou said the “worst thing we can do” is pretend there are no significant human rights problems in Venezuela.
Lula, in response, said that “no one is forced to agree with anybody”.
Lula wants to revive the Union of South American Nations, or Unasur, which launched in 2008 to boost cooperation but became largely defunct a decade later in disputes over leadership. Countries with right-leaning leaders at the time — including Brazil — saw the bloc as having a leftist bent and objected especially to the inclusion of Venezuela’s Maduro.
A former trade unionist who took office in January, Lula has moved to revive the blo c now that the region has a greater number of leftist and centrist leaders. He called a South America Summit for Tuesday in Brasilia, which drew all but one of the region’s presidents.
A day ahead of the meeting he hosted Maduro in their first bilateral meeting and came out in full support of the Venezuelan leader, calling it “absurd” for some governments not to recognize him as the duly elected leader. He also criticized economic sanctions that countries such as the U.S. have imposed to get Venezuela to liberalize its politics, calling them “completely exaggerated.”
Lula said it is up to Maduro to build his country’s “narrative” and “make Venezuela a sovereign country once again. And our opponents will have to apologize for the damage they’ve done.”
The Brazilian president drew criticism from colleagues in the region both on the right — Uruguay’s Lacalle — and the left — Chile’s President Gabriel Boric.
Boric suggested that Lula was making light of human rights violations in Venezuela by indicating they were merely a “narrative” that could be changed at will by the Venezuelan government.
“I showed respectfully my disagreement with what President Lula said yesterday, that the human rights situation in Venezuela was a ‘narrative.’ It’s not a narrative. It’s a reality, it is serious,” Boric told reporters on the sidelines of the conference.
At a press conference after the meeting, Lula said Maduro’s image was built on a narrative that Lula himself was also subjected to while running for elections. Questioned about differences among South American presidents, the Brazilian leader said that “there was a lot of respect about Maduro’s participation.”
Maduro did not answer questions after the summit and told reporters the meeting represented “a respectful dialogue, tolerance, with union among diversity.”
Lula, in his opening speech, had stressed the need for unity and consensus across the region. He said the group should discuss creating a currency to challenge the hegemony of the U.S. dollar, forging a common energy market, fighting climate change, and integrating the region’s defense and security.
“As long as we’re not united, we won’t make South America a developed continent in all its potential,” Lula said.
Lula’s predecessor, the right wing populist Jair Bolsonaro, had followed the lead of other right-leaning leaders and pulled Brazil out of Unasur in 2019. A key priority of Lula is to re-establish ties with regional neighbors severed under Bolsonaro.
Lula also is trying to reclaim Brazil’s role as regional leader, said Vanessa Matijascic, a foreign affairs professor at Armando Alvares Penteado Foundation in Sao Paulo.
“All countries recognize that when Brazil is absent from this collective effort of gathering 12 countries, each of them migrates to other agendas,” Matijascic said.
Pablo Ibañez, who teaches geopolitics at the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro, said it was urgent for Lula to mend ties with Venezuela in part because of their shared border and the need to deal with Venezuela migrants and refugees.
But he may have gone too far in his embrace of Maduro’s government, Ibañez said. “The Brazilian government gave massive ammunition to opposition groups,” Ibañez said.
Including Lula and Maduro, 11 South American presidents are attending the summit, as well as the leader of the Council of Ministers of Peru, where the president, Dina Boluarte, faces charges and cannot leave the country.
Political analysts say Lula sensed an opportunity for integration because of the political affinities of the region’s current governments, but they say it will be a challenge to have the bloc survive the region’s political shifts and instability.
Jorge Arias, Argentine director of the consultancy Polilat, said that Brazil would seek to “imprint a less ideological stamp” on the current integration initiative to achieve some unity and try to ensure that it lasts.
The 12 heads of state at Tuesday’s meeting signed the Brasilia Consensus, a document that reaffirms the need for regional integration in many areas, and establishes a contact group with each country’s foreign affairs’ minister to continue dialogue.
While the majority of South America’s current presidents are leftist or centrist, there’s no guarantee the situation will remain that way. This was underscored in May by the success of right-wingers in Chile in a vote to select commission members to write a new constitution. A similar swing toward the right is possible in Argentina, given that incumbent President Alberto Fernández will not seek reelection this year amid rampant inflation.
In a sign of the diverse initiatives on the minds of South American leaders, Colombia’s leftist President Gustavo Petro told reporters that Tuesday’s meeting could promote progress on climate change, by developing systems in which creditor nations provide debt relief for debtor nations in return for their committments to reduce carbon.
AP journalist Almudena Calatrava contributed to this story.