* "Maduro win would be best" -Brazil's foreign trade lobby
* Exports to Venezuela soared under Chavez
* Lucrative construction projects run by Brazilians
By Esteban Israel
SAO PAULO, March 21 If Brazil's business leaders
could vote in Venezuela's election next month, they would cast
their ballots for Hugo Chavez's political heir, acting president
They never supported the anti-capitalist bluster of Chavez,
who died of cancer last month, but they hope to hold on to
lucrative contracts for food exports and construction projects
that he signed with Brazil's former leftist leader Luiz Inacio
Lula da Silva and his successor, Dilma Rousseff.
"In the near term, a Maduro win would be best," said Jose
Augusto de Castro, head of Brazil's Foreign Trade Association.
Brazil, the world's seventh largest economy, has emerged as
regional powerbroker in Latin America with moderate center-left
policies that it hopes can influence more stridently left-wing
neighbors such as Venezuela.
With Brazil's economy slowing to a crawl, the last thing its
entrepreneurs want to do is forfeit growing markets.
Over the past decade, Brazil's exports to Venezuela soared
by 533 percent to some $5 billion, making it Brazil's second
largest market in Latin America after Argentina, both major
buyers of Brazilian manufactured goods. Economists say Brazil's
investments in Venezuela are around $20 billion.
Venezuela, an oil producing nation that imports some 70
percent of its food, is now the third largest consumer of
Brazilian beef and an important buyer of its chicken.
Key infrastructure projects launched during the 14 years of
Chavez's government, from the Caracas metro expansion to bridges
across the Orinoco river that divides Venezuela, are run by
Brazilian firms like Odebrecht.
Polls ahead of Venezuela's April 14 election should relieve
Brazilians with commercial interests there. One independent
survey shows Maduro, who as Chavez's former foreign minister is
already known in Brazil, with a 14.4 percent lead over his
opponent, Henrique Capriles.
"Many see his election as favorable to Brazil's presence in
Venezuela," said Pedro Silva Barros, an economist at Brazil's
Institute for Applied Economic Research (IPEA) in Caracas.
"Businesses are working with this scenario."
Chavez's close ties with Lula protected Brazilian firms from
Venezuela's frequent nationalizations, foreign exchange controls
and barriers to repatriating profits that scared competitors out
of the oil producing OPEC nation.
"We have a good relationship with Venezuela and Chavez's
death should not harm business there," said Ricardo Santin,
market director at Brazil's Poultry Union.
Odebrecht's presence is so strong that Chavez even joked
that he had tried to convert the firm's president to socialism.
The company has 8,000 employees in Venezuela, with nine
projects, including a 2.15 megawatt dam in the Amazon.
Andrade Gutierrez, another Brazilian construction firm, has
its largest project on the continent in Venezuela: a $3.8
billion steel plant.
While businesses from other countries see Venezuela as a
hostile environment, the willingness of Brazilian companies to
do business there can be explained in part by the backing they
get from Brazil's state BNDES development bank, which absorbs
part of the risk by providing financing for projects.
Despite the close ties, Chavez's death has generated some
uncertainty for deals that haven't been finalized yet.
In his last visit to Brazil in July 2012, Chavez bought six
E-190 planes from Embraer for $271 million. The
option for Embraer to sell an additional 14 planes for $630
million is still up in the air.
The most ambitious uncompleted project is the Abreu e Lima
oil refinery in northeast Brazil. Eight years after Chavez and
Lula signed off on the project to symbolize their alliance,
Venezuela's state-run PDVSA still hasn't put up the
40 percent financing promised to Brazil's Petrobras.
Some in Brazil's business community say Maduro lacks the
charisma needed to take the relationship to the next level and
close such deals. They expect Maduro to basically continue
Chavez's policies, to the benefit of Brazil.
"If you look at the economic returns, a Maduro victory would
- in theory - be better for Brazil," said foreign trade lobbyist