Brazil, Argentina step up pressure on Venezuela's Maduro

BRASILIA (Reuters) - Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro and Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri said after their first meeting on Wednesday that they agreed on opposing Venezuela’s authoritarian government, with Macri calling Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro a “dictator.”

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks during a special session of the National Constituent Assembly to present his annual state of the nation in Caracas, Venezuela January 14, 2019. Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS

They also agreed to continue integrating their economies by “perfecting” the South American trade bloc Mercosur and pressing ahead with negotiations that are already underway, such as an almost completed free-trade accord with the European Union.

Bolsonaro’s commitment to Mercosur contrasted with his criticism of the customs union during his election campaign, when he said it had become a leftist political forum and not a tool to boost trade.

But since he took office on Jan. 1, Mercosur’s two largest members are now working in tandem on conservative agendas of free-market, business-friendly reforms and the strengthening of democracy in the region.

Bolsonaro and Macri agree on joining the United States in ramping up pressure for democratic change in Venezuela, whose leftist government they consider illegitimate.

“Our cooperation with Argentina on the Venezuelan question it the clearest example of a convergence of positions and shared values,” Bolsonaro said after meeting with Macri.

Argentine Foreign Minister Jorge Faurie said the only legally constituted power in Venezuela was the opposition-run Congress, whose leader the Trump administration is considering recognizing as the country’s legitimate president.

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Macri and Bolsonaro “agree we want to defend freedom and the recovery of democracy in Venezuela,” Faurie told reporters.

Argentina and Brazil also signed a new extradition treaty to increase their cooperation in fighting organized crime, drug trafficking, corruption and money laundering.

In a joint statement, the presidents vowed to review Mercosur’s common external tariff, improve access to markets and move forward with trade facilitation and regulatory convergence.

Brazil is Argentina’s largest trade partner and Argentina is the main destination for Brazilian manufactured goods. But trade often took a back seat during leftist governments in both countries during the last decade and a half.

There has been a big drop in trade flows in recent years, when Argentina exported less to Brazil and Mercosur, as a whole, became less important to Brazil as a percentage of its global trade, dropping to 8.7 percent last year from 10.8 in 2011.

Bolsonaro would like to see more flexible rules allowing Brazil to negotiate bilateral agreements outside the bloc. His economy minister Paulo Guedes has said Mercosur restricts Brazil too much and would not be a priority.

Wednesday’s presidential meeting showed Mercosur is still high on Brazil’s agenda.

“Brazil will be a strong ally in building an integrated region,” Bolsonaro said. “We are confident Mercosur can be modernized.”

This could happen with two presidents who want to revamp the trade block, said Oliver Stuenkel, assistant professor of International Relations at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo.

“There is an opportunity because now we have two governments that agree it has not delivered and there is a need to re-energize Mercosur or whatever takes its place,” Stuenkel said.

Reporting by Anthony Boadle, Marcela Ayres and Ricardo Brito; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Susan Thomas