BRASILIA, Brazil - VENEZUELA was officially welcomed into the Mercosur trade bloc yesterday, giving that nation's leader Hugo Chavez a long-awaited political prize and strengthening links among the region's agricultural and energy powerhouses.
The inclusion of Venezuela also deepens a political rift within the South American trade group. Paraguay, which long blocked Venezuela's entry, remains temporarily suspended from the bloc in response to the congressional ouster of that nation's president.
"The incorporation of Venezuela alters the strategic positioning of the bloc, which will now extend from the Caribbean to the extreme south of the continent," Brazil's Foreign Ministry said in a emailed statement. "Mercosur is also positioning itself as a global energy power in renewable and non-renewable resources."
Brazilian leader Dilma Rousseff hosted Argentina's President Cristina Kirchner and Uruguay's Jose Mujica along with Chavez for the one-day Mercosur meeting in Brasilia.
Venezuela had been an associate member of Mercosur, like Bolivia, Chile, Colombia and Peru. Chavez had been trying to get full status for years, but was blocked because Paraguay's legislature wouldn't vote to allow Venezuela in.
The full members of Mercosur have veto rights over decisions the bloc makes.
Paraguay's former leader Fernando Lugo was impeached by the country's Congress in June in a fast-track trial triggered by a land eviction that killed 17 people in clashes between police and landless peasants.
At a Mercosur summit in Argentina last month, Kirchner told other heads of state that the "democratic order was broken" in Paraguay because it carried out a two-hour trial where Lugo was not allowed a proper defence.
The full members then decided to suspend Paraguay from Mercosur until it holds presidential elections next year.
Mercosur has barred Lugo's replacement, former Vice- President Federico Franco, from attending meetings of the trade bloc. Franco has said the transition of power in Paraguay was carried out according to the law.
With Paraguay suspended, Kirchner and Rousseff quickly moved to push Venezuela's entry into the Mercosur.
"We've waited for this day for many years. For Venezuela, it's very important, because this is our path, it's our project, a South American union," Chavez told reporters after meeting with Rousseff, according to Brazil's state-run news agency Agencia Brasil. "And for Mercosur a gigantic door has opened — Mercosur is now Caribbean."