Economy & Trade, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

SOUTH AMERICA: Mercosur Summit Calls for Zelaya’s Return

Natalia Ruiz Díaz

ASUNCION, Jul 24 2009 (IPS) - The presidents of South America’s main trade bloc, Mercosur, demanded at their summit in Paraguay Friday the unconditional, peaceful return of ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya.

The Honduran leader, who was deposed by the military on Jun. 28, briefly crossed the border into his country Friday. But after taking just a few symbolic steps into the country, he returned to Nicaragua, saying he did not want to be the cause of violence.

At the end of the summit in the Paraguayan capital, presidents Fernando Lugo of Paraguay, Cristina Fernández of Argentina, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil, Tabaré Vázquez of Uruguay, Michelle Bachelet of Chile and Evo Morales of Bolivia, as well as representatives from Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela, issued a harshly worded statement condemning the coup in Honduras.

Mercosur (Southern Common Market) is made up of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, while Venezuela is in the process of becoming the fifth full member. Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru are associate members.

The presidents also urged the international community to continue to refuse to recognise the de facto regime headed by Roberto Micheletti or any elections held in Honduras unless the president is restored to power. General elections are scheduled to be held Nov. 29, and Zelaya’s term is to end in January.

Host President Lugo opened the summit with a call for the need to defend democracy in Latin America.

Lugo pointed out that until the current crisis in Honduras, all of the leaders of Latin America had been elected in free, transparent elections.

“This is a step backward that our region cannot tolerate,” Lula said.

Vázquez and Bachelet said elections called by the de facto regime in Honduras should not be recognised.

“This call to elections by an illegal, illegitimate government has no legal standing,” said an emphatic Vázquez.

For his part, Morales blamed the crisis on U.S. foreign policy. “In Latin America there are foreign groups or agents seeking to undermine democracy, the rights of the people, and especially participative democracy,” he said.

The presidents backed the decision reached early this month by the Organisation of American States (OAS) to expel Honduras from the regional body until the constitutional order is restored.

While the situation in Honduras was the main focus at the summit, the leaders also discussed how to deal with the global economic crisis, and the rotating presidency passed from Lugo to Vázquez, the presidents of the bloc’s two smallest members.

Paraguay and Uruguay complained about the protectionist policies adopted by Argentina and Brazil in the face of the global crisis.

In the past six months, the bloc made no progress on fundamental integration issues like the customs union, said Lugo. Nevertheless, he said he was confident that Mercosur’s institutions could be strengthened in order to provide guarantees to the least developed economies.

Lula said the integration process was still being built, and called for clear policies towards productive and economic integration – a position that was backed by Vázquez, who reiterated Uruguay’s confidence in the process, while underlining the enormous asymmetries between the bloc’s member states.

One of the priorities on the agenda of the new Uruguayan rotating presidency is the elimination of double levying of the common external tariff that results from passage of products through more than one Mercosur country.

Elimination of this double taxation is opposed by Paraguay, which as the only landlocked member country would lose out on significant tax revenue.

Another issue to be tackled are non-tariff trade barriers within the bloc, which Vázquez described as “a pathology that we suffer and that we must try to overcome.”

With respect to the H1N1 influenza epidemic, which has hit Argentina especially hard, the Mercosur Council decided to ask the World Health Organisation (WHO) to expand capacity of production of affordable flu vaccines, anti-flu medications and diagnostic kits.

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