- The Washington Times - Friday, July 21, 2006

BUENOS AIRES — Cuban President Fidel Castro, at a summit of Latin American leaders, plans to sign a trade deal that may help Cuba circumvent a long-standing U.S. embargo.

Speaking at the gathering in Cordoba yesterday, Mr. Castro praised his close ally, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, for supporting Cuba, and he stressed Latin American solidarity against the United States.

In an obvious reference to Washington, Mr. Castro said in a televised speech that Mercosur’s sought-after integration “has centuries-old enemies that are not happy” with meeting.

Mr. Castro, 79, is in Argentina to sign a deal that standardizes Cuba’s existing bilateral trade deals with Mercosur’s five full members — Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela.

Mr. Castro’s shadow falls over Mercosur’s first meeting since Venezuela became a full member on July 4, adding weight to Mr. Chavez’s declarations that the troubled but largely free-market-leaning trade union is setting a new, anti-Western, course.

“Mercosur is born today,” Mr. Chavez told reporters at the meeting.

Chile and Bolivia are associate members of the trade union that includes 270 million people and accounts for 75 percent of South America’s gross domestic product.

The initial Cuba-Mercosur trade deal was put in motion after Uruguay’s socialist president, Tabare Vasquez, came to power in 2004.

All Mercosur members are now headed by governments that, to varying degrees, are leftist.

“What we are doing is sharing between Mercosur members trade preferences that only a few member countries had,” Argentine Foreign Minister Jorge Taiana said.

While some see Mr. Castro’s appearance as a boost for Mr. Chavez’s push to take Mercosur down a vehemently anti-U.S. path, tensions appear to be rising between Mr. Chavez and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

“Brazil and Argentina are the France and Germany of Mercosur,” Mr. Lula da Silva told a leading Argentine newspaper.

Mercosur is widely seen as having failed at its mission of regional integration with common markets and currency.

“Mercosur has not achieved anything it originally set out to do,” said Myles Frechette, former U.S. ambassador to Colombia. He said the group, however, has value as a political pulpit, which Mr. Chavez will try to leverage.

Others stressed that Mr. Chavez’s style and agenda will complicate matters.

“Chavez’s entry into Mercosur will have impacts because Chavez’s agenda is not Mercosur’s or Brazil’s agenda,” said Rubens Barbosa a former Brazilian ambassador to the United States. “They will let him talk but if he goes too far, Brazil will stand up to him.”

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