Brazil raises hackles in rival Argentina

Buenos Aires considers getting tougher with its giant neighbor, which it sees as trying to dominate
EIU / Infoestrategica

RIO DE JANEIRO - Fueled by a long-standing rivalry over who should lead South America, tensions between Brazil and Argentina escalated Tuesday amid reports that Buenos Aires was preparing to adopt a tougher approach toward its giant neighbor.

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Comments by Argentine officials this week disparaging Brazil's attempts to exert more international influence touched off a flurry of speculation that relations between the two nations were in a nosedive. Newspapers in both countries carried front-page headlines Tuesday warning of a growing rift that could complicate already thorny negotiations between the continental heavyweights over regional trade and politics.

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Argentine President Nestor Kirchner appears to have grown increasingly irritated over diplomatic initiatives by Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva that in effect cast Brazil as the natural leader of South America. Since his election in 2002, Lula has aggressively sought to raise his country's profile on the world stage by traveling extensively and enlarging Brazil's role in multilateral organizations.

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"There's a place in the World Trade Organization; Brazil wants it. There's a place in the United Nations; Brazil wants it. They even want to name a Brazilian pope," Kirchner complained, according to the Argentine daily El Clarin.

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The final straw for Kirchner's government, analysts said, was Brazil's role during the political crisis in Ecuador, where popular unrest forced President Lucio Gutierrez to flee the country last month.

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In response, Lula dispatched his own foreign minister to Quito as head of a delegation of the South American Community of Nations, a recently created group that some view as a vehicle for Brazil to try to establish supremacy in the region.

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Argentine Foreign Minister Rafael Bielsa accused the body of acting too hastily and preempting efforts by more established regional coalitions such as the Organization of American States to address the issue.

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"Other factors came into play in the communique that had a lot more to do with the place where it was issued from [Brazil] than with the problems Ecuador was having," Bielsa told El Clarin in an interview published Tuesday.

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Bielsa met with a number of Argentine ambassadors over the weekend in Washington, where the group explored the idea of "a hardening" in Buenos Aires' dealings with Brazil, the newspaper said.

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Although no specific measures were cited, Bielsa said pointedly in the interview that Argentina would stress the importance of strengthening the long-established Mercosur group - a trade organization consisting of Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay - before putting much effort into the South American Community of Nations.

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Kirchner has also declined to confirm whether he will attend next week's first-of-its-kind summit of leaders from South American and Arab nations, a meeting to be convened by Lula in the Brazilian capital, Brasilia.

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Speaking to reporters in Paris on Tuesday, Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim downplayed reports of increased tension with Argentina.

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"Our relationship is very positive," Amorim said, adding that "it's normal that two important countries like Brazil and Argentina can have some point of difference ... but our alliance is strategic. Lula's government is determined to deepen this strategic alliance."

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The deterioration of ties between Kirchner and Lula stands in stark contrast to the high hopes and back-slapping that marked the beginning of their relationship two years ago, when both men were new to their posts and thought of as left-leaning brothers-in-arms who would bring their countries closer after decades of mutual suspicion.

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From the start, Lula made little secret of his ambitions to turn Brazil into a regional, if not international, power commensurate with its status as one of the world's most populous countries and largest economies.

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He has positioned Brazil in the forefront of developing nations that have challenged the trade policies of rich nations, winning favorable rulings in the World Trade Organization. His penchant for official trips to distant lands has become the subject of political jokes and criticism within Brazil.

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Last year, Lula sent Brazilian troops to head the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti, a move widely seen as a bid to help secure a permanent seat for Brazil on the U.N. Security Council.

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Argentina particularly opposes a permanent seat for Brazil. Experts say that Kirchner may also still be smarting from what he perceived as tepid Brazilian support for Argentina during its difficult negotiations with the International Monetary Fund over Argentina's shaky finances.

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For all the simmering resentment, analysts say the two presidents have no choice but to cooperate if either country wants a stronger hand in its dealings with the biggest regional power of all: the U.S.

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"For the alliance to really work, it needs responsible people who not only believe it to be convenient but indispensable," said Helio Jaguaribe de Mattos of the Institute of Political and Social Studies in Rio. "There is no other option for countries like Argentina or Brazil, which, isolated, would be provinces of the dominant empire."

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Times staff writers Paula Gobbi in Rio de Janeiro and Andres D'Alessandro in Buenos Aires contributed to this report.

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SOURCE:   EIU / INFO-e

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