Lula’s Summit Brings Together Struggling South American Presidents

(Bloomberg) -- Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is hosting his South American counterparts in Brasilia as he seeks to bolster regional relations, an ambitious plan that widespread political turbulence and the continent’s sluggish economies threaten to leave dead on arrival.

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Leaders from 11 countries and the president of Peru’s council of ministers are convening on Tuesday to seek common ground on areas including health care, infrastructure and the environment, according to the Brazilian government. They will talk during hours-long, closed-door sessions meant to foster intimacy and frank communication.

“We are now taking the first steps to resume dialogue in the region,” Lula said at the beginning of the summit. “The context we face today is even more challenging than it was in the past.”

But the first major meeting of South American heads of state since 2014 takes place with many of them hamstrung by domestic woes that have consumed their attention and eclipsed Lula’s desires to strengthen regional partnerships.

Economies remain feeble, with particular alarm in Bolivia and Argentina. New leaders who were initially welcomed with fanfare in countries like Chile and Colombia are now grappling with falling popularity. Others, like Peru and Ecuador, have faced full-blown political crises.

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“One would have to go back to almost the military dictatorships to think of a more troubling set of circumstances in South America,” said Michael Shifter, a senior fellow and former president at Inter-American Dialogue, a US-based think tank. “There’s a natural tendency to look inward and deal with one’s own problems rather than look for more regional cooperation.”

The failures of the region’s new wave of leftist leaders have attracted the most attention, as Chile’s Gabriel Boric and his Colombian counterpart Gustavo Petro struggle to advance progressive agendas focused on strengthening public services. But Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso’s move to dissolve congress and head off a looming impeachment attempt earlier this month showed that the continent’s few market-friendly leaders are also on the ropes.

Peru’s President Dina Boluarte, the only South American leader who won’t be in attendance, is facing the risk of criminal prosecution over accusations that she failed to halt the killing of protesters during demonstrations that began last December. In Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro has presided over a dramatic economic collapse that has prompted more than 7 million people to flee since 2015.

Brazil’s government has acknowledged the challenges facing the group of leaders, including ideological differences across the continent, the prospect of political change brought by this year’s presidential elections in Paraguay and Argentina and recent upheaval in Peru and Ecuador.

“The region stopped growing, unemployment rose and inflation increased as well. Some of the main social advances achieved in the last decade were lost in a short period of time,” Lula said, calling for the implementation of a regional energy market to ensure stability at times of global disruption.

Against that backdrop, officials will push to create a more permanent framework for dialogue after the collapse of the leftist union of South American countries known as Unasur nearly a decade ago.

“Dialogue is between states,” Gisela Maria Figueiredo Padovan, the Brazilian government’s secretary for Latin America and the Caribbean, told reporters on Friday. “We want to have a vision of the integration of states, and different countries go through different domestic circumstances that we have to understand.”

The presidents traveling to Brasilia are expected to seek bilateral meetings on the sidelines of the summit. Several will be accompanied by their respective foreign relations ministers, likely opening up additional channels for conversation.

‘We have to work as a bloc’

Lula’s first chance to put the summit’s intentions into practice came on Monday, when he received Maduro in the Venezuelan leader’s first state visit to Brazil since 2015. Ties between the two nations fell apart during the hard-right administration of former President Jair Bolsonaro, but Lula declared the relationship fully restored.

Both heads of state said they discussed Venezuela’s potential addition to the group of so-called BRICS countries, which includes the world’s most prominent emerging markets, as well as desires to use local currencies instead of the US dollar to do business. Lula also criticized economic sanctions imposed on Venezuela.

“We want to recover the energy relationship and deals with Venezuela,” Lula told reporters.

Standing next to Maduro on Monday, Lula insisted that the region’s nations could only solve the various crises facing them together.

“South America needs to be convinced that we have to work as a bloc,” he said. “It is impossible to imagine that the countries alone are going to fix their serious problems.”

--With assistance from Maria Eloisa Capurro and Fabiola Zerpa.

(Updates with Lula’s comments in third and tenth paragraphs.)

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