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Venezuela welcomed as full member of Mercosur trading bloc

Natalia Ramos and Hector Velasco
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez delivers a speech during a press conference after the Mercosur summit. After a six-year wait, Venezuela was welcomed Tuesday as a full member, turning the regional trading bloc into the world's fifth largest economy as well as a food and energy giant.

After a six-year wait, Venezuela was welcomed here Tuesday as a full member of Mercosur, turning the regional trading bloc into the world's fifth largest economy as well as a food and energy giant.

"Venezuela should have been admitted a long time ago. But as it is written in the Bible, for everything there is a season," Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez told a joint press conference with his counterparts from Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay.

Until now an associate member, oil-rich Venezuela joined current Mercosur members Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay, which was suspended from the group late last month until new elections following the ouster of its president Fernando Lugo.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff said Venezuela's entry turns Mercosur into the world's fifth largest economic bloc after the United States, China, Germany and Japan and into "a global energy and food power."

"From an economic and trade standpoint, the entry of Venezuela as full member extends the bloc's potential," she added.

With Venezuela, Mercosur, a custom union, represents 83.2 percent of South America's GDP and a market of 270 million people.

Making his return on the international stage after a battle with cancer kept him largely out of the spotlight for months, Chavez said the admission would help his country, which boasts the world's largest proven oil reserves, diversify its economy.

"Mercosur is without doubt the biggest engine to preserve our independence and speed up our total development," the 58-year-old leftist firebrand said.

"We want very much to move away from the oil model and to boost Venezuela's agricultural development, its industrial development" in addition to tourism, he noted.

"We have more than 30 million hectares (75 million acres) available for farming development," the Venezuelan leader said, also highlighting his country's mineral wealth, including deposits of iron ore and bauxite.

Venezuela meanwhile signed a deal here to buy 20 commercial planes from Brazilian planemaker Embraer worth $900 million.

Chavez and Rousseff attended the signing of the accord which calls for delivery of the first six E-190 aircraft worth $270 million by the end of the year. The planes can carry between 98 and 114 passengers.

The Venezelan leader, who was diagnosed with cancer in June 2011, said earlier this month that, after a long series of treatments and two operations in 2011 and 2012, he was "healed."

Analysts say Chavez, who is seeking re-election in an October 7 election, will seek to capitalize on his country's Mercosur admission.

His election rival, Henrique Capriles, welcomed Venezuela's Mercosur admission but said this would not translate "into jobs for Venezuelans, nor would it mean a better life for them."

"Today we are a country that imports virtually everything, which means that those who benefit from Venezuela's entry into other markets are workers of other countries," the opposition leader said during a campaign event in the northern Venezuelan state of Yaracuy.

Venezuela's membership in the customs union had been blocked since 2006 by conservative Paraguayan lawmakers who viewed Chavez as anti-democratic.

It was made possible by the suspension of Paraguay after its president Fernando Lugo was abruptly ousted on charges of malfeasance linked to a deadly land dispute.

The ouster was widely criticized by other Latin American leaders, who argue the president did not have time to mount a proper defense.

Lugo's successor Federico Franco was barred from participating in a Mercosur summit in the Argentine city of Mendoza last month and Asuncion was temporarily suspended from the bloc pending new elections expected next April.

Tuesday Franco said he was sending the official text of Venezuela's Mercosur admission to the Paraguayan Congress for a decision on ratification,

The Paraguayan legislators have so far refused to ratify the admission, arguing that the Chavez government violated Mercosur's democratic clauses by shutting down private newspapers as well as television and radio stations.