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Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez joined 11 other Latin American leaders and 22 members of the Arab League in Brazil for the first ever Latin American-Arab conference held in the Brazilian capital.

The conference opened yesterday with remarks by Brazilian President Lucio Ignacio “Lula” da Silva and Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who spoke of the importance of building economic and political bridges between the two regions. “Our biggest challenge is to create a new economic geography and international commerce,” said Lula.

Bouteflika called for a “frank, open and real strategic alliance,” showing “audacity and imagination,” aimed at opening new commercial horizons and attracting investment. These comments were in keeping with Brazil’s motives for organizing the conference, widely seen as a further effort to give Brazil a global profile, and linked to Brazil’s bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

Yet while Lula’s remarks focused on economic generalities, Bouteflika focused on political issues in the Middle East. “The Palestinians have the right to an independent state,” said the Algerian leader, adding that Israel should withdraw to the pre-1967 borders in order to allow a just, global, and lasting peace. Bouteflika also mentioned Iraq, noting that it is a “source of much uneasiness,” and pressing for “peace, security, and sovereignty,” in a veiled criticism of the US occupation. Despite the intentions of its Brazilian organizers, the conference was characterized by political tensions stemming from differences in participants’ positions on the recently elected Iraqi government, represented at the conference by President Jalal Talabani.

Chávez has been an outspoken critic of the US invasion of Iraq, and has described the elections as questionable, given the continuation of the US occupation and the Iraqi insurgency.

Venezuela joined the “South American consensus,” however, according to a statement by Chávez last night, in which the Venezuelan President confirmed his “recognition of and respect for the [Iraqi] government.” Venezuela continues to “reject the aggression against the Iraqi people,” in the form of the US occupation, however. “If Venezuela were invaded we’d have every right to defend ourselves,” said Chávez to reporters. “We’ve always maintained this position,” he added, “and we will continue to do so.”The “Brazil Declaration,” was ironed out earlier today, despite the initial controversy.

In it, according to Brazil’s foreign minister Celso Amorim, the South American-Arab League partnership expresses their “total condemnation of terrorism,” though they also recognize Iraqi people’s “right to resist the foreign occupation in accordance with humanitarian law.” The declaration also called for a UN commission to better define the meaning and use of the term “terrorism.”

The careful wording of the statement is likely related to the concerns expressed by the United States, the European Union, and Israel on the eve of the conference. Backing the right of states and peoples to resist foreign occupation has been received as cause for concern in the US and Israel, where there are apparently concerns that this could be interpreted as a tacit endorsement of anti-Israel groups like Hizbollah and Hamas, or Iraqi insurgents.

According to Israeli ambassador to Brazil, Tzipora Rimon, the declaration “will encourage extremists, terrorist groups, it is giving them a green light to resist.”Though the many observers felt that relatively little of substance came from the conference, the “the importance of this gathering is not what has been said, but the fact that we have finally got together,” said Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo.