(Bloomberg) -- President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s support of his Venezuelan counterpart cast a shadow over Tuesday’s summit of South American leaders, where the Brazilian leader sought to promote regional economic integration.
Lula on Monday defended Nicolas Maduro during the Venezuelan leader’s first visit to Brazil since 2015, saying that a “narrative of anti-democracy and authoritarianism” had been created to attack him.
The comments drew public rebukes from Chile’s Gabriel Boric and Uruguay’s Luis Lacalle Pou on Tuesday, and put Lula on the defensive during a news conference at the end of the summit. Behind closed doors, the remarks shifted the meeting’s focus to human rights and pushed economic integration and other issues Lula sought to prioritize to the background, according to two people familiar with the discussions who requested anonymity to speak about them.
As a result, the meeting made little progress on any substantive issues, the people said.
“If there are so many groups in the world that are trying to mediate so that there’s full democracy in Venezuela, that human rights are respected and there aren’t any political prisoners, the worst thing that we could do is bury our head in the sand,” Lacalle Pou told reporters.
The summit brought 11 South American presidents and the head of Peru’s council of ministers to Brasilia for the largest major gathering of the continent’s leaders since the collapse of the leftist union of South American countries known as Unasur nearly a decade ago.
Read More: Lula’s Summit Gathers Struggling South American Leaders
Lula convened the group to seek common ground on areas including health care, infrastructure and the environment, the Brazilian government said before it began.
“We are now taking the first steps to resume dialogue in the region,” Lula said at the start of the event. “The context we face today is even more challenging than it was in the past.”
A litany of domestic problems plaguing the region, including widespread political turbulence and sluggish economies, threatened to leave plans for improved relations dead on arrival. Deep ideological differences among the continent’s leaders posed another challenge, although Lula insisted during his opening remarks that the region could overcome them.
During the closed-door discussions, the leftist leader also advocated for the creation of a body to replace Unasur, the people familiar said.
The union was first launched in 2008 by Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez, with the aim of uniting leftist leaders who rose to power during the so-called Pink Tide. In his closing remarks, Lula said that he did not intend to rebuild the bloc as it was, but wanted to construct a new path with the region’s current leaders.
The perception that the summit aimed to create a new version of Unasur, however, further clouded the discussions, another person with knowledge of the talks said, especially as the leaders sought to formulate a consensus statement about them.
The official document that came out of the talks, known as the Brasilia Consensus, did not mention Unasur among its nine vague points of agreement. A previous version of the statement shared among the participants mentioned the past contribution of Unasur in the region.
Read More: Uruguay and Chile Slam Lula’s Defense of Maduro at Brazil Summit
Maduro avoided responding to criticism from colleagues during the meetings, and asked for a return to international forums and the resumption of relations with all of the region’s nations, according to two people in attendance.
“There will always be differences,” Maduro said after the summit. “But the most important thing is that there was a debate, a dialogue with a lot of tolerance, with a lot of frankness, and a declaration proposed by President Lula was approved addressing the priority issues of a new stage.”
Chile and Uruguay are among the nations that have restored relations with Venezuela, and Boric on Tuesday called on the US and Europe to lift sanctions that he said are hurting the country’s people. But their leaders have maintained the criticism of Maduro’s human rights record.
During his closing remarks, Lula said Boric and Lacalle Pou were free to criticize his positions. But he also reiterated that Venezuela had been the target of a “narrative selling a lie.”
“In politics, when you want to destroy a foe, you build a negative narrative,” he said.
--With assistance from Maria Eloisa Capurro.
©2023 Bloomberg L.P.
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