RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil—Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's decision to shut down an anti-government television channel has sparked an angry war of words with neighboring Brazil and soured relations between Latin America's two most powerful nations.
The tensions started rising when Brazil's Senate last week asked Chavez to reconsider his May 27 closure of Radio Caracas Television, which has drawn international condemnation. Chavez told Brazilian legislators to mind their own business and stop repeating "like a parrot what Washington says."
Next, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a Chavez ally and long considered a populist himself, advised the Venezuelan leader "to take care of Venezuela" and extolled Brazil's press freedoms.
Brazilian legislators escalated the anti-Chavez rhetoric this week, sending relations between the two countries to a new low.
"Hugo Chavez is following the classic trajectory of a dictator," said Sen. Arthur Virgilio. "He's a threat to South America, and Lula will learn soon that Venezuela and Brazil cannot be partners."
On Tuesday, legislators from Brazil's two biggest opposition parties said they'd try to block Venezuela from becoming a voting member of the South American trade bloc Mercosur, which Brazil helped found. Venezuela's entry still awaits approval from Brazil's Congress.
"The Brazilian government is trying to minimize the damage and political effects of this, but there's a great feeling here that Chavez is a problem," said Rubens Barbosa, Brazil's ambassador to the United States from 1999 to 2004. "We would all welcome more integration with Venezuela, but not with these actions of President Chavez."
Flush with oil money, Chavez has raised hackles in Brazil by investing billions of dollars around Latin America while championing himself as the region's ideological leader. Brazilians have viewed the radical leftist's rise as a threat to their giant Portuguese-speaking country's natural leadership of the predominantly Spanish-speaking region.
Tensions between the two countries intensified last year when Bolivian President Evo Morales, with Chavez's outspoken support, nationalized his country's natural gas reserves, which were mostly controlled by Brazilian state energy company Petrobras.
In March, Chavez slammed the use of ethanol while Lula was signing an agreement with President Bush to research and market the biofuel jointly.
Nevertheless, Lula continued to champion his partnership with the Venezuelan president, which has included jointly building oil refineries and natural gas pipelines. Lula also supported Venezuela's entry into Mercosur.
Sen. Eduardo Suplicy of Lula's center-left Workers' Party said he expected the working relationship between the two countries to continue despite the diplomatic dust-up, although he said it's the biggest to date between the two countries.
Suplicy said he'd still support Venezuela's entry into Mercosur, although he'd signed the measure last week asking Chavez to reopen RCTV.
"This is not something that should hamper trade and foreign relations between our countries," Suplicy said. "My recommendation to Hugo Chavez is only that he should think better about his words when he talks about Brazil."
Some in Brazil's political left have backed Chavez and heeded the Venezuelan's call to protest Brazil's rising production of sugar cane-based ethanol because of concern that it'll raise food prices.
Over the weekend, the Workers' Party's secretary of international relations, Valter Pomar, issued a statement supporting the closure of the Venezuelan television station.
Commercial ties between the two countries also have strengthened, with Venezuela becoming Brazil's 10th-largest trading partner last year from its 23rd-biggest in 2003.
Yet many in Lula's ruling coalition are thinking twice about working with Chavez after this latest rift, said Sen. Valter Pereira, of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party.
"All the countries of this continent should be worried when they look at what Chavez is doing, buying weapons and trying to control countries around Latin America," Pereira said. "He is a bad neighbor, and as a bad neighbor we should stop him from trying to enter Mercosur or integrating in the region."