Presidents, vice presidents and ministers of the bloc met in the southern Brazilian city of Bento Goncalves.
Questions first arose over Mercosur’s survival when far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro voiced disapproval of Argentina’s left-leaning president-elect, Alberto Fernández, who takes office Tuesday.
Fernández is a critic of the bloc’s biggest achievement in recent times, the free trade deal with the European Union announced earlier this year. He said he wants to review the negotiations.
But Mercosur’s strength is also in question amid the long economic struggles of Brazil and Argentina, the two South American powerhouses.
Outgoing Argentinian President Mauricio Macri, a conservative, said the bloc should move ahead with the trade deal with the EU and seek other opportunities.
“One should not abandon what we improved in Mercosur,” Macri said.
Bolsonaro, who is not expected to attend Fernández’s inauguration, said Mercosur “cannot waste time” with more political stalemates.
“We can’t accept ideological setbacks either,” he said.
Outgoing Uruguayan Vice President Lucía Topolansky said leaders “can’t pretend Mercosur is paradise” amid the political turmoil that has hit South America this year.
“We are in a worrying regional context, many countries are facing institutional challenges, with human rights violations and loss of life,” she said.
The most discussed South American troubles were the political confrontation in Venezuela between socialist President Nicolas Maduro and opposition leader Juan Guaidó and Bolivia’s new government, formed after former President Evo Morales was forced to resign over a disputed election.
Chile, Peru, Colombia and Ecuador have also faced street protests against poor governance, corruption and austerity measures.
Paraguayan President Mario Abdo, who will take Mercosur’s rotating presidency from Brazil, said South America’s democracies are in a time of difficulties and challenges.
“We need to win the confidence of our people back,” Abdo said. “We have to improve our democracies with more democracy, not with anarchy.”
Without noticing his microphone was open, Bolsonaro jokingly suggested he kept Mercosur’s presidency beyond his six-month term that ended Thursday.
“I want to stay on as president, can’t I throw a coup?” he asked Abdo. “When they lose, they say it was a coup. It is shocking, isn’t it?”