Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva declared Tuesday that his country is "back in the region" after joining more than a dozen other Latin American leaders at a summit in Buenos Aires.
Less than a month after his inauguration, Lula arrived in the Argentine capital looking to rebuild bridges after his far-right predecessor Jair Bolsonaro had pulled out of the grouping.
"Brazil is back in the region and ready to work side-by-side with you with a very strong feeling of solidarity and closeness," said the 77-year-old leader during the seventh Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) summit, which brings together 33 nations.
Lula, who previously served as Brazil's president from 2003-10, was one of the founders of CELAC during the first "pink wave" of leftward political shifts on the continent over a decade ago.
But Bolsonaro pulled Brazil out of the group over what he perceived as its support for undemocratic governments in Nicaragua, Venezuela and Cuba.
Lula spoke Tuesday about the "multiple crises" affecting the world -- from the pandemic to climate change, geopolitical tensions, food insecurities and threats to democracy.
"All this happens in the midst of an unacceptable rise in inequality, poverty and hunger," said Lula, the only leader to publicize his speech at the summit.
Democracy and its threats -- especially from the far right -- were a central theme of the summit.
"We cannot allow the recalcitrant and fascist far right to put our institutions and our people in peril," said the host of the forum, Argentina's center-left President Alberto Fernandez, in opening remarks.
He pointed to the riots by Bolsonaro supporters at the seats of power in Brasilia earlier this month and the alleged attempt to assassinate his vice president, Cristina Kirchner, in September.
But Fernandez made no mention of communist Cuba or the accusations of political oppression made against radical leftist regimes in Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia.
In fact, with Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel in attendance, Fernandez called for an end to the US-led blockade of Cuba and Venezuela.
They are "a perverse method of punishment, not of the governments but of the people," Fernandez said.
- 'Latin America is bankrupt' -
Host Argentina this week hailed a "new climate in Latin America," with the region ushering in a fresh wave of left or center-left governments since 2018 -- including Mexico, Argentina, Honduras, Chile, Colombia and Brazil.
A forum for consultation and cooperation, CELAC has no power to enforce any agreements between its members.
And while Fernandez stressed the need to "strengthen the institutions in our region," CELAC is struggling to unite members over successive regional crises, such as in Peru.
"Latin America is bankrupt from the institutional point of view," Ignacio Bartesaghi, an international relations expert at the Catholic University of Uruguay, told AFP.
"There is not even certain basic consensus in Latin America, as on the difference between a democracy and a dictatorship," he stressed.
"There are (at CELAC) presidents who do not even recognize each other," he noted, alluding to situations such as Paraguay's Mario Abdo Benitez, whose country broke diplomatic relations with Nicolas Maduro's Venezuela in 2019.
- 'Absence of dialogue' -
Maduro called off his own trip to the gathering at the last minute, citing "a risk of aggression" from "the neo-fascist right," a possible reference to some Argentine opposition politicians calling for him to be arrested on arrival.
He was due on Monday to meet with Lula, who instead held talks with Diaz-Canel.
He sent a message to the forum blasting the "criminal sanctions" against his government, in particular against the state oil company PDVSA.
Other significant absentees in Buenos Aires include Mexico's left-wing President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, leader of the second largest economy in Latin America and host in 2021 of the last CELAC summit.
CELAC however remains the partner of choice for China and the European Union to negotiate when cooperating with the region.
But the last joint-EU summit was in 2015, highlighting the lack of regional consensus, says Bernabe Malacalza, researcher at the CONICET Argentine national research center.
In this sense, the return of Lula could give a boost to certain sub-regional issues, such as the free-trade agreement between the EU and the Mercosur group which comprises Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay.
The deal was finalized in 2019 but never ratified, due in particular to concerns about Bolsonaro's environmental policy.
Lula has indicated a willingness to resume contacts.
Meanwhile, Uruguayan president Luis Lacalle Pou proposed a free-trade zone extending from "Mexico to the south of South America."