Sat, Jul 30, 2005 - Page 7 News List

Caribbean tries to pull together with summit

AP , PANAMA CITY, PANAMA

The Caribbean, better known for pristine beaches than for its poverty and unemployment, is trying to pull together economically and politically Thursday at the start of a two-day summit amid regional rivalries that tug the mainly island nations in a north-south divide.

Venezuela and the US are tugging the 25 members of the Association of Caribbean States, or ACS, in different directions -- free trade or Venezuela's vision of an "economy based on solidarity."

Venezuelan Foreign Secretary Ali Rodriguez hotly denied his country was trying to use oil to export President Hugo Chavez's "Bolivarian" revolution, but acknowledged that Venezuela will continue offering crude on favorable terms -- and even in barter trades -- to countries in the region.

"We have a constitutional mandate to develop an economy based on solidarity, not mercantilism," Rodriguez said in defense of Chavez's "PetroCaribe" plan. "In fact, we oppose the slimy, mercantilist view of things."

"But it's totally false to say that we are using oil as a political weapon to spread the revolution," Rodriguez said. "We are among those who are totally convinced that if there is one thing you can't export, that's revolution."

Chavez has used the name of 19th century South American independence hero Simon Bolivar to describe the vaguely socialist, stridently anti-US program he has championed in Venezuela.

Mexican President Vicente Fox, on the other hand, called for a "strategic alliance" of open markets and free trade in the region.

"We want to cut down the obstacles to trade and investment," Fox told the opening session of the summit.

Populist Panamanian President Martin Torrijos took a middle line, calling for "democracy with social sensitivity," and warning that "unless there is a more equal distribution [of income], it will generate a series of resentments and nobody knows when they could explode."

The divisions in ideology were as stark as the differences in income: A day after the US Congress approved the US vision for the region's economy -- the Central America Free Trade Accord -- Rodriguez held out Venezuela's trade deals with Argentina as a model. Argentina pays for Venezuelan oil with cattle and elevators.

The Venezuelan foreign secretary said similar agreements could potentially be reached with other nations in the Caribbean, in line with the similar PetroSur and Petro-Andino accords Chavez has sponsored in South America.

"We can use methods from the most ancient to the most modern to achieve these types of exchanges," he said.

Rodriguez denied reports that Chavez backed out of the summit at the last minute Wednesday because of fears of an assassination plot, like the one his close ally, Cuban President Fidel Castro, said he faced in Panama in 2000.

Castro was also absent from the summit, but Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque said "the Venezuelan effort to establish PetroCaribe to supply oil on easy payment terms to Caribbean countries is very important."

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