Newly re-elected Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva offered warm words for Venezuela's Hugo Chavez on Monday, predicting the leftist leader would win elections next month on the strength of his measures to help the poor.
Silva, making his first foreign trip since winning a new four-year term last month, said it wouldn't be proper to endorse a candidate in Venezuela's Dec. 3 presidential vote, but added that Chavez's anti-poverty initiatives show his heart is in the right place.
"For many years here in Venezuela there wasn't a government that worried about the poor people as you have," Silva told Chavez in a speech. "It's the same people who elected me, who elected [Argentine President Nestor] Kirchner, who elected [Nicaraguan leader] Daniel Ortega, who elected [Bolivian President] Evo Morales. Surely, they will elect you president."
Silva and Chavez, both leading figures in the resurgent Latin American left, have built close ties despite differing approaches. While Chavez lashes out frequently at Washington, the more-subdued Silva maintains civil relations with the US government.
Nonetheless, the two have increasingly linked their countries through trade, infrastructure projects and deals to jointly explore for and refine oil.
On Monday, Silva and Chavez made an inaugural crossing of a new bridge near the city of Puerto Ordaz, calling it a key step toward South American integration.
The bridge -- the second to be built across the Orinoco River -- will cut the transport time for Brazilian exports entering Venezuela and reaching its Caribbean ports. It was built by Odebrecht, a Brazilian company, at a cost of US$1.2 billion.
Silva said he believes Chavez has shown "it's possible to grow economically while creating social justice."
Chavez said that he plans to reciprocate by visiting Brazil on Dec. 7, just days after he expects to be re-elected.
He said Silva's re-election was "vital for the future of all of us, for the unity of South America."
Chavez said both he and Silva have been wrongly "demonized" as leaders who oppose the private sector because their countries have been models of collaborative trade.
Trade between the two countries has also been swiftly growing -- it surpassed US$3.4 billion from January to last month, according to Brazilian statistics.
Last year, the two leaders laid the cornerstone for a US$2.5 billion refinery in the Brazilian state of Pernambuco that will process both Venezuelan and Brazilian oil.
Chavez and Lula attended a ceremony on Monday marking the start of drilling at an oil field in the Orinoco River basin.
Brazil's Petrobras is helping state-run Petroleos de Venezuela SA quantify Venezuela's massive heavy crude deposits. Petrobras also said negotiations were advancing with PDVSA to jointly develop five heavy oil fields and four offshore natural gas fields in Venezuela.
"It's a task that we have pending: a pipeline to bring gas to the people of the South," Chavez said.
The pipeline could cost about US$25 billion according to preliminary estimates by Petrobras.