July 5, 2005

Chavez says Americas trade plan ‘should be buried’

CARACAS, Venezuela (Reuters) - U.S. efforts to create afree trade zone in the Americas have failed and "should beburied," Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said on Tuesday.

The left-wing leader, a fierce critic of the policies ofthe United States, Venezuela's main oil client, has lobbiedagainst the U.S.-proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas. Hehas portrayed Washington's plan as an attempt to impose U.S.economic and political dominance over weaker Latin Americaneconomies.

"Thank God the FTAA is dead, it should be buried," Chavezsaid during a ceremony commemorating the anniversary ofVenezuela's 1811 Declaration of Independence.

The FTAA, discussed since the early 1990s, envisages a freetrade area stretching from the southern tip of South Americaall the way to Alaska. Cuba would be the only country excluded.

No real progress has been made in the negotiations in thelast few years and a January target date for the introductionof the FTAA was missed.

The populist leader regularly rails against the FTAA as avehicle of U.S. "imperialism" aimed at sabotaging LatinAmerica's attempts to unite.

"This is the path to the most complete disintegration,through competition and the predominance of the strongest overthe weakest," Chavez said.

Chavez, who has positioned his self-styled socialist"revolution" in Venezuela as a counterweight to U.S. influencein Latin America, has proposed his own regional integrationmechanism called the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas,or ALBA.

Chavez, who says he is inspired by Latin America'sVenezuelan-born 19th century independence hero Simon Bolivar,argues his ALBA proposal is based on complementary trade andcooperation, not free-market competition.

The only country to formally subscribe to ALBA is Cuba,which has turned to Venezuela for oil supplies to help itscash-starved economy.

Relations between Venezuela, the world's No. 5 oilexporter, and the United States, the top buyer of its crudeoil, have soured since Chavez was first elected in 1998 and hestrengthened ties with Cuba and Iran.