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South American Leaders Discuss Creating Continental Union

South American leaders have agreed to create a high-level commission to study the idea of forming a continent-wide community similar to the European Union.

Presidents and envoys of 12 nations wrapped up a two-day summit of the South American Community of Nations on Saturday, hosted by Bolivian President Evo Morales in Cochabamba, a city tucked between the Andes and the Amazon in the heart of the continent.

"We seek that South America be forever a region of peace that works to solve the economic problems of its historically abandoned majority," Morales said.

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The leaders agreed to form a study group in Rio de Janeiro to look at the possibility of creating a continentwide union, and even a South American parliament.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a former metalworker who was re-elected in October, assured his fellow leaders that the group could rise above its historical divisions to unite the continent — though the process would not be easy.

"We must have patience, and try to solve these issues with delicacy," Silva said. "The solutions are difficult. We're not just simple workers talking about a strike at the factory."

The result left fiery Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, long an agitator for the region taking a greater role on the world stage, pleased but impatient.

"We need a political Viagra," Chavez said. "Look, we make decisions and we don't have the power to execute them. They're stuck in these pyramids of paper."

The discussion over South American unity likely will continue later this month when the leaders of Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Paraguay and Uruguay gather in Brazil for the semiannual meeting of the Mercosur trading bloc.

Morales opened Saturday's round-table discussion calling for the leaders to close "the open veins of Latin America," referring to Eduardo Galeano's famous 1971 book decrying foreign capitalist exploitation. But how to staunch the economic bleeding was a matter of debate.

Chile's Socialist President Michelle Bachelet, whose country has a free trade agreement with the U.S., said globalization had "two faces" — one "potentially very destructive" but another that presented a "historic opportunity for societies like ours."

She urged South American leaders to take advantage of the world economy while minimizing the impact of open trade on the poor.

Chavez, however, expressed blunt opposition to Washington-backed free market prescriptions and boasted that leftists in the region have "buried" U.S. hopes of a hemispheric free trade agreement, an effort launched a decade ago.

He joked that nations signing a free trade pact with the U.S. are subsequently "flooded with chickens' hind quarters."

After the summit, Chavez joined Morales in addressing thousands jammed into a soccer stadium for a rally in which they both bashed U.S. "imperialism" in the region.

Though the two did not meet one-on-one, Chavez and Peruvian President Alan Garcia took advantage of the summit to make amends after exchanging personal insults during Garcia's presidential campaign earlier this year.

In Saturday's forum, Chavez enthusiastically seconded Garcia's call for a continentwide effort to improve education.

"If we don't teach a faith in this integration, all is lost," said Garcia, arguing that education reforms would cost less that big-ticket infrastructure projects.

Chavez proposes South America build a natural gas pipeline across the length of the continent, while Ecuadorian President-elect Rafael Correa has suggested a land-and-river trade route linking Brazil's Amazon rain forest to Ecuador's Pacific coast, saying it could be an alternative to the Panama Canal.

Chavez also said he was offering his oil-rich nation's refining capacity to Ecuador to help the country slash high energy costs. He said Venezuela would charge only the cost of refining as part of the deal, which is similar to those extended to other nations in the hemisphere.

Correa had no immediate comment on the offer.

Chavez also has extended a hand to close ally Morales. On Sunday, the two presidents will celebrate the groundbreaking of a gas separation plant in Bolivia's gas-rich Chaco region, a joint venture between Petroleos de Venezuela SA, or PDVSA, and Bolivia's state energy company.

Chavez, a fierce critic of President Bush, has used Venezuela's petrodollar wealth to counter U.S. influence in the region. Venezuela is the only Latin American member of OPEC and has the largest proven oil reserves outside the Middle East.

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