President Hugo Chavez said he was moving toward alternatives to a U.S.-backed trade proposal as he headed into talks Sunday with Argentine leader Nestor Kirchner.
Chavez said talks would cover Venezuela's bid for full entry into the South American trade bloc Mercosur as he meets Kirchner in Puerto Ordaz, an industrial city about 450 kilometers (270 miles) east of Caracas.
Speaking during his regular Sunday broadcast program, Chavez said the talks were aimed at "agreements for the strengthening of South American unity" as well as "Venezuela's entrance to Mercosur."
He bluntly portrayed Mercosur as an alternative to the U.S.-promoted Free Trade Area of the Americas, or FTAA, a topic that led to unusually open squabbling during this month's hemispheric summit in Argentina.
The countries that make up Mercosur _ Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay _ have been critical of the FTAA, which would create a free-trade zone from Alaska to Argentina.
Most other Latin American nations, including Mexico and Colombia, support the FTAA and the differences led to a bitter feud between Chavez and Mexican President Vicente Fox following the Americas Summit. After Fox made veiled criticisms of anti-FTAA leaders, Chavez called Mexico an "ally of the empire," a reference to the United States, and warned Fox: "Don't mess with me."
The two countries recalled their ambassadors Tuesday as the feud escalated. Chavez said he didn't want to intensify the dispute by "putting more fuel on the fire," but he said that Venezuela will continue urging Latin American nations to unite rather than sign free-trade deals with Washington.
Chavez argues the FTAA would help big U.S. companies at the expense of Latin America's poor. He has used his nation's immense oil wealth to push his "Bolivarian Alternative" pact based on socialist principles and regional solidarity, offering fuel with preferential financing to several Caribbean and Latin American countries.
Kirchner's visit is likely to be seen as a sign of support for Chavez, who has helped Argentina through financial and oil deals. Venezuela has bought US$950 million (Ђ791.14 million) this year in Argentine bonds in what Chavez has called a step toward creating a so-called Bank of the South to help provide financing to the region. Chavez said he would talk with Kirchner about buying more Argentine debt, AP reports.