CARACAS, Venezuela - U.S. efforts to create a free trade zone in the Americas have failed and "should be buried," Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said on Tuesday.
The left-wing leader, a fierce critic of the policies of the United States, Venezuela's main oil client, has lobbied against the U.S.-proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas. He has portrayed Washington's plan as an attempt to impose U.S. economic and political dominance over weaker Latin American economies.
"Thank God the FTAA is dead, it should be buried," Chavez said during a ceremony commemorating the anniversary of Venezuela's 1811 Declaration of Independence.
The FTAA, discussed since the early 1990s, envisages a free trade area stretching from the southern tip of South America all the way to Alaska. Cuba would be the only country excluded.
No real progress has been made in the negotiations in the last few years and a January target date for the introduction of the FTAA was missed.
The populist leader regularly rails against the FTAA as a vehicle of U.S. "imperialism" aimed at sabotaging Latin America's attempts to unite.
"This is the path to the most complete disintegration, through competition and the predominance of the strongest over the weakest," Chavez said.
Chavez, who has positioned his self-styled socialist "revolution" in Venezuela as a counterweight to U.S. influence in Latin America, has proposed his own regional integration mechanism called the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, or ALBA.
Chavez, who says he is inspired by Latin America's Venezuelan-born 19th century independence hero Simon Bolivar, argues his ALBA proposal is based on complementary trade and cooperation, not free-market competition.
The only country to formally subscribe to ALBA is Cuba, which has turned to Venezuela for oil supplies to help its cash-starved economy.
Relations between Venezuela, the world's No. 5 oil exporter, and the United States, the top buyer of its crude oil, have soured since Chavez was first elected in 1998 and he strengthened ties with Cuba and Iran.
© 2005 Reuters