Venezuela explores a South American trade bloc

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said on Sunday he was moving toward alternatives to a US-backed regional trade proposal as Venezuela explores full entry into a South American trade bloc in discussions with visiting Argentine President Nestor Kirchner. Chavez bluntly portrayed the South American trade bloc Mercosur as an alternative to the US-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. Chavez said he didn't want to intensify the dispute by "putting more fuel on the fire," but he said that Venezuela would continue urging Latin American nations to unite rather than sign free-trade deals with Washington. Chavez argues the FTAA would help big US companies at the expense of Latin America's poor.