For Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the signing of 17 agreements Feb. 21 with President Nestor Kirchner of Argentina was part of a larger plan for cooperation and integration among South American countries.

“We are one and the same nation,” Chavez declared. “We are determined to continue pushing for integration.” Referring to historic figures revered by many across the continent, he said, “San Martin and Bolivar, Peron and Che inscribed our destiny [and] left us a commitment.”

Chavez and Kirchner met Feb. 20-21 in the Venezuelan industrial center Puerto Ordaz. Trade between the two countries has increased almost 1,000 percent in four years, from $100 million in 2003 to an expected $1 billion in 2007. The agreements covered finance, agriculture, food supply, farm equipment manufacturing, new housing and energy.

In return for Venezuelan energy assistance, Argentina will provide new technologies for Venezuela’s agricultural sector, including cattle husbandry laboratories, an experimental potato-growing farm and new farm equipment manufacturing plants, as well as a fleet of buses fueled by natural gas.

Venezuela will provide $135 million toward modernizing Argentina’s giant Sancor milk processing plants. Sancor will build plants and refrigeration facilities in Venezuela and over 12 years will provide 15 million tons of powdered milk.

Argentina will also build thousands of houses in Venezuela.

ENARSA, the Argentinean state oil company, along with a Uruguayan oil company, will join Venezuela’s national oil corporation in drilling for oil in the Orinoco Delta.

Both countries reaffirmed Venezuela’s long-term commitment to sell gas and oil to Argentina and reiterated plans to build a Pipeline of the South to send gas to Argentina. Construction starts in 2009.

Plans were discussed for issuing a Bond of the South worth $1.5 billion, aimed at combining debts of the two nations via unified bond sales. Venezuela will be lending Argentina $750 million and selling bonds worth that amount on the open market. Venezuela sold $4 billion in bonds recently, and, under President Chavez, assumed $3 billion of Argentina’s debt.

The two nations outlined plans for a Bank of the South, aimed at bolstering regional independence from financial institutions based in Europe and the United States. The bank will finance small and medium size businesses, infrastructure projects and foreign trade development.

At Puerto Ordaz, Venezuela and Argentina established a bilateral commission to work on “operative questions” regarding the bank. Brazil and Bolivia, fellow members of the South American trade pact Mercosur, will be invited to join the planning commission, which has a four-month deadline.

On Feb. 22, Ecuadorian Economics Minister Ricardo Patiño, meeting in Caracas with his Venezuelan counterpart Rodrigo Cabezas, affirmed Ecuador’s determination to join both the planning commission and ultimately the Bank of the South.

According to Cabezas, the regional bank will “stimulate capital development allowing for investments in education, physical plants, health, infrastructure and support of production in order to attack the asymmetries of our economies.” The ministers arranged for Venezuela to lend Ecuador $500 million.

Chavez emphasized that the agreements reached in Puerto Ordaz are not a “ a national project of either Venezuela or Argentina, but rather a single unitarian idea that encompasses desires for development of all South America.”

On Feb. 20 three Caribbean nations, Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, joined the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) in island ceremonies attended by Chavez.

ALBA is emblematic of the movement toward unity in Latin America. Cuba and Venezuela formulated ALBA to promote continent-wide financial, cultural and scientific integration. Bolivia is now a member, and Daniel Ortega’s first act on becoming Nicaraguan president in January was to bring that country into ALBA. Ecuador will soon be joining the alliance.

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