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Chávez’s Plan for Development Bank Moves Ahead

The idea by Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s president, to create a Bank of the South to finance regional development projects is moving forward, aided by the tacit approval of Brazil, which has South America’s largest economy.

But doubts persist about the need for such a bank, which many economists and analysts continue to see as a political move by Mr. Chávez to try to spread his influence and carry out his crusade against Washington-based multilateral institutions like the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank.

Seven South American countries are expected to inaugurate the new bank at a ceremony on Nov. 3 in Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, where it will be based. At a meeting here earlier this month the countries — Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela — signed off on the idea of creating an institution with up to $7 billion in initial capital, paving the way for the bank to begin operating as early as 2008.

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Conoco CEO: Venezuela talks to take several months

ConocoPhillips (COP.N: Quote, Profile, Research) Chief Executive James Mulva said on Monday talks with Venezuela on reaching a compensation deal over the seizure of the oil company's assets in the Orinoco Belt could take several months.

In June, both Conoco and an fellow energy giant Exxon Mobil Corp (XOM.N: Quote, Profile, Research) decided to walk away from multibillion dollar energy investments in Orinoco rather than agree to state oil company PDVSA taking over the assets.

Mulva told reporters at the American Petroleum Institute that negotiations with Venezuelan officials and PDVSA were continuing, "We continue to discuss our situation in Venezuela with PDVSA and (Energy) Minister (Rafael) Ramirez and expect that to continue over the next several months," Mulva said.

Conoco's stake has been estimated between a book value of $4.5 billion and a market value of $7 billion while Exxon's stake was seen between $750 million and $2 billion.

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Exxon CEO: Settlement with Venezuela could be reached before arbitration concludes

Although Exxon Mobil Corp. filed an arbitration claim against Venezuela, the U.S. oil giant continues to pursue settlement talks that could yield a quicker resolution, Chief Executive Rex Tillerson said Monday.

Tillerson described talks with Venezuela as ongoing and said he still hopes an amicable resolution is possible.

"In the meantime, we thought it was necessary to move on with the arbitration proceeding to protect our shareholders," Tillerson said. "It doesn't preclude us to come to some settlement before we get to the end of the arbitration proceeding that obviously we think will take several years."

Tillerson, speaking with reporters on the sidelines of the American Petroleum Institute's annual meeting, said the company has had contact with Venezuelan officials, both in Washington and Caracas. "We know how to reach one another," Tillerson said.

Irving, Texas-based Exxon Mobil, along with fellow U.S. oil giant ConocoPhillips, announced plans to exit Venezuela's Orinoco basin in June after refusing to agree to a new fiscal regime that steered more of the profits to Venezuela's national oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela SA.

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Cuba, Venezuela strengthen economic ties

Revolutionary allies Cuba and Venezuela signed a raft of economic accords on Monday aimed at furthering cooperation, including plans for nickel and oil development and a billion-dollar petrochemical complex in Cuba.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and acting Cuban President Raul Castro presided over the signings, the latest in a series of such events as the two countries cement their political and economic ties in fierce opposition to the U.S. presence in the region.

Ailing President Fidel Castro and Chavez in 2004 founded the Bolivian Alternative for the Americas, under which Monday's accords were signed, as an alternative to U.S.-led free trade initiatives.

So far just Bolivia and Nicaragua have joined the pact.

The two countries have already formed 19 joint ventures in many different sectors, especially energy where they are upgrading a Cuban super-tanker port, operating oil tankers and putting into operation a long dormant oil refinery in central Cienfuegos province abandoned when the Soviet Union collapsed.

The new plans signed on Monday call for building a plant to turn liquefied natural gas back into gas and study the potential to build a fertilizer plant and other petrochemical plants around the refinery.

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Venezuela May Lower Voting Age, Add Gay Rights in Constitution

A Venezuelan legislative committee voted to lower the voting age and protect gay rights in a expansion of President Hugo Chavez's plan to rewrite the country's constitution.

Venezuelans would gain the right to vote at age 16 under the proposed changes, down from the current age of 18, and discrimination based on sexual orientation would be formally outlawed in the constitution, according to a statement on the National Assembly's Web site.

The Chavez-controlled National Assembly is likely trying to expand the voter base and tap increased support for the president's socialist ``Bolivarian revolution'' among younger Venezuelans, said Riordan Roett, head of Latin American Studies at Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.

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Chavez boosts image in messy Colombian mediation

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has improved his international image by mediating with Colombian rebels to release high-profile U.S. and French hostages despite a sputtering start to talks.

His diatribes typically distance him from Western governments. Outside Latin America, he focuses much of his foreign policy on cozying up to other U.S. antagonists such as Iran, Belarus and Russia.

But the chance in recent weeks to aid his neighbor, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, has brought immediate diplomatic gains even though he has failed to arrange a first meeting with the FARC guerrillas.

Chavez won praise in telephone calls with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, while the top U.S. diplomat for Latin America met his foreign minister for the first time and 41 European nations issued a statement supporting his efforts.

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Bank of the South sets launch date on Nov. 3 in Venezuela

The Bank of the South — once just a gleam in the eye of South American leaders — now has a due date.

Finance Ministers from seven nations announced Monday that the multinational funding institute, which will operate similarly to the Inter-American Development Bank, will be founded Nov. 3 in Caracas, Venezuela.

The bank is the brainchild of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has been promoting it as an alternative to the International Monetary Fund, which he blames for perpetuating poverty and contributing to inflation in Latin America.

"We can now say that the Bank of the South is about to become reality," Brazilian Finance Minister Guido Mantega told reporters in Rio de Janeiro. "It will finance integration and will be open to all of South America's 12 countries."

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Venezuela's Chavez on Moral Crusade

President Hugo Chavez is on a moral crusade in Venezuela, preaching against vices from alcohol to cholesterol, vowing to curb whisky imports and ordering beer trucks off the street.

His government announced increased taxes on alcohol and tobacco on Monday, and Chavez also plans steep new taxes on luxury items such as fancy cars and artwork.

It's all part of Chavez's efforts to encourage Venezuelans to adopt the psyche of the "New Man," a socialist revolutionary with a monk-like purity of purpose. Chavez often cites the life of Cuba's iconic hero Ernesto "Che" Guevara as an ideal example — and complains that many Venezuelans' values are not up to par.

"We're one of the countries that consumes the most whisky per capita in the world. We should be ashamed," Chavez said recently on national television. "I'm not willing to continue offering dollars to import whisky in these quantities. What kind of revolution is this? The Whisky Revolution? The Hummer Revolution? No, this is a real revolution!"

Sales of both premium whisky and Hummers are booming, however, and a good number of Venezuelans are unapologetic about it. It won't be easy for Chavez to persuade his people to shed their shopping-mall materialism and hard-drinking ways.

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US defense chief heads to Latin America under Chavez shadow

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates left Tuesday on his first trip to Latin America to meet top allies, under the shadow of Venezuela's rearmament efforts and growing ties with Iran, Russia and China.

Gates will visit El Salvador, the only Latin American country to still have troops in Iraq, on the trip. Other stops were not revealed.

Gates, who succeeded Donald Rumsfeld in December, had been scheduled to visit the region in July, with stops in Colombia, where Washington has spent billions to fight drug trafficking, and Chile and Peru. But he postponed the trip to stay in Washington for a showdown between the White House and Congress over the Iraq war.

The US defense chief will likely discuss the war with Salvadoran President Antonio Saca, whose government reduced its contingent in Iraq from 380 to 280 troops in August. Five Salvadoran soldiers have died in Iraq since 2003.

Besides meeting US allies, the US defense chief's trip is also aimed at countering the growing influence of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in the region, analysts say.

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