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Energy Costs Focus of OAS Assembly

Top officials from across the Americas are gathering in Panama for a meeting of the Organization of American States to discuss concerns about the energy sector. In Panama City, VOA's Brian Wagner reports the 34-nation group opens the meeting Sunday to consider the role of electrical energy in economic development and poverty.

Leaders of the Organization of American States called the general assembly in Panama to discuss the importance of energy for sustainable development and its possible role in reducing poverty. Foreign ministers and other top officials from 34 nations are meeting for three days of talks on energy and other key concerns to the region.

OAS Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza said the theme of the meeting shows there is growing consensus that energy is a major cause of social and economic inequality among nations in the Americas. He said more nations must accept that stable energy supplies are the backbone of sustainable economic development, social inclusion and poverty eradication.

In a press conference Saturday, Insulza said he hoped member nations would embrace the need for reform across the region. He says Latin America and the Caribbean, like other developing regions in the world, do not promote energy efficiency and do not make sufficient efforts to reduce energy consumption.

Insulza said nearly 50 million people in Latin America have no access to electricity and, therefore, have no access to the benefits provided by electrical power. He said providing reliable sources of energy is a first step to bringing computers, Internet access and other improvements to many communities in the region.

He says Latin American leaders must bring electricity to the poorest communities if there is a real desire to implement economic development.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is to travel to Panama Monday for meetings with Panama's President Martin Torrijos and delegations from other Latin American nations.

Officials said Rice hopes to promote U.S. efforts to build sustainable energy partnerships, aimed at reducing the region's dependence on fossil fuels. They said Rice will seek support for a deal with Brazil to expand the production of biofuels across the region, such as ethanol which is mainly produced in the United States and Brazil. Officials say El Salvador and Dominican Republic have been included in the biofuels project, which they said could benefit many other nations.

Saturday, a delegation of U.S. lawmakers met the Panamanian president for talks on a free trade deal between the two nations. Panama approved the deal last year, but U.S. legislators have yet to back the deal partly because of concerns over the potential impacts on American workers.

The OAS assembly also is expected to address concerns of member nations, such as Argentina's claim to the Falkland Islands and Bolivian desires for better access to the Pacific Ocean.

At Saturday's press conference, several journalists asked Insulza whether the assembly would address Venezuela's decision not to renew the license of its largest private television station, which stopped broadcasting last week. The decision sparked tense protests in the Venezuelan capital by government critics who said the move against Radio Caracas Television is a violation of free speech. Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez has accused the station of backing a 2002 coup against him.

Insulza said there were no formal proposals about RCTV, but he said OAS member nations were free to introduce drafts during the assembly. In January, the OAS leader said he recognized the accusations against RCTV, but warned the decision would be perceived as government censorship.

During a trip to Spain on Friday, Secretary of State Rice called on Venezuela to reverse the decision, which she said was undemocratic and isolated Venezuela's government.