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Venezuela Leads Caribbean Energy Pact

Caribean officials, along with Hugo Chavez and Cuba's Fidel Castro at a hotel in Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela
South America's leading oil exporter Venezuela led the signing of an energy cooperation agreement among 13 nations, including Cuba. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez says the agreement helps small countries in the region afford fuel as prices rise.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez praised the creation of a new energy partnership among Caribbean countries, saying it is a way to help them afford fuel.

Mr. Chavez says the pact "helps the people of the Caribbean" by creating a regional refinery network, overseen by Venezuela, to produce and ship oil to member countries.

Venezuela is the world's fifth largest exporter of oil, producing 3.1 million barrels a day.

President Chavez also pledged to pick up 40 percent of the cost of oil going to Caribbean countries if the price per barrel on the world market was higher than $50 a barrel, as it is now. He also contributed $50 million to start the project called the "Petrocaribe Alliance."

Fourteen countries signed the pact. But Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago elected not to join the Petrocaribe agreement late Wednesday, saying they needed more time to study its terms. President Chavez said he was saddened by their reluctance to sign.

Venezuela's close ally, Cuba, has been the recipient of preferential oil prices from Venezuela for years, the result of a growing political and economic relationship between Cuban President Fidel Castro and President Chavez.

Their ties have drawn the ire of critics in the Bush administration, who accuse the Venezuelan president of trying to emulate Mr. Castro's style of authoritarian rule. In turn, the Venezuelan leader says the United States is "meddling" in his country's affairs and has alleged Washington played a role in a failed coup attempt in April 2002, an allegation the White House denies.