Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the Brazilian president, said that the group would rise above its historical divisions, though the process would not be easy.

 

"We must have patience, and try to solve these issues with delicacy," Lula da Silva said. "The solutions are difficult. We're not just simple workers talking about a strike at the factory."

 

The result left Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela, pleased but impatient. Chavez has long called for the region to take a greater role on the world stage.

 

Political Viagra

 

"We need a political Viagra," Chavez said. "Look, we make decisions and we don't have the power to execute them. They're stuck in these pyramids of paper."

 

The discussion over South American unity is likely to continue later this month when the leaders of Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Paraguay and Uruguay gather in Brazil for the semiannual meeting of the Mercosur trading bloc.

 

Morales opened Saturday's round-table discussion by calling on the leaders to close "the open veins of Latin America".  He was referring to Eduardo Galeano's 1971 book decrying foreign capitalist exploitation. But how to staunch the economic bleeding was a matter of debate.

 

Free trade agreement

 

Michelle Bachelet, Chile's president, whose country has a free trade agreement with the US, said globalisation had "two faces", one "potentially very destructive", but another that presented a "historic opportunity for societies like ours".

 

She urged South American leaders to take advantage of the world economy while minimising the impact of open trade on the poor.

 

Chavez, left, applauds as Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva
and Evo Morales shake hands in Cochabamba

Chavez expressed opposition to Washington-backed free market prescriptions and said that the left-wing leaders in the region had "buried" US hopes of a hemispheric free trade agreement, an effort launched a decade ago.

 

He joked that nations signing a free trade pact with the US are subsequently "flooded with chickens' hind quarters".

 

After the summit, Chavez joined Morales in addressing thousands jammed into a football stadium for a rally in which they both knocked US "imperialism" in the region.

 

Though the two did not meet one-on-one, Chavez and Alan Garcia, the Peruvian president, took advantage of the summit to make amends after exchanging insults during Garcia's presidential campaign earlier this year.

 

Continental pipeline

 

Chavez proposes South America build a natural gas pipeline across the length of the continent, while Rafael Correa, the president-elect of Ecuador, has suggested a land-and-river trade route linking Brazil's Amazon rainforest to Ecuador's Pacific coast, saying it could be an alternative to the Panama Canal.

 

Chavez also said he was offering his oil-rich nation's refining capacity to Ecuador to help the country cut energy costs. He said Venezuela would charge only the cost of refining as part of the deal, which is similar to those extended to other nations in the hemisphere.

 

Correa had no immediate comment on the offer.

 

Chavez has also extended a hand to ally Morales. On Sunday, the two presidents will celebrate the groundbreaking of a gas separation plant in Bolivia's gas-rich Chaco region, a joint venture between Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA) and Bolivia's state energy company.