MONTEVIDEO Presidents of the Mercosur trade bloc on Tuesday agreed to individually raise tariffs on imports to shield their industries from a flood of cheaper imported goods stemming from the global economic crisis.
At a meeting in Uruguay's capital, full members Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay said the plan to hike duties aims to protect industries from what Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff called "an avalanche of predatory imports that jeopardize growth and employment."
During Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's first official trip abroad since undergoing cancer surgery in June, Mercosur countries also pushed for Venezuela's incorporation into the trade bloc.
The 57-year-old socialist leader aims to quell concerns over his health after doctors removed a large tumor from his pelvis and gave him chemotherapy. He plans to run for another six-year term in an October presidential election.
"I've overcome the most difficult phase of this cancer," Chavez told reporters upon arrival in Montevideo. "I'm fully back on my feet and here to make a strong play for Latin America's integration and unity."
Venezuela has been aiming for full status in the trade bloc for years, but congressional approvals have been slow to come and Paraguayan legislators continue to block the move.
Chavez appealed to the bloc's smaller members, saying "the day we have full membership in Mercosur, Uruguay and Paraguay will be able to sell much more to Venezuela."
Earlier in the day, Ecuador President Rafael Correa also said his country hopes to become a full member of Mercosur.
The summit was interrupted earlier on when Ivan Heyn, Argentina's deputy foreign trade secretary and a member of the country's delegation, was found dead in his hotel room. Uruguayan police said it appeared to be a suicide.
BAN ON FALKLANDS
In an act of solidarity with Argentina, Chavez and his counterparts said vessels sailing under a Falkland Islands flag would be banned from docking at Mercosur ports.
The South Atlantic islands are a powerful Argentine national symbol and the government often reiterates its sovereignty claim over the archipelago almost 30 years after Argentina and Britain went to war over it.
Britain has in turn protested to Argentina over its interception of UK-licensed fishing boats in disputed waters near the Falkland Islands.[ID:nL5E7N63R0]
But the summit's focus was on safeguarding the region's prosperity. South American countries have been growing at fast rates in recent years but their expansion could be reined due to the global economic slowdown.
"We have reasons to be worried over the prospect of a global recession amid a brusque contraction," Rousseff said, adding that Mercosur members must act swiftly to protect their industries and avoid imports from flooding the trade bloc.
(Reporting by Felipe Llambias; Writing by Hilary Burke and Luis Andres Henao; Editing by Gary Hill)