Latin America's largest trade bloc, the Common Market of the South (Mercosur), opened its 30th summit on Thursday in the surprise presence of Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Oil-rich Venezuela is expected to be declared a full member.
The rare guest appearance of Castro, whose trip to Argentina was announced only after he had boarded the plane, immediately became headlines in media reports. The Cuban leader was also expected to start an official visit to Argentina after the summit, held in Argentina's second largest city in the Andes foothills.
The two-day meeting will also declare Venezuela as a formal Mercosur member. The world's fifth oil exporter won accession to the bloc on July 5. Its participation will significantly enhance the economic clout of the group, which also has Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay as full members, and Bolivia, Chile, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador as associate members.
After introducing Venezuela, Mercosur will have more than 250 million people and a gross regional product of 300 billion U.S. dollars.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has said that his country will be better off in Mercosur. Under the membership agreement, Venezuela will have free access to Argentine and Brazilian markets in 2010, to those of Uruguay and Paraguay in 2013, and will open its own markets by 2012.
Chavez attended the summit with the presidents of Mercosur's first members -- Argentina's Nestor Kirchner, Brazil's Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Praguay's Nicanor Duarte and Uruguay's Tabare Vazquez.
Chilean President Michelle and Bolivian President Evo Morales, leaders of the two Mercosur associate members, also attended the summit.
High on the agenda of the summit are also regional energy cooperation, tariff policies talks, and the idea of setting up a regional development bank.
How to eliminate imbalances among member states is also another important topic for the meeting. Uruguay and Paraguay are expected to propose adjusting some of the trade bloc's regulations to allow member states to forge free trade agreements with non-Mercosur countries, reports said.