February 8, 2010 / 3:31 PM / 10 years ago

South American countries seek unity to help Haiti

QUITO (Reuters) - South American leaders deeply divided by political differences may take a break from their usual recriminations on Tuesday when they meet to discuss the continent’s response to the crisis in quake-shattered Haiti.

People pray and chant along during a Sunday morning church service in the middle of the Petionville Club IDP camp, where more than 50,000 people have moved into makeshift tents when they lost their homes in the January 12 earthquake in Port-au-Prince February 7, 2010. The quake killed more than 200,000 people and left over 1 million homeless. REUTERS/Sophia Paris/UN Photo/Handout

Previous meetings of the UNASUR group of countries have been marked by insults between its left- and right-leaning members.

This time investors will watch to see if leaders can unite behind the cause of Haiti, soften their political rhetoric and set the stage for better trade as South America tries to pull out of the economic doldrums of 2009.

Conservative Colombian President Alvaro Uribe will attend in his first visit to Ecuador since a 2008 diplomatic break after he ordered the bombing of a rebel camp on Ecuador’s side of the border.

The raid prompted the leftist governments of Ecuador and Venezuela to temporarily increase troops on their frontiers with Colombia, which has received billions of dollars in U.S. aid aimed at fighting cocaine-funded Marxist guerrillas.

President Hugo Chavez will also be at the meeting. He has clamped down on Venezuela’s $7 billion (4.48 billion pounds) per year trade with Colombia over Uribe’s close military ties with Washington.

The breakdown in bilateral commerce has slowed Colombia’s recovery and added to Venezuela’s already high inflation.

Chavez has called Uribe a “lackey of the Yankee empire”, Ecuadorean leader Rafael Correa has called him a liar while Uribe has accused both of not doing enough to help combat Colombian rebels seeking refuge in neighbouring countries.

No separate talks have been scheduled among Chavez, Uribe or Correa on Tuesday. The focus instead will be on Haitian President Rene Preval, who will appeal for help in rebuilding his desperately impoverished country after last month’s earthquake killed more than 200,000 people.

UNIFYING ISSUE

The crisis is so great that it may help eclipse the differences that divide UNASUR, said Michael Shifter of Washington think tank Inter-American Dialogue.

“Haiti could be a unifying issue for the continent,” he said. “Distrust won’t disappear but this meeting might be a welcome respite.”

Chavez is not likely to drop his complaints about a deal inked in October allowing U.S. anti-drug operations to be run from Colombian air bases. He says the pact could set the stage for an invasion of his oil-rich country, an idea dismissed by Washington and Bogota.

Colombia and Ecuador have moved to repair relations in recent months but large political differences remain.

“Uribe’s trip to Quito ratifies that cooperation is improving between Colombia and Ecuador,” said Mauricio Romero, a political analyst at Bogota’s Javeriana University. “By how much remains to be seen.”

Editing by Alan Elsner

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