Caribbean leaders at odds over Venezuela's Chavez

Amid the lush beauty and black, sandy beaches of the cash-strapped island of Dominica, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is providing free cooking gas to the poor, financing a coffee treatment plant and constructing an oil-storage facility.

Fewer than 160 miles south, in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the self-described socialist revolutionary is providing millions of dollars' worth of equipment to construct a new international airport.

As Chavez expands his sphere of influence into the Caribbean, many of its leaders are quietly voicing discomfort, worried that it is a distraction that could undermine a decades-long effort to unite the community of 15 mostly English-speaking Caribbean nations into a single, influential economic trade bloc.

Two weeks ago, Antigua and Barbuda became the third member of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), after Dominica and St. Vincent and the Grenadines, to join Chávez's Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas (ALBA) bloc.

Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Patrick Manning said at a CARICOM summit here that an alliance of the three countries with ALBA – a fourth, he adds, is considering joining is a "new development that has to be examined."

The growing concerns come as the mostly tourist-dependent Caribbean nations desperately search for ways to stave off economic peril in the wake of the spreading global financial crisis, and frustrations building within their own ranks over the slow pace of progress in creating what is to be a European Union-type economic model – allowing for the free movement of goods, services and labor across the region.

It also comes as leaders question Chávez's motives and his proposal that the ALBA bloc of mostly leftist radical countries form a joint military alliance.

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