The European Union opens a three-day Latin America summit in Vienna on Thursday with the world's oil crisis set to top the agenda. The summit will focus on trade but is not expected to produce any major agreements.
Energy is a burning issue
It is the fourth such meeting, with the last EU-Latin America-Caribbean summit coming two years ago in Guadalajara, Mexico. Some 60 heads of state and government, as well as UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, are expected to attend.
Latin America's superstar, Cuban leader Fidel Castro, is not coming but presidents Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil, Argentina's Nestor Kirchner, Mexico's Vicente Fox, and Chile's Michelle Bachelet will be there as well as leftist national leaders Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Boliva.
Bolivia caused a stir when it nationalized its oil industry
Morales has made headlines by nationalizing the oil industry in his country and Chavez probes a strongly anti-American, anti-imperialist line, despite his country being one of the United States' major oil suppliers.
There may be more sympathy in Europe than in Washington for the populist aspirations of such Latin American leaders.
European Commissioner for Foreign Affairs Benita Ferrero-Waldner said in March that "inequalities clear the way for populists to present themselves as leaders at certain times.
"People want equality, want to do away with poverty," she said.
Human rights will be a key theme during the summit. Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik, speaking for Austria as current EU president and host of the gathering, has said that social cohesion and the fight against poverty must be encouraged.
On Thursday, foreign ministers will debate "strengthening the bi-regional strategic association," Plassnik said in a statement on the Austrian presidency's Web site for the summit.
She said Europe and Latin America are "partners" and have the same values.
The two regions each have about half a billion inhabitants and have evolved towards democracy.
The EU is overall the largest investor in Latin America, the major aid donor and the region's second-largest trading partner, after the United States.
Bilateral trade increased 13 percent in 2005 to reach 118 billion euros ($147 billion), according to EU statistics.
There will be a "business forum," attended by over 200 entrepreneurs, bankers and politicians, during the summit.
But political analyst Ramon Torrent said at a recent seminar in Vienna that the summit would focus on "political declarations rather than practical results."
The EU regularly holds talks with the four-nation South American Mercosur bloc
Eneko Landabaru, chief of external affairs at the European Commission wants to get talks started on a free-trade agreement for the EU with central America, even if no customs agreements have been agreed after seven years of talks with the South American Mercosur common market of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay.
Local interests in the Caribbean as well as the threat of a break-up of the Andean community of nations, from which Venezuela has pulled out, are obstacles to regional integration in Latin America.
More widespread trade agreements with the EU depend on such integration.
On the other hand, say analysts, political problems in the EU keep it from reaching out more to Latin America, which remains a key sphere of influence of the United States.
After rejecting a European constitution, "the EU has neither the political leadership nor the decision-making ability to make Latin America a key part of its overall world strategy," said Argentinian political analyst Raul Bernal-Meza.