LatAm American, European leaders wrap up Chile summit

Latin American and European leaders agreed to boost bilateral trade as they ended a two-day summit overshadowed by a nightclub fire that killed at least 233 people in Brazil.

"It's a tragedy for all of us, and I cannot continue here at the summit, because my priority is the Brazilian people," the South American giant's President Dilma Rousseff told reporters as she cut short her visit to head home.

Shortly afterward, the summit of the European Union and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) closed, with representatives of 60 countries holding a minute of silence in honor of the victims of the tragedy in Santa Maria city.

In his closing statement to the meeting, the seventh for the two blocs, European Council President Herman van Rompuy said the "discussions have given new energy and momentum to our strategic partnership."

Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, the summit host, also hailed a "new strategic alliance to promote growth, create jobs and improve the quality of life" for citizens.

"Now is the time to act to transform good intentions into results."

The next meeting was set for 2015 in Brussels.

Europe sees Latin America as a promising outlet for products and a key supplier of mineral resources.

The EU, the world's biggest economic bloc, is still reeling from a severe financial crisis, while Latin America has posted growth rates averaging 4.5 percent.

Pinera urged the two blocs to "join forces for a better future."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, dubbed "Europe's boss" by the Chilean press, was the star of the summit, signaling her country's determination to flex her country's economic muscle in the region provided conditions are created to ensure unfettered free trade.

The Europeans have pushed for the speedy conclusion of a free trade pact with South American trading bloc Mercosur, which includes Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela.

But negotiations have so far stumbled over differences on agriculture -- notably Europe's subsidies to farmers, which undermine Latin America's efforts to sell its own products.

The Europeans appear to be showing particular interest in four Pacific Rim countries seeking greater integration: Chile, Colombia, Peru and Mexico.

In June, the four set up the Pacific Alliance in Chile, with the goal of boosting trade with the booming and resource-hungry Asia-Pacific region.

"Efforts at greater integration of the Pacific Alliance will strengthen its position regionally and internationally, which make (the four nations) even more attractive partners for European countries," said van Rompuy.

And Spain, hit hard by economic woes and high unemployment, said it was bidding to join the alliance, in which it currently holds observer status.

The Pacific Alliance has signed a host of trade agreements after liberalizing commerce with most major economies.

The EU is Latin America's second biggest trading partner behind China and is the biggest outside investor in the region, accounting for three percent of direct foreign investment in CELAC or $385 billion in 2010.

EU officials noted that the figure exceeds the combined investment in China, Russia and India.

Immediately after their meeting with EU leaders ended, CELAC leaders formally opened their own 24-hour summit to mull how to foster greater regional integration.

Set up in Caracas in December 2011 at the behest of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, CELAC groups all nations from across the Americas except the United States and Canada.

Referring to Chavez, who is recovering from cancer surgery in Cuba, Chile's Pinera said: "We all pray so that he can win this battle, perhaps the toughest of his life, so that he can resume his functions as president of Venezuela."

Cuban President Raul Castro was meanwhile set to take over CELAC chairmanship on Monday, a move hailed by his Argentine counterpart Cristina Kirchner as a sign of the "changing times."

The changeover marks Cuba's full regional reintegration and represents a major diplomatic coup for Castro, whose communist-ruled island is still reeling from a 50-year-old crippling US trade embargo.

Under a deal reached when the group was created in Caracas, Cuba will hold the presidency for the first year and Costa Rica for the second.

Also absent from the gathering were Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa, who is campaigning for re-election, and his Paraguayan counterpart Federico Franco, whose country has been suspended by his regional peers following the ouster of ex-president Fernando Lugo.