The hemisphere formed a powerful new bloc of nations Saturday that stretches from Chile to Mexico, includes one out of every 10 people on the planet and is seeing surging growth and economic stability in a time of global turmoil.
The 33 members of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, or CELAC, vowed to push regional integration, boost commerce and form a common front against everything from global warming to the drug trade.
After two days of meetings in Venezuela, leaders signed the Caracas Declaration, which breathes life into an organization that includes every country in the region except the United States and Canada. Chile will preside over the group in 2012, then Cuba in 2013.
The event brought together a disparate group of nations with sometimes competing visions for the CELAC. Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia, among others, see the body as a tool to blunt U.S. influence in the region and rival the Organization of American States – which they accuse of being under U.S. sway.
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Another faction, which includes Chile, Costa Rica and Colombia, expects the new body to work hand-in-hand with existing multilateral organizations.
“This integration can’t be against anyone,” said Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. “It isn’t against the OASThis integration is in favor of Latin America and the Caribbean. And if we play with a more proactive and positive attitude we will get much farther.”
Santos said the new organization should focus on creating roads and infrastructure that would boost regional commerce among nations that still, by and large, look to the United States as their largest trade partner.
Chilean President Sebastián Piñeda, the group leader in 2012, said the CELAC should promote education, innovation and investment. He said the bloc is being formed as the region is poised to see economic growth of 5 percent this year and is enjoying financial stability that’s the envy of U.S. and Europe.
“I am convinced that the 21st Century belongs to Latin America and the Caribbean,” he said.
The CELAC was first proposed in 2010 during a meeting of regional leaders in Cancun. Mexican President Felipe Calderón was the first speaker on Friday. He said the CELAC should tackle poverty, violence and organized crime.
In particular, drug-consuming nations like the United States and Europe need to take more responsibility for the narcotics-fueled violence that has saddled Central America and the Caribbean with some of the planet’s highest homicide rates.
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega suggested that the CELAC “monitor and rate” the United States’ drug efforts – like the U.S. State Department does the region.
“All the money, regardless of by how much it’s multiplied, and all the blood, no matter how much is spilled,” will not stop the drug trade “as long as the north continues consuming,” Ortega said.
Initially, the CELAC will be run by the trio of Venezuela, Chile and Cuba.
However, several Caribbean nations asked to be included in the steering group and Panama asked for a permanent secretariat to be established.
While the event focused on regional issues, it was also a venue for national gripes. Ortega blamed Washington for financing protests against his questioned reelection, and Bolivia asked the CELAC to intervene on its behalf to regain access to the Pacific, which it lost to Chile in 1879.
Ecuador President Rafael Correa used much of his opening statement to accuse the Ecuadorean press of operating with impunity on behalf of his enemies. Press groups and the OAS’s Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have warned that Correa is using the courts to muzzle and intimidate the media.
But Correa’s position resonated with other leaders. Bolivia, Panama, Nicaragua and Suriname said they faced similar press attacks.
The media is “one of the instruments always used against leaders that do not walk the walk or dance the dance other countries want them to,” Suriname President Dési Bourterse said.
Colombia’s Santos asked members not to acknowledge a plea from his nation’s two main rebel groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, and the National Liberation Army, asking the CELAC to press for peace talks. Santos said the rebels have “tricked” the country before, but if they do show a genuine willingness to talk “I will be the first one to ask for your help.”
The event was particularly meaningful for Cuba, which was barred from the OAS for more than 40 years and then refused to join when it was invited to do so in 2009.
As Cuban President Raul Castro was introduced to the forum Friday, he received a standing ovation and the crowd broke out into a chorus of “Viva Fidel!” referring to his older brother.
Castro said the CELAC should work to make Latin America “a region of peace and free of all foreign military” – a reference to the U.S. military presence at Guantánamo Bay in southeast Cuba.
The event was also a showcase for Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez who had been sidelined by an undisclosed form of cancer. Looking bloated but energetic during the event, Chávez said he is “free of malignant cells” despite those who claim “to have my medical team infiltrated and say the cancer has embedded in my bone marrow.”
When Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar gave Chávez a bottle of “holy water” from a sacred mountain in her country, he vowed to visit the site and take a swim.
Chávez said that for the last 200 years the region has tried to embrace the dream of liberator Simon Bolivar and form a common front. But he said there are forces out there who don’t want a unified Latin America.
“Let’s not let them derail us,” Chávez said. “There are people that spend their days thinking about how to create war between us. We’ve had enough of fighting.”
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