CARACAS Displaying new vigor after cancer treatment, Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez hosted fellow Latin American leaders to launch a new regional body on Friday that pointedly excludes the United States.
The inauguration of the 33-member Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), which also does not include Canada, was the Venezuelan socialist's biggest moment on the world stage since he underwent surgery in June.
The 57 year-old Chavez, who wants to win re-election next October in the OPEC nation, embraced and lavished warm words on his counterparts, including Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, Argentina's Cristina Fernandez and Cuba's Raul Castro.
"As the years go by, CELAC is going to leave behind the old and worn-out OAS," Chavez said, referring to the hemisphere-wide Organization of American States that leftist governments say is under Washington's thumb.
The new group has lofty aims including the creation of a regional reserves fund for economic crises and a body for human rights monitoring. But critics say it unnecessarily adds yet another acronym to the plethora of overlapping, "alphabet soup" organizations that already exist around Latin America.
Exuding confidence, Chavez spoke at length and even made light of his health problems. "Whose bald head is the most elegant? Lula's or mine?" he joked of his and former Brazilian leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's chemotherapy.
The CELAC nations have nearly 600 million people and a gross domestic product of about $6 trillion. Analysts said the new body shows the region's wish to move out of the shadow of Washington.
"This has been aided by a progressive disengagement from the region by the U.S. since the end of the Cold War, allowing other countries -- most notably China -- to increase their footprint," said Robert Munks of global think tank IHS Janes.
Chavez's fellow leftists gave the meeting an immediate political slant. "It's the death sentence for the Monroe Doctrine," said Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega, referring to a hated 19th century U.S. policy that many Latin Americans regard as justifying meddling in their region.
More conservative leaders, though, are believed to have watered down the summit's final declarations, and the next meeting will be hosted by Chile's right-wing government.
Venezuelan opposition activists organized protests after dark, honking horns and beating pots and pans in parts of the city in a traditional "cacerolazo" demonstration.
"During Hugo Chavez's presidency in our country more than 100,000 Venezuelans have died due to crime, thanks to the government's inefficiency in taming crime bands and drug-trafficking," said protest organizer and opposition candidate Maria Corina Machado on her Twitter site.
At the same time, in a colorful demonstration of Venezuela's polarized politics, fireworks went off across the city organized by the government in honor of the meeting.
The two-day summit was meant to be held six months ago to coincide with Venezuela's 200th anniversary of independence. It was called off at the last minute as Chavez recovered in Havana following surgery to remove a baseball-sized tumor.
Chavez says he is cured after four chemotherapy sessions, although cancer specialists say it is too early to make such a call. Privately, people close to his administration say there remains great concern about the secrecy around his health.
"I feel good," he said. "It's a new Chavez, more patient."
Chavez's health is the great unknown in the 2012 election.
A newly united opposition believes it has the best chance yet of unseating him since he won power in a 1998 vote.
Analysts say right now Chavez looks a good bet to win in 2012, albeit by a narrow margin, due to widespread support among the poor, an economic upturn and heavy state spending
fueled by oil. But they warn many unknown factors -- like his health and the strength of the opposition campaign -- could change the picture before October 7.
(Additional reporting by Eyanir Chinea, Diego Ore, Deisy Buitrago, Mario Naranjo, Enrique Andres Pretel; editing by Chris Wilson)