CARACAS (Reuters) - A new Latin American and Caribbean organization backed Argentina’s claim to sovereignty over the British-ruled Falkland Islands and slammed U.S. sanctions on Cuba at Saturday’s end of a two-day summit.
But the 33-member Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, or CELAC, drew short of any more overt anti-Western rhetoric as some had feared at a meeting hosted by the avowedly “anti-imperialist” Venezuelan leader, Hugo Chavez.
Rather, its 22 final declarations ranged wordily but mildly over the need to combat global ills like price speculation, drugs, terrorism, nuclear arms and cruelty to migrants.
“I don’t think we’re exaggerating if we call it a historic day,” said Chavez, 57, for whom the summit achieved two aims: setting up a regional body without the United States, and allowing him to showcase his recovery from cancer treatment.
“United in our differences, we must demand respect,” Chavez told the assembly. “No more interference, we’ve had enough.”
Chavez and other left-wing leaders like Raul Castro of Cuba, Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, Evo Morales of Bolivia and Rafael Correa of Ecuador say the hemisphere-wide Organization of American States is too eager to please Washington.
But conservative-led nations like Colombia, Chile and Mexico have clearly ensured the CELAC does not become a mouthpiece for them, with the final declarations relatively mild and next year’s meeting set for Santiago, Chile.
Although they will raise eyebrows in Washington and London, the communiques over the Falklands - or Malvinas islands as they are known in Argentina - and the U.S. embargo on Cuba were fairly standard positions around the region.
The final declaration backed Argentina’s “legitimate rights” and urged Britain to resume negotiations.
“The Argentine government has shown a permanently constructive attitude and willingness to reach, via negotiations, a peaceful and definitive solution to this anachronistic, colonial situation on American soil.”
Almost 30 years after the countries fought a 10-week war over the South Atlantic islands, the archipelago remains an emotional national symbol for many in Argentina.
On Cuba, CELAC, whose countries have nearly 600 million people and annual gross domestic product of about $6 trillion, urged Washington to respect U.N. votes and lift trade sanctions in place for decades against the communist government.
Chavez, who had cancer surgery in June, relished his biggest moment on the international stage since then. He presided over lengthy sessions and speeches, frequently intervening to add his own anecdotes and opinions.
But he looked noticeably more tired on the second day.
He plans to run for re-election in 2012, and his opponents used the summit to mount some protests in an attempt to embarrass him in front of his Latin American counterparts.
Activists beat pots and pans around the city on Saturday night in a traditional “cacerolazo” demonstration. Some banners were also briefly unfurled over roads saying “Welcome to Crime City” - before police removed them.
“You should not ignore that your host, Commander Hugo Chavez Frias runs a government that systematically violates the democratic principles that most of you promote and represent in your respective countries,” opposition presidential aspirant Pablo Medina said in an open letter.
Supporters from Venezuelan slum-dwellers to foreign left-wing intellectuals say Chavez has done what no other president here has even attempted - put the OPEC nation’s vast oil wealth at the service of the poor.
Critics counter that he has squandered Venezuela’s wealth, notably by giving cheap oil to allies like Cuba, and has also behaved like a dictator in packing courts and other institutions with supporters, and harassing opponents.
Chavez’s health is the great unknown in the October 7, 2012 election, when the opposition believes it has the best chance of unseating him since he took power in 1999.
Chavez says he is cured after four chemotherapy sessions, though cancer specialists say it is too early to make such a call. Privately, some government officials admit there is great concern about the secrecy surrounding his health.
Additional reporting by Eyanir Chinea, Deisy Buitrago, Mario Naranjo, Enrique Pretel, Diego Ore, Girish Gupta; editing by Todd Eastham