CARACAS (Reuters) - Showing off new energy after cancer treatment, Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez hosted Latin American leaders on Friday to create a new regional body that pointedly excludes the United States.
The inauguration of the 33-member Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), which also deliberately excludes Canada, is the charismatic socialist’s biggest moment on the world stage since his surgery in June.
The 57-year-old former coup leader, who wants to win re-election next October in the OPEC nation, warmly greeted fellow leaders 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 told reporters, referring to the hemisphere-wide Organization of American States that leftist nations say is under Washington’s thumb.
“The OAS is a body made ragged by its age and drained by the years, and it’s very far from the spirit of our people.”
Exuding joy at an event critics say adds yet another unnecessary group to a plethora of overlapping organizations in the region, Chavez even showed off the artistic skills he has honed during long days of recuperation.
Argentina’s Fernandez shed a tear when Chavez presented her with a large painting he did depicting himself with her late husband. “It is the best picture I’ve ever painted,” he said.
The countries of CELAC have nearly 600 million people and comprise the world’s number one food exporter. They have a combined GDP of about $6 trillion - roughly a third of the combined output of the United States and Canada.
Cuba, suspended from the OAS in 1962, is a CELAC member.
Analysts say the new body demonstrates the wish of Latin America and the Caribbean to move out of the shadow of Washington and take greater control of their own affairs.
“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 in primarily economic, but also political, terms,” 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.
The December 2-3 summit was meant to be held six months ago to coincide with Venezuela’s 200th anniversary of independence. But 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.
Chavez plans to visit Argentina later this month for his first official trip abroad since his treatment.
“I feel good, but of course, slowly by slowly putting the brakes on the horses, putting the brakes on impulses. It’s a new Chavez, more patient,” he said in a meeting with Rousseff.
The president’s health is the great unknown in the 2012 election. A newly united opposition believes it has the best chance yet of toppling him since the former coup leader came to power via the ballot box in 1999.
One opposition candidate, Maria Corina Machado, urged supporters to greet the CELAC leaders late on Friday with a noisy “cacerolazo” - the beating of pots and pans which is a traditional form of popular protest here.
“The presidents who are visiting Venezuela will hear what the government is hiding,” she said on Twitter.
But most analysts expect Chavez to win next year, albeit narrowly, due to still widespread support among the poor, an economic upturn and heavy state spending fueled by oil.
Additional reporting by Eyanir Chinea, Diego Ore, Deisy Buitrago; editing by Todd Eastham