Leaders at Americas talks: world economy top worry
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Leaders from across Latin America and the Caribbean pledged closer ties to safeguard their economies from the world financial crisis as they formed a new bloc on Saturday including every nation in the hemisphere except the U.S. and Canada.
Several presidents stressed during the two-day summit that they hope to ride out turbulent times by boosting local industries and increasing trade within the region.
"It seems it's a terminal, structural crisis of capitalism," Bolivian President Evo Morales said in a speech Saturday. "I feel we're meeting at a good moment to debate ... the great unity of the countries of America, without the United States."
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and some of his closest allies called the new regional bloc a tool for opposing U.S. influence. But other leaders focused more on economic concerns and on working together to confront issues such as drug trafficking and the effects of climate change.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff said that if the nations are to keep thriving they will need to look more to their neighbors.
"The economic, financial crisis should be at the center of our concerns," Rousseff said Friday night. She said Latin America should "realize that to guarantee its current cycle of development despite the international economic turbulence, it means that every politician must be aware that each one needs the others."
The region has so far weathered the economic woes better than the U.S. or Europe, achieving economic growth of more than 5 percent last year.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said the region has immense potential "in this world that's going through great uncertainty, where there's a hurricane that's hitting the so-called industrialized economies hard." He said Colombia's current trade with Brazil, for instance, is minimal and could grow significantly.
Chavez read aloud a letter from Chinese President Hu Jintao congratulating the leaders on forming a new 33-nation regional bloc, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States. Hu pledged to deepen cooperation with the new group.
The U.S. remains the top trading partner of many countries in the region, with exceptions including Brazil and Chile, where China has become the biggest trading partner. China has also made diplomatic inroads, including by granting about $38 billion in loans to Venezuela in exchange for increasing shipments of oil.
Chilean President Sebastian Pinera touted the region's opportunities for growth, while Argentine President Cristina Fernandez said building trade among the countries should be a priority.
Bolivia's Morales took a different focus, strongly criticizing the International Monetary Fund and saying "they've just pillaged us and led us to poverty."
Morales also appealed for strong steps at this month's climate change conference in South Africa, saying it's critical that developed nations renew pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.
"If they kill the protocol, they kill the planet," Morales said.
Trinidad and Tobago's prime minister, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, also expressed concerns about changing weather patterns and said nations should work together to better plan for disasters.
Several leaders called for closer cooperation to fight criminals and drug trafficking.
"Our region is seriously threatened by organized crime," Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom said.
Colombia's Santos said the new bloc could help in re-examining whether current counter-drug efforts are the right approach.
Caribbean leaders including Haitian President Michel Martelly thanked Chavez for selling their nations oil on preferential terms, including long-term, low interest loans.
"The people of Haiti love you with all their hearts," Martelly told Chavez during his speech, saying "south-south cooperation" is key to the future of his impoverished country.
Chavez assured leaders he will survive cancer, reiterating that he underwent recent tests in Cuba after finishing chemotherapy and they found no "malignant cells in any part of my body, thanks to God."
Trinidad's prime minister gave Chavez a vial of what she described as holy water, and Chavez thanked her, saying "soon we will have a summit of those of us who've beaten cancer."
Venezuela's government celebrated the gathering at a Caracas military base with bursts of fireworks that could be heard from the session. Other events included an orchestral performance led by Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel and a post-summit concert headlined by Puerto Rican hip-hop duo Calle 13.
The leaders planned to formally launch the new bloc known by its Spanish initials CELAC on Saturday by approving the group's procedural rules as well as a clause dealing with democratic norms and a declaration of shared principles.
Both Chavez and Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa said they hope the bloc eventually overshadows the importance of the Washington-based Organization of American States. Unlike the OAS, the new group will have Cuba as a full member and exclude the U.S. and Canada.
"We need a new inter-American system and, more specifically, a new system to guarantee human rights," Correa said Friday, referring to the Washington-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which has received complaints from Ecuadorean newspapers and television channels that accuse his government of trying to silence critics.
"All these attacks and threats are made in the name of freedom of expression," Correa added, accusing powerful media outlets of manipulating public opinion.
Several other presidents said they see CELAC as an important forum to resolve conflicts and build closer ties, but not as an alternative to existing bodies such as the OAS.
Associated Press writer Christopher Toothaker contributed to this report.