Venezuela's Hugo Chavez opened a summit Friday for a new Americas bloc that Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega called a "death sentence' to US interference in Latin America.
Latin American and Caribbean leaders gathered at a military fort for the two day meeting of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), an alliance of 33 countries that excludes the United States and Canada.
More than 10,000 security forces are ensuring safety of the summiteers in Caracas, one of the region's most dangerous cities.
"For the first time, we will have an organization for our America. And if it works, if it's successful, it can be considered the biggest event in our 200 years of semi-independence," Cuban President Raul Castro said.
The leaders were invited by Chavez, a firebrand leftist and long a thorn in Washington's side, for his first big international event since being diagnosed with cancer.
CELAC should be a "political union to build a large power center of the 21st century," Chavez said on the eve of the summit, pointing to strong regional growth, with many countries developing closer ties with Asia or Europe and reducing their traditional reliance on the United States.
But questions remain about the role the fledgling grouping will play in the diverse region, in the shadow of the current crisis in the European Union.
On Thursday, foreign ministers adopted a democracy clause in CELAC bylaws, although there was no consensus on how the group would conduct its decision-making progress.
"It provides that if a country violates a democratic order, we would open consultations and the country could be suspended" from CELAC, said Antonio Jose Ferreira Simoes, Brazil's vice-minister for South America, Central America and the Caribbean.
He said Brazil favored a decision-making process based on consensus.
The foreign ministers also approved statements on the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands, nuclear weapons, food security and terror, according to Simoes. Leaders are expected to review and discuss these documents Friday and Saturday.
Regional leaders proposed the new grouping in February 2010 in Mexico, more than 60 years after the start of the Organization of American States, which is based in Washington and from which excludes communist Cuba.
Chavez dismissed the "old and worn-out" OAS, suggesting CELAC would eventually take its place.
OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza acknowledged CELAC would be a "natural match" for the regional organization, and expressed hope that the new group would "enhance inter-American dialogue."
The first CELAC meeting was initially scheduled for July, but delayed after Chavez was diagnosed with cancer of an undisclosed type which he says he has since beaten.
The next CELA summit is scheduled to take place in Chile next year, followed by Cuba in 2013.
Source: AFP Global Edition