Saturday, February 27, 2010

Latin America creates bloc sans US

Latin America creates bloc sans US

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Latin America and Caribbean leaders united Tuesday to create a regional bloc excluding Canada and the United States, but its birth was undermined by a spat in which the Colombian president told Venezuela's Hugo Chavez to "be a man."

Many of the 32 Latin American and Caribbean countries participating in the summit have long called for a new organization that will not be dominated by the interests of their two wealthy northern neighbors. The Washington-based Organization of American States, the largest diplomatic bloc in the Western Hemisphere, has been heavily influenced by the United States.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who hosted the summit in a Caribbean resort, said the bloc "will consolidate and globally project a Latin American and Caribbean identity."

Latin American countries, however, have competing interests of their own — a point driven home by bickering at the summit.

At a dinner Monday night, conservative Colombian President Alvaro Uribe started complaining about Venezuela's trade sanctions against Colombia, according to an official who spoke on condition of anonymity because delegations at the meeting had agreed not to discuss the spat publicly.

He described the following incident to reporters: Chavez shot back that Venezuela was constantly threatened by paramilitaries in the neighboring country and suggested the Colombian government was involved.

Chavez then stood up from the table, ready to storm off, when Uribe told him to stay and "be a man."

Chavez told Uribe to "go to hell," according to Venezuelan state television.

After they calmed down, the leaders agreed to create a "group of friends" to mediate between the feuding presidents. Chavez and Uribe played down the incident Tuesday, promising to work out their differences.

Then, Bolivian President Evo Morales, one of Chavez's strongest allies, reignited tensions by suggesting Uribe was a U.S. agent sent to sabotage the bloc.

"What's my conclusion?" Morales said. "Since we are debating a new organization without the United States, the agents of the United States have come to bog this down to make this event fail."

Meanwhile, Washington welcomed the new group.

"Virtually all of the countries attending the unity summit are strong partners of the United States and we are working together with them on a broad range of initiatives," said U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley. "So we consider the meeting in Mexico as consistent with our goals for the hemisphere."

The leaders agreed to meet again in Venezuela in 2011.

The bloc's formation is expected to take years and faces many challenges.

Latin America remains divided on whether to recognize the government of Honduran President Porfirio Lobo, who won November elections organized under interim leaders who took power after the June 28 ouster of then-President Manuel Zelaya.

Lobo was not invited to the summit and had not spoken to any of its participants, although the presidents who did attend spoke of including all 33 Latin American and Caribbean nations — including Honduras — in the new bloc. Lobo's spokesman said Honduras wants to join.

The leaders did not discuss Honduras to avoid polarizing the group, Calderon said.

Participants also disagreed on whether the bloc should replace the OAS, but they did find common ground on some issues, rallying around Argentina in its condemnation of Britain's oil exploration in waters surrounding the Falkland Islands, which Argentina claims as its own and calls Las Malvinas.

Brazilian President Inacio Lula da Silva criticized the United Nations for not pushing more forcefully to reopen the debate on the Falkland Islands.

"What is the geographic, the political or economic explanation for England to be in Las Malvinas?" Silva asked. "Could it be because England is a permanent member of the U.N.'s Security Council (where) they can do everything and the others nothing?"

Commenting on the formation of the new regional bloc, Peter Hakim, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue, questioned whether Latin American countries sensitive to outside meddling in their affairs will be able to confront touchy issues within their own region.

"It requires making some sacrifices of sovereignty and this is an issue that Latin America seems unyielding on," Hakim said.

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