HAVANA – The need to make the United Nations more democratic is one thing everybody seemed to agree on at the Nonaligned Movement summit, where Raul Castro sat in for his ailing older brother and led many of the world's leaders in harshly criticizing the United States' veto power in the U.N. Security Council.
With Fidel Castro out of sight, Raul presided over the meeting of two-thirds of the world's nations, rallying some of the most outspoken U.S. foes with a speech blaming America for much of the planet's woes.
"When there no longer is a Cold War, the United States spends one billion dollars a year in weapons and soldiers and it squanders a similar amount in commercial publicity," he said. "To think that a social and economic order that has proven unsustainable could be maintained by force is simply an absurd idea."
In speech after speech, leaders of the world's less powerful nations said reforming the U.N. Security Council to balance U.S. veto power should be their key priority.
"The U.S. is turning the security council into a base for imposing its politics," Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad complained, echoing comments by Venezuela, Zimbabwe, Belarus and many others. "Why should people live under the nuclear threat of the U.S.?"
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who has been trying to manage a showdown between the United States and Iran over its enrichment of uranium, agreed with Ahmadinejad on that point, saying the security council must be more responsive to less powerful countries.
"The Security Council must reform — for the sake of the developing world, and for the sake of the United Nations itself," Annan told the Nonaligned leaders. "The perception of a narrow power-base risks leading to an erosion of the U.N.'s authority and legitimacy — even, some would argue, it's neutrality and independence. I have in the past described this as a democracy deficit."
Annan also told the group that the world has changed dramatically since Cuba last hosted the movement in Havana 27 years ago, and that developing nations have new responsibilities to promote democracy, protect human rights and develop civil societies.
"The collective mission of this movement is more relevant than ever," Annan said.
Many leaders also said the movement will be much stronger with Cuba in charge, but it was unclear whether the 80-year-old Castro has recovered enough from intestinal surgery to make an appearance at the summit, let alone guide the group during the next three years.
The ailing revolutionary leader was under doctors' orders not to preside over the summit, but has met in his home with a series of leaders — Chavez, Annan and now Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika — according to Cuban state media. Photos and video of the one-on-one encounters show Castro in his pajamas — an unprecedented sight for Cubans as well as summit participants.
While Raul had his first opportunity to show a large audience what he's like as a leader, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez repeatedly asserted himself as the natural heir to Castro, who remains a hero to leftists around the world for supporting their struggles.
With next week's U.N. General Assembly session in New York looming, Chavez and Ahmadinejad called on Nonaligned nations to support Venezuela's bid to win the next rotating spot on the security council.
"To be radical is not to be insane, it's to go to our roots. Let's go to our roots, let's be truly radical," Chavez declared, concluding one speech with a favorite Castro rallying cry: "Patria o Muerte!" — "Fatherland or Death!"
Guatemalan Vice President Eduardo Stein told The Associated Press in an interview Friday that his country has secured 90 of 128 necessary votes, and denied that U.S. support for Guatemala's bid has made his country a "puppet" of Washington. Venezuela, however, is confident it will win the seat.
Guatemala has stressed its conciliatory foreign policy in the U.N. campaign, while Chavez has made it clear if chosen for the security council, Venezuela would support Iran in its high-stakes standoff over its uranium enrichment.
Several difficult disputes were addressed on the meeting's sidelines. Bolivian President Evo Morales suspended a threat to increase control over Brazilian energy assets in Bolivia. India and Pakistan were meeting, possibly reviving peace talks over their disputed border. And Cuba was trying to bring Morocco and the Western Saharan separatist movement to some agreement.
The Nonaligned Movement was formed during the Cold War to establish a neutral third path in a world divided by the United States and the Soviet Union. With Haiti and St. Kitts joining this week, it now counts 118 member nations.