COSTA DO SAUIPE, Brazil – Latin American and Caribbean leaders called for the creation of a regional union that would exclude the U.S. and oppose outside interference Wednesday in a summit hailed as an historical expression of independence.
With 33 nations represented by heads of state or other top officials, it was the largest regional gathering of its kind that did not include the U.S. or a European power, and also marked the international debut of Cuban President Raul Castro.
Click here for photos from the summit.
Summit participants called for an end to the U.S. embargo of Cuba and Bolivia's leftist President Evo Morales even encouraged Latin American nations to expel their U.S. ambassadors unless the incoming government of President-elect Barack Obama lifts the embargo on communist-run Cuba.
"We should give the new government of the United States a deadline in order to end the embargo," said Morales, who kicked out the U.S. ambassador in September over a different issue. "If the newly elected U.S. government does not lift the economic embargo, we will lift their ambassadors out of our countries."
Latin American leaders, including those from countries like Mexico and Colombia that have been at odds with Cuba for years, rallied around Castro, who replaced his ailing brother Fidel as Cuba's leader.
But Morales' call for breaking relations with Washington found little support.
"I'm more careful than Evo Morales," Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said. "We have to wait for the new U.S. president to take office and see what his proposals are for Latin America and Cuba. This will show us whether or not there was really a change."
A spokeswoman at the U.S. embassy in Brasilia declined to comment on the Morales suggestion.
"Our policy toward Cuba seeks the promotion of the peaceful transition to democracy," said Orna Blum.
Few concrete results came from the two-day gathering, held on the sun-drenched coast of Bahia state in northeast Brazil. The summit came 178 years after the Dec. 17, 1830, death of South American independence leader Simon Bolivar, whose name was repeatedly invoked at the meeting.
Mexico's President Felipe Calderon suggested a new organization — which he labeled the Union of Latin American and Caribbean nations — should be created to tackle political and economic challenges. He said it would exclude the U.S. and Canada and model itself on this week's summit.
Other Leaders suggested the proposed union could act as an alternative to the Organization of American States, which some see as too U.S. dominated.
The global financial crisis was another recurring theme at the summit, with leaders saying more integration was needed to circle the wagons and better protect the region from economic shocks.
In a declaration at the summit's end, leaders "recalled that the developed countries caused the crisis and that they should therefore assume the costs for its solution."
Silva noted that it had been 200 years since most Latin American nations gained independence, yet "this is the first time since independence that we've managed to gather all the countries" without outside interference.
Calderon expanded on the theme in suggesting the new regional union.
"Two-hundred years is a long time to wait, but it is better late than never," he said at a joint press conference with Silva and other leaders. "It would be good to celebrate the bicentennial of our independence with a true Latin American-Caribbean union."
The summit that ended Wednesday has been a victory lap of sorts for Cuba, newly admitted into the Rio Group of Latin American nations. It marked Raul Castro first foreign trip as Cuba's president.
Mauricio Cardenas, director of the Latin America Initiative at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington and Colombia's former minister of economic development, said Obama's policy on Cuba could have multilateral implications.
He doesn't see the U.S. Congress lifting the embargo soon, but said Obama could soften policy on some issues — remittances, restrictions on travel and cultural exchanges — that have hardened under the Bush administration.
"Those signals would start a new phase in the relationship with the island that would be wise and welcomed," Cardenas said. "It would enhance the credibility of an Obama administration with Latin America, saying 'we're listening to what Latin America as a whole is saying.' And what they're saying is they want Cuba back in the their club."
Apart from the Cuba question, leaders at the summit held from public view several points of regional friction, mostly between Brazil, the region's economic and political powerhouse, and its smaller neighbors.
Ecuador has been engaged in a fight with Brazil over debt payments for a problematic hydroelectric project. Paraguay is angry about recent Brazilian military exercises conducted near the two nations' border and Venezuela had challenged Brazil's idea for a regional defense council by inviting the Russian Navy to visit.
Brazil held bilateral meetings with both Paraguay and Ecuador, but no dirty laundry was aired: Ecuador's President Rafael Correa said simply that he didn't want to discuss bilateral affairs at a multilateral meeting.
Venezuela's Hugo Chavez lauded the summit as a first step toward independence.
"The true date of unity will arrive," he said. "And only united will we be free and only united will we be independent."