Former Costa Rican President Miguel Angel Rodriguez (search) took office Thursday as head of the 34-nation Organization of American States (search), declaring that the foremost challenge facing the Americas is to fight pervasive poverty.

Rodriguez assumed his new duties before 11 hemispheric heads of state and government, the largest such gathering at the OAS since the signing of the Panama Canal treaties in 1977.

Leaders from Central America and the Caribbean dominated the VIP list. Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo was the lone head of state from a major South American country.

Also absent was the leader of the OAS's host country, the United States. President Bush was welcoming Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi as Rodriguez was delivering his acceptance speech at OAS headquarters, a half mile from the White House.

Secretary of State Colin Powell was unable to attend because of meetings in New York with fellow diplomats attending the U.N. General Assembly. The U.S. delegation at the ceremony was led by Attorney General John Ashcroft.

A senior administration official said prior commitments prevented Bush from attending.

The hemisphere's grinding poverty, believed to afflict more than 160 million people, was a recurring theme for Rodriguez in a 25-minute speech delivered after formally taking the reins as the first Central American to head the OAS.

"The foremost challenge of the peoples of the Americas is to rid ourselves of the shackles of poverty, inequity and exclusion," Rodriguez said.

On three occasions during his speech, Rodriguez called attention to those same afflictions, using those same words each time.

In Haiti, Rodriguez said in one of his few references to an OAS member state, "the pain of poverty is manifest in all its unmitigated cruelty."

Speaking before a gathering of hundreds in the ornate Hall of the Americas, Rodriguez also offered a strong defense of democracy and human rights and cited terrorism, drug smuggling and international crime among other key problems of the hemisphere.

Rodriguez served as Costa Rican president from 1998 to 2002 and succeeds former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria, who stepped down after 10 years.

Defense of democracy has been the chief OAS mission for more than a decade. Gaviria spent much of the past two years helping seek a peaceful outcome to the deep polarization that threatened Venezuela's democracy.

The main plank of Bush administration policy toward Latin America has been negotiation of a hemisphere-wide free trade agreement. But disagreements over the scope of an agreement almost certainly will mean that Bush's vision of a Free Trade Area of the Americas (search) by January 2005 will not be achieved.

In discussing Latin America policy, Powell frequently highlights the benefits of a newly created special foreign aid account earmarked for countries which are justly ruled, have open markets and invest in their own people.

But only three Latin American countries — Honduras, Nicaragua and Bolivia — were among the first 16 countries worldwide to share in the initial $1 billion in so-called Millennium Challenge Account (search) money earmarked for this year.