South American leaders urged to strengthen ties

Members of a fledgling South American defense union should stop seeking solutions from the United States and instead turn to their own leaders for answers, Ecuador's president said Friday.

President Rafael Correa spoke at the opening of a one-day summit of the Union of South American Nations, or UNASUR, which drew presidents including Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, Argentina's Cristina Fernandez and Brazil's Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Correa said the region has looked to Washington for help for decades.

"We need to rescue our own thoughts at this time," he said. "We have to think for ourselves."

Silva called UNASUR a global player whose members have cooperated with each other and survived an economic crisis that is still affecting some Western nations.

He said that Brazil, which is soon expected to be the world's fifth-largest economy, no longer has to listen to "some third-rate" official telling the country what to do.

"We have more sovereignty and determination than we had 10 years ago," he said.

UNASUR has strengthened its involvement in defense and health issues, but it needs to create an arbitration council to resolve differences between countries, Correa said.

"There's still a lot that needs to be done," he said.

Correa also asked that UNASUR create a commission to investigate the events that led to a Sept. 30 police revolt in Ecuador in which about a dozen people died and 270 were wounded. The uprising was led by police upset over a new law that would deny them promotion bonuses.

During Friday's summit, leaders also approved a democratic charter that will serve as a guide for the 12-nation bloc if any of them faced an attempted coup.

The charter would have been an effective tool during Ecuador's revolt, Correa said.

"If they (the rebels) had succeeded, they would have been ostracized immediately," he said.

On Thursday, 12 foreign ministers approved the charter, which calls for economic sanctions and expulsion from UNASUR if a nation violated the charter, said Ricardo Patino, Ecuador's foreign minister.

The Organization of American States passed a similar democratic charter in 2001, but Correa said UNASUR's version differs by imposing sanctions.

"(It) has complete measures, no rhetoric," he said. "I think that is the greatest difference."

During Friday's session, Correa and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced that their governments had re-established diplomatic relations, with Santos saying a Colombian embassy would open in Ecuador before Christmas. Relations broke off after Colombia's military attacked a Colombian rebel base on Ecuadorean territory.

Santos also shook hands with Chavez, with Silva saying he could never have imagined such friendly relations five months ago.

Ties between the South American neighbors were tense under Santos' predecessor, Alvaro Uribe. Uribe accused Chavez of helping Colombian rebels, while Chavez alleged that Uribe and the U.S. conspired against his government.

Before Correa's opening speech, UNASUR officials honored the Argentine president's late husband, former President Nestor Kirchner, who died last month. He was UNASUR's first secretary general. A replacement has not been named.

Fernandez praised her husband's role in leading the bloc and said he created a system that helped South America weather the global economic crisis.

"This would not have happened had Latin America not taken the position that it could achieve its own degree of autonomy," she said.

During her speech, Fernandez also thanked Chavez for "helping Argentina when no one else did."

On Friday, UNASUR's presidency passed from Ecuador to Guyana.

UNASUR was created in May 2008 to serve as a continental parliament that Chavez has described as a counterweight to the United States. Some members of the OAS see UNASUR as a complement to the Washington-based organization, while others view it as a potential replacement.