Latin American, Caribbean Nations To Set Up Regional Bloc Without US, Canada

Leaders of 32 Latin American and Caribbean nations attending a two-day summit in the Mexican beach resort of Cancun agreed Tuesday to create a new regional bloc excluding the United States and Canada.

The new grouping would defend human rights and democracy in the region, and will help in boosting the level of cooperation between Latin American and Caribbean countries, said Mexican President Felipe Calderon, whose country is hosting the two-day Grupo del Rio summit.

Calderon told the summit that the proposed new grouping must act as a "priority push for regional integration and promote the regional agenda in global meetings." He urged the leaders attending the summit to put aside political and ideological differences and focus instead on a "future where the values we believe in -- democracy, justice and freedom -- can flourish."

The leaders are yet to work out the details about the structure and functioning of the new organization, which would be called the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States. The leaders acknowledged that the process could take years to complete, and agreed to meet in Venezuela in 2011 and in Chile the next year to advance the process.

It is not clear whether the new organization replace the existing regional blocks. Though some of the leaders suggested the the new grouping should replace the U.S.-dominated Organization of American States (OAS), several others disagreed with their suggestion and insisted that the OAS should continue to function in its present role.

Until now, the OAS has remained the main regional body for over 50 years. However, differences have emerged recently between the United States and several other OAS member-states, mainly over economic policy and trade.

Several socialist Latin American leaders, including Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Bolivian President Evo Morales and Cuban President Raul Castro, have alleged that the OAS is dominated by the U.S. and Washington's agenda.

While Raul Castro welcomed the creation of the new bloc as a historic move toward "the constitution of a purely Latin American and Caribbean regional organization," Chavez described it as an effort toward moving away from the U.S. "colonizing" the region.

Meanwhile, Haiti's President Rene Preval thanked the international community for the help provided to his country after the deadly 12th January earthquake, and requested for continued assistance from the Latin American and Caribbean countries.

Though Porfirio Lobo, the new Honduran President, was not invited to the summit, the leaders were scheduled to discuss whether or not to recognize him as the legitimate Honduran president, as he was elected president under interim authorities after a coup ousted former President Manuel Zelaya in June 2009.

Separately, the Cancun summit also decided on Tuesday to back Argentina in an escalating dispute with Britain over oil drilling in the disputed Falklands. The leaders attending the summit agreed to support "the legitimate rights of the republic of Argentina in the sovereignty dispute with Great Britain".

Argentina claims sovereignty over the Falkland Islands, located some 280 miles of the South American country's coast. Though Argentina attempted in 1982 to invade the Falklands, it failed in its attempt to take control of the South Atlantic islands, losing the ensuing war with Britain. The latest issue of dispute between the two countries erupted after a UK firm began drilling for oil off the Falkland Islands.

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