Leaders at Americas talks: world economy top worry
Several presidents stressed at the start of a two-day summit Friday that they hope to ride out turbulent times by boosting their local industries and increasing trade within the region.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff led such calls, saying that if the nations are to keep thriving they will need to look more to their neighbors.
"The economic, financial crisis should be at the center of our concerns," Rousseff said. "We should respond to this crisis with a new paradigm."
Rousseff said Latin America should "realize that to guarantee its current cycle of development despite the international economic turbulence, it means that every politician must be aware that each one needs the others."
As a region, Latin America and the Caribbean have so far weathered the economic woes better than the U.S. or Europe, achieving economic growth of more than 5 percent last year.
Brazil is now one of the world's fastest growing economies, and its government said this week that it's willing to contribute funds to the International Monetary Fund to help minimize the effects of the European debt crisis.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said the region has immense potential "in this world that's going through great uncertainty, where there's a hurricane that's hitting the so-called industrialized economies hard." He said Colombia's current trade with Brazil, for instance, is minimal and could grow significantly.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez read aloud a letter from Chinese President Hu Jintao congratulating the leaders on forming a new 33-nation regional bloc, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States. Hu pledged to deepen cooperation with the new group, which he said will "contribute in a significant way to strengthening the unity and the coordination among the region's countries to face global challenges together."
The U.S. remains the top trading partner of many countries in the region, with exceptions including Brazil and Chile, where China has become the biggest trading partner. China has also made diplomatic inroads, including by granting about $38 billion in loans to Venezuela in exchange for increasing shipments of oil.
Argentine President Cristina Fernandez noted that experts believe the region could be vulnerable to fallout from the economic crisis. She said trade within the region should be a priority.
Some countries, such as Brazil, expressed interest in reducing imports from outside Latin America.
"Together we can be stronger, together we can grow, and that should be beneficial for everyone," Rousseff said.
Chavez and some of his closest allies, meanwhile, called for the new regional bloc to be a tool for both integration and for countering U.S. influence.
"Only unity will make us free," Chavez told the more than two dozen heads of state.
Cuban President Raul Castro said that if it's successful, the creation of the new bloc known by its Spanish initials CELAC will be "the biggest event in 200 years."
The group includes every country in Latin America and the Caribbean. Unlike the Washington-based Organization of American States, it will have Cuba as a full member and exclude the U.S. and Canada.
Both Chavez and Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa said they hope the bloc eventually leaves behind the OAS.
"We need a new inter-American system and, more specifically, a new system to guarantee human rights," said Correa, referring to the Washington-based Inter-American Human Rights Commission, which has received complaints from Ecuadorean newspapers and television channels that accuse his government of trying to silence critics.
"All these attacks and threats are made in the name of freedom of expression," he added, accusing powerful media outlets of manipulating public opinion. Correa called for creating of a committee to investigate such issues.
Other presidents said they see CELAC as a forum to resolve conflicts and build closer ties, but not as an alternative to existing bodies such as the OAS.
Santos said he also sees a role for the group in re-examining whether current counter-drug efforts are the right approach. Colombia remains the world's top producer of coca, which is used to produce cocaine.
While Santos has said the amount of land being used to grow coca plants has declined, the trade "keeps flowing the problem persists."
"There is still growing demand in the consuming countries," Santos said. He added that if there is eventually debate about legalizing cocaine and marijuana as a way of reducing drug-related violence, he wouldn't be opposed.
Associated Press writers Ian James and Christopher Toothaker contributed to this report.