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Latin America Proposes New Bloc Without U.S., Canada

(RFE/RL) -- Latin American leaders meeting in Mexico have agreed to form their own interest bloc without the United States and Canada.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon proposed creating the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States at the Rio Group summit on February 23 in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. The heads of the group's 23 member states supported the idea.

The new organization is dedicated to the defense of democracy and human rights, and to the fostering of cooperation. But few other details have been established, and setting it up is likely to take years. The leaders will assess their progress at a summit next year in Venezuela, and in 2012 in Chile.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said the United States doesn't feel that the creation of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States is antagonistic toward the United States or Canada.

"We think it's a good thing when countries in the region come together to talk about how they can cooperate more effectively, and this can take place in many regional [forums]," Crowley said.

"Virtually all of the countries attending the unity summit are strong partners of the United States, and we are working together with them on a broad range of initiatives. So we consider the meeting in Mexico as consistent with our goals for the hemisphere."

Latin Solidarity

One major question to be resolved is whether the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States will coexist with the 62-year-old Organization of American States (OAS) or supplant it. Both views were put forward at the meeting.

Some at the summit favored the new group replacing the OAS, which is dominated by the United States. But Chilean President-elect Sebastian Pinera argued in favor of coexistence, saying the OAS is "a permanent organization that has its own functions."

The Rio Group was founded in 1986 in Rio de Janeiro, in part as a way for Latin American countries to deal with issues specific to their part of the hemisphere without the involvement of the United States. But the Rio Group had no permanent infrastructure, and this decision was an effort to give it one.

A final statement issued at the Rio Group summit said that under the new organization, members are committed to expanding trade in the region and presenting a unified front against terrorism and the drug trade.

But cooperation among leaders in the region may be a challenge. The Associated Press reported that an unnamed official claims to have witnessed a spat between Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at a dinner for the leaders at the Mexico summit.

According to the account, Uribe began complaining about trade sanctions imposed on Colombian goods by neighboring Venezuela. Chavez reportedly retorted that his country has to be careful of the Colombian paramilitary groups on the two countries' shared border.

Chavez started to storm off, but stopped when Uribe called out to him: "Be a man! Stay here because sometimes you insult from a distance but when we are face-to-face to we don't talk."

Chavez reportedly told Uribe to "go to hell."

with agency reports