Image: Huga Chavez, Raul Castro
Alexandre Meneghini  /  AP
Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, left, and Cuba's President Raul Castro, shown at a photo shoot on Tuesday are among the attendees of the summit of Latin American and Caribbean leaders in Costa do Sauipe, Brazil.
updated 12/16/2008 6:37:14 PM ET 2008-12-16T23:37:14

Forget the promises to tackle economic crisis and climate change. A Latin American summit of 31 leaders that opened on Tuesday was focused on who was not there: the United States or any other outside power.

The largest hemispheric summit to exclude a U.S. representation was hailed by Washington's most vocal critics as a sign that Latin America is demanding a new independence and respect from the superpower to the north.

The integration into the Rio Group of Cuba — a country expelled from the Washington-based Organization of American States in 1962 — only added to the buzz about a new era.

"The presence of Cuba is a very strong signal that America is no longer the boss in Latin America," Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez told reporters upon his arrival.

Demand for respect
Chavez said the election of Barack Obama as U.S. president creates a key opportunity for South American countries to speak with their own voice and to demand respect in a new dialogue with the United States.

Bolivian President Evo Morales — also long at odds with the Bush administration — said he hopes Obama can salve the economic and political friction between the U.S. and Latin American nations.

But the two-day summit called to focus on regional responses to crises in finance, food and environment so far was long on verbiage and short on concrete proposals.

An opening meeting of South America's Mercosur leaders — Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay — only highlighted the issues that divide countries in the region. They were unable to agree on a reform to eliminate dual tariffs on imported goods.

Meanwhile, Ecuador has been engaged in a fight with Brazil over debt payments for a problematic hydroelectric project. Paraguay is angry about recent Brazilian military exercises near the two nations' border and Venezuela has challenged Brazil's idea for a regional defense council by inviting the Russian Navy to visit.

At the opening of meetings in northeast Brazilian state of Bahia, officials blamed developed economies for the economic crisis.

Ecuador's President Rafael Correa — who in recent days defaulted on $60 million in sovereign debt — called for a stronger Bank of the South, a regional development agency. He said if it were more robust, nations like his would have the funds to meet their debt obligations.

Cuban President Raul Castro was expected to hold bilateral meetings with the Mexico's Felipe Calderon and a vice president of Colombia — two nations Cuba has in recent years been at odds with.

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