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HAVANA, January 29, 2014 (AFP) – Cuban President Raul Castro Tuesday railed against US spying as he opened a summit of Latin American and Caribbean leaders – including Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla – set up by Venezuela’s late anti-US leader Hugo Chavez.
The meeting — which began with a moment of silence for Chavez — was hosted by his closest ally, communist Cuba, in a major coup for a country Washington has tried to isolate through a five-decade-old trade embargo.
The summit has been interpreted as a sign to the United States that the region will no longer accept Cuba’s isolation.
Castro, 82, traded his olive drab fatigues for a dark blue suit, and used his opening remarks to fiercely criticize the vast phone and Internet spying operation that has raised international consternation, especially among nominal US allies such as Mexico and Brazil.
The secretive NSA program, details of which were leaked by former US contractor Edward Snowden, “raises concerns about its potential to cause international conflicts,” Castro said.
He warned that the world needs to “prevent cyberspace from becoming a theater of military operations.”
And he suggested the United States — referred to obliquely to “the so-called ‘centers of power’” — was not ready to give up its “control of the rich region.”
Standing with Cuba
The CELAC bloc of 33 Latin American and Caribbean nations was the culmination of an effort by Chavez to bring together both right-wing and leftist governments to counter the influence of the United States.
The group will declare itself “diverse but united” Wednesday, when it signs a more than 80-point statement that also hints at distancing the region from the United States.
Some members of the newer group are pushing it as an alternative to the US-based Organization of American States.
The meeting in Cuba also allows leaders to make a statement about the region’s commitment to Havana.
“Today, Cuba is the capital of our America,” Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega said as he arrived for the meeting.
Castro welcomed his guests Tuesday with a ceremony “deeply regretting” the death in March of the man who spearheaded the group: Venezuela’s Chavez.
The Chavez government has helped prop up Cuba’s isolated cash-strapped regime for a decade.
“The creation of a common political space is essential for our region,” Castro said at a ceremony attended by UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon and heads of state from around the region.
On Monday, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff declared “Brazil wants to be a first-order economic ally to Cuba,” while opening of a major container port, partly funded by Brazil and a major outlet for an island nation formally excluded from US trade.
“Cuba has never had such a strong show of support from across the region,” said Arturo Lopez-Levy at the University of Denver.
But “the United States is not going to change (its isolationist policy toward Cuba) just because a lot of regional leaders visit Havana,” stressed Patricio Navia, a New York University political scientist.
The summit’s “Havana Declaration” to be signed Wednesday touches on issues ranging from combatting poverty and illiteracy to disarmament.
It urges agricultural development and food security, technological and scientific cooperation, and affirms a “zone of peace” for the 600 million people across the region.
It was prepared by delegates from the attending countries during diplomatic wrangling since the weekend.
Wednesday’s session will also offer a first opportunity for Peru’s leader Ollanta Humala and Chile’s Sebastian Pinera to meet after the UN’s top court ruled in Lima’s favor in a maritime border dispute.
Additional editing by Inside Costa Rica staff.