CARACAS, Venezuela — South American independence hero Simon Bolivar once dreamed of unifying several nations as a counterweight to their powerful hemispheric neighbor, the United States.
Two centuries later, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez tapped into that legacy Friday as he hosted leaders from across the Americas at a two-day summit. Chavez described the new regional bloc that excludes the U.S. as a tribute to his idol Bolivar, saying the time has come to put an end to U.S. hegemony.
"Only unity will make us free," Chavez said to applause at the opening ceremony. "This is the path: Unity, unity, unity!"
He called it an achievement that Latin America has been seeking for 200 years, and shouted: "Viva Bolivar!"
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega echoed Chavez's sentiments, saying Latin American and Caribbean countries should ensure that the policy of U.S. intervention to protect the region's nations, declared by President James Monroe in 1823, is never revived.
"We are sentencing the Monroe Doctrine to death," Ortega said.
The 33-nation Community of Latin American and Caribbean States includes every country in Latin America and the Caribbean. Unlike the Washington-based Organization of American States, or OAS, it will have Cuba as a full member and exclude the U.S. and Canada.
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."
"I'm sorry it isn't Fidel who is occupying the place that I am, because he is the one who deserves it," Castro said of his elder brother, who permanently stepped down from Cuba's presidency in 2008.
Castro condemned this year's NATO airstrikes in Libya as a crime and said Latin American and Caribbean nations should declare themselves a "territory of peace and free of foreign militaries."
Other Latin American leaders said they see CELAC as a forum to build closer economic and political relations across the region, but not as a platform for challenging U.S. policies.
Mexican President Felipe Calderon said it will be a group "to work in favor of unity and prosperity." Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who is a U.S. ally but also has friendly relations with Chavez, said that "CELAC isn't being born to be against anyone."
Daniel Restrepo, President Barack Obama's senior adviser on Latin America, told reporters in Miami that the U.S. government would watch to see what direction CELAC takes.
"There's one sector that wants an anti-American project, and that isn't sustainable. There are others who want to use it to face the challenges they have," Restrepo said.
At the summit, Chavez embraced leaders one-by-one, and later launched into a wide-ranging speech discussing poverty-reduction efforts as well as reading excerpts of Bolivar's letters and a passage from Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel "One Hundred Years of Solitude."
The summit was Chavez's international debut after months of cancer treatment that forced him to postpone the meeting originally scheduled for July.
Talking about his struggle with cancer, Chavez credited Fidel Castro with saving his life by insisting he undergo thorough medical tests that turned up a tumor during a June visit to Cuba.
Chavez said he had wanted to go ahead with the summit in July, but Castro had advised him: "You choose: the summit or your life. ... The summit can wait."
Following surgery to remove the tumor in his pelvic region, Chavez finished chemotherapy in September and declared himself to be cancer-free. He drew a standing ovation from the leaders when he referred to the recent cancer diagnosis of former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, saying: "Lula will win that battle, too."
After initial speeches, the Venezuelan government treated the leaders to a concert by conductor Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Youth Symphony Orchestra.
Outside the summit, small groups of Chavez opponents including university students put up protest signs on Caracas overpasses. Denouncing the country's high crime rate, some signs read: "Presidents, welcome to the crime capital." Police swiftly removed the signs.
Many leaders referred to Bolivar's legacy, including Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who focused on calling for a coordinated response to safeguard the region's growing economies from the global financial crisis.
"Together we can be stronger, together we can grow, and that should be beneficial for everyone," Rousseff said. "The economic, financial crisis should be at the center of our concerns."
Plans for the new organization, which grew out of the 24-nation Rio Group, have been in the works since a 2008 summit hosted by Silva.
Chavez has long sought inspiration in the legacy of Bolivar, who in the early 1800s served as president of Gran Colombia, a republic made up of much of northern South America and modern-day Panama until it broke up into individual states following years of dissent and political upheaval.
Chavez calls his political movement the Bolivarian Revolution and in 1999 promoted the approval of a new constitution that changed the country's name to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Last year, Chavez even oversaw the opening of Bolivar's coffin to re-examine the cause of his death, and the Venezuelan government is building a new mausoleum to house Bolivar's remains.
Bolivar was an admirer of the American Revolution, although he warned that the unrivaled power of the United States could eventually pose a threat to the young nations of Latin America that had won independence from Spain.
Associated Press writers Ian James and Jorge Rueda in Caracas and Gisela Salomon in Miami contributed to this report.
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