What if they threw a giant party for the Americas and didn't invite the United States or Canada? That's what Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is doing with a two-day, 33-nation summit starting Friday, welcoming nations from Brazil to Jamaica in what he hopes will be a grand alliance to counter U.S. influence.
Many presidents have less sweeping goals in mind, seeing the new Community of Latin American and Caribbean States mainly as a forum for resolving regional conflicts, building closer ties and promoting economic development.
Yet the bloc's creation is also a sign that for many countries, the United States is no longer seen as an essential diplomatic player in regional affairs.
"The U.S. has lost an awful lot of space in the region, even though it's still the most important, the most powerful country in the region," said Eduardo Gamarra, a Latin American politics professor at Florida International University in Miami. Still, he said, it's unclear whether the region's governments are truly committed to forming a close alliance that brings together Latin America in ways that offset U.S. power.
Chavez, who sells the largest share of Venezuela's oil to the United States, is urging the region to assert its independence, noting it was once a dream of 19th century independence hero Simon Bolivar to unify Latin American nations. Lampposts in Caracas are now festooned with banners picturing independence leaders ranging from Bolivar to Cuba's Jose Marti, along with the slogan "the path of our Liberators."
At least publicly, though, only some of Chavez's closest allies seem to share his interests in creating alternatives to established bodies such as the Washington-based Organization of American States, which includes every nation in the Americas except Cuba among its active members.
Nor are the region's leaders likely to agree with Chavez in creating organizations to replace those he strongly criticizes, such as the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the World Bank.
The new group, known by its Spanish initials CELAC, will add one more acronym to a region with plenty of smaller organizations, including Unasur, Mercosur and the Caribbean Community. Some of Chavez's most fervent support comes from within the nine-nation, socialist-leaning Bolivarian Alternative bloc known as ALBA, which he has promoted with allies including Cuba and Nicaragua.
"This isn't aimed at becoming a new economic integration bloc nor replacing the OAS," said Maria Teresa Romero, an international studies professor at the Central University of Venezuela.
"President Chavez and others in the ALBA are using the CELAC for their political and propagandistic aims," Romero said. For Chavez, she said, it's a chance to show the outside world and Venezuelans "that he still has great international leadership" even though his influence has slipped in the past several years.
The summit's agenda as described by diplomats includes rather modest aims: approving the group's procedural rules as well as a clause dealing with democratic norms, formally launching the organization and adopting a declaration of shared principles.
At the very least, the summit will serve as Chavez's international debut after months of cancer treatment that forced him to postpone the meeting, which originally was planned in July. Many presidents, including those who differ with him, are on a personal level showing solidarity with Chavez and the cancer struggle that has left his head shaved to a fine stubble after chemotherapy.
Many presidents say the inclusion of every nation in Latin America and the Caribbean is indeed historic. Argentine Foreign Minister Hector Timerman called it a step toward unifying "a region that had been divided."
Cuba, for instance, was long suspended from the OAS, and when in 2009 the body voted to lift the suspension, President Raul Castro's communist government rejected the offer while accusing the OAS of supporting U.S. hostility toward Cuba.
Now, Cuba says the new bloc is a sign of the region's independence, a stance echoed by Chavez.
"The CELAC is being born with a new spirit," Chavez said Thursday. "As the years pass, the CELAC will leave behind the old and worn out OAS."
Chavez met separately with Argentine President Cristina Fernandez and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff ahead of the summit.
In Washington, OAS Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza praised the creation of the new group, saying in a statement that he believes it will be a useful forum and that he will make contact once it is formed to discuss cooperation possibilities.
Neda Brown, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman in Washington, said there are other groups in the region that don't include the U.S. and that they "can be useful partners." She said the U.S. interacts with such groups "as an important part of helping to constructively solve problems and engage with key actors in the region."
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 Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
Brazil, as Latin America's largest nation, will play a key role in setting the group's objectives.
Brazil's delegation is primarily concerned with examining a regional response to the global financial crisis. The region has so far weathered the turbulence better than the U.S. or Europe, recording economic growth of more than 5 percent last year, and leaders are looking for ways to further strengthen economies by encouraging local industries and reducing imports from outside the region.
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.
Brazil has joined Chavez in promoting a new Bank of the South to pool funds for development financing. But that doesn't mean nations are ready to abandon the World Bank.
Mexico's undersecretary for Latin America, Ruben Beltran Guerrero, told The Associated Press that the new bloc "isn't a forum that excludes any other," but rather will complement established organizations.
Mexico and other countries also view it as a body that will, similarly to the OAS, stand up for democratic principles in a region that has seen its share of coups, most recently in Honduras in 2009. Beltran said Mexico wants the bloc to "send a very clear signal to the countries of the region that a breakdown in constitutional order brings consequences."
Chile is to assume the rotating presidency in the group's inaugural year, and its mission will include "promoting human rights and democracy," said Chilean Foreign Minister Alfredo Moreno. It will also be a forum for discussing issues ranging from counter-drug efforts to improving transportation routes, Moreno told the AP in an email.
On a practical level, though, some analysts say the fledgling group will face many constraints.
"It's going to be underfunded. It's not going to have any enforcement mechanisms. At least that's been the history of what we've done with these multilateral organizations," Gamarra said.
He cited the example of Unasur, saying that since its 2008 founding the South American bloc has had little clout.
Chavez, in typical style, has been playing up the gathering for months. He at one point called it "the political event of the greatest importance ... in 100 years."
Associated Press correspondents throughout Latin American and the Caribbean contributed to this report.
Ian James on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ianjamesap