Leaders from across Latin America and the Caribbean pledged closer ties to safeguard their economies from the world financial crisis as they formed a new bloc on Saturday including every nation in the hemisphere except the U.S. and Canada.
Several presidents stressed during the two-day summit that they hope to ride out turbulent times by boosting local industries and increasing trade within the region.
"It seems it's a terminal, structural crisis of capitalism," Bolivian President Evo Morales said in a speech Saturday. "I feel we're meeting at a good moment to debate ... the great unity of the countries of America, without the United States."
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and some of his closest allies called the new regional bloc a tool for standing up to U.S. influence. But other leaders focused more on economic concerns and on working together to confront issues such as drug trafficking and the effects of climate change.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff said that if the nations are to keep thriving they will need to look more to their neighbors.
"The economic, financial crisis should be at the center of our concerns," Rousseff said Friday night. She said Latin America should "realize that to guarantee its current cycle of development despite the international economic turbulence, it means that every politician must be aware that each one needs the others."
The region has so far weathered the economic woes better than the U.S. or Europe, achieving economic growth of more than 5 percent last year.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said the region has immense potential while "there's a hurricane that's hitting the so-called industrialized economies hard." He said Colombia's current trade with Brazil, for instance, is minimal and could grow significantly.
Chavez read aloud a letter from Chinese President Hu Jintao congratulating the leaders on forming a new 33-nation regional bloc, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States. Hu pledged to deepen cooperation with the new group.
The U.S. remains the top trading partner of many countries in the region, with exceptions including Brazil and Chile, where China has recently taken the place of the U.S. as the biggest trading partner.
The leaders formally launched the new bloc, known by its Spanish initials CELAC, by approving a declaration of shared principles as well as a clause dealing with democratic norms. Chavez said leaders had not agreed on whether to make decisions by consensus or by vote, and as a result would reach decisions by consensus for the time being and take up the matter again later.
Chavez pounded a gavel on his desk as he read out several statements approved by the leaders, including one opposing the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba.
Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, a conservative who took over the new group's rotating presidency, touted it a forum to build regional cooperation in spite of political differences. Pinera said the group would hold its next summit in Santiago in 2012.
Venezuela's government celebrated the gathering at a Caracas military base with bursts of fireworks that could be heard from the session. Other events included an orchestral performance led by Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel and a post-summit concert headlined by Puerto Rican hip-hop duo Calle 13.
Both Chavez and Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa said they hope the bloc eventually overshadows the importance of the Washington-based Organization of American States. Unlike the OAS, the new group will have Cuba as a full member and exclude the U.S. and Canada.
"We need a new inter-American system and, more specifically, a new system to guarantee human rights," Correa said Friday, referring to the Washington-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which has received complaints from Ecuadorean newspapers and television channels that accuse his government of trying to silence critics.
Chavez called the OAS "obsolete." Bolivia's Morales strongly criticized the International Monetary Fund, saying "they've just pillaged us and led us to poverty."
Several other presidents said they see CELAC as a forum to resolve conflicts and build closer ties, but not as an alternative to existing bodies such as the OAS.
On other issues, Morales appealed for strong steps at this month's climate change conference in South Africa, saying it's critical that developed nations renew pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.
"If they kill the protocol, they kill the planet," Morales said.
Trinidad and Tobago's prime minister, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, also expressed concerns about changing weather patterns and said nations should work together to better plan for disasters.
Several leaders called for closer cooperation to fight criminals and drug trafficking.
Colombia's Santos said the new bloc could help in re-examining whether current counter-drug efforts are the right approach.
Chavez criticized past U.S. interventions in Latin America, and said the region must "demand respect."
He recalled shaking President Barack Obama's hand at a 2009 summit and giving him a copy of the book "Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent" by Eduardo Galeano.
"I think President Obama hasn't had time to read that book," said Chavez, whose relations with Washington have been tense for much of his nearly 13-year-old presidency.
Caribbean leaders including Haitian President Michel Martelly thanked Chavez for selling their nations oil on preferential terms including long-term, low interest loans.
"The people of Haiti love you with all their hearts," Martelly told Chavez during his speech, saying "south-south cooperation" is key to the future of his impoverished country.
Chavez assured leaders he will survive cancer, reiterating that he underwent recent tests in Cuba after finishing chemotherapy and they found no "malignant cells in any part of my body, thanks to God."
Trinidad's prime minister gave Chavez a little bottle of what she described as holy water, and Chavez thanked her saying: "Soon we will have a summit of those of us who've beaten cancer."
Associated Press writer Christopher Toothaker contributed to this report.