HAVANA: Cuban President Raul Castro called on Latin American and Caribbean leaders Tuesday to work together on pressing regional problems at a gathering of all Western Hemisphere nations except the U.S. and Canada.
In his keynote speech as head of the host nation for the summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, or CELAC for its initials in Spanish, Castro argued that the bloc should aspire to unity despite diversity, describing it as "the legitimate representative of the interests of Latin America and the Caribbean."
"We should establish a new regional and international cooperation paradigm," Castro said. "In the context of CELAC, we have the possibility to create a model of our own making, adapted to our realities, based on the principles of mutual benefit."
The summit's main theme is fighting poverty, inequality and hunger. According to the UN's Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, 28 percent of the region's inhabitants live in poverty and 11 percent in extreme poverty.
"While it is true that some progress has been made during the last few years, this has been slow, fragmented and unstable," Castro said.
Tuesday's session of heads of CELAC states began with one minute of silence to remember the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who succumbed to cancer last March.
Chavez, an outspoken U.S. foe, was a driving force behind CELAC's creation in 2011. It was conceived as an alternative to the Washington-based Organization of American States, which suspended Cuba's membership in 1962 shortly after Fidel Castro's revolution.
Proponents argued that the OAS has historically served Washington's interests rather than those of the region, and even Latin American allies of the United States have participated enthusiastically in CELAC.
OAS Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza attended the summit Tuesday as an observer, believed to be the first visit by a secretary-general to Cuba since its founding in 1948.
In his wide-ranging speech, Castro touched on the risk that global climate change poses to the region, especially low-lying Caribbean islands. He expressed solidarity for Argentina's claim to the British-controlled Falkland Islands, known in Spanish as the Malvinas; for Puerto Rican independence; and for Ecuador in its legal battle with U.S. oil company Chevron.
He also criticized the 52-year-old U.S. economic embargo on Cuba as well as American surveillance targeting the communications of foreign heads of state, companies and individuals. The threats of outside interference, military invasion and coups remain present, Castro said.
"The so-called centers of power do not resign themselves to having lost control over this rich region, nor will they ever renounce attempts to change the course of history in our countries in order to recover the influence they have lost and benefit from their resources," Castro said, a thinly veiled reference to the United States.
Cuba is passing the rotating presidency of CELAC to Costa Rica at the summit.
Fidel Castro, who retired as president in 2008, received visits from presidents Dilma Rousseff of Brazil and Cristina Fernandez of Argentina and Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller on Sunday and Monday.
On Tuesday, Castro met with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for 55 minutes during which they discussed a "wide range of topics," Ban's office tweeted. It said it would provide details shortly.
It was Ban's first trip to Cuba. Ban also sat down with Raul Castro the previous evening, and his office said the two discussed the U.S. embargo and human rights on the island.