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Cuba hosts LatAm leaders against crisis backdrop

Leaders from across Latin America put aside domestic financial stability concerns on Monday to converge on Cuba for the summit of a major group set up to counter US influence.

HAVANA: Leaders from across Latin America put aside domestic financial stability concerns on Monday to converge on Cuba for the summit of a major group set up to counter US influence.

The CELAC bloc of 33 Latin American and Caribbean nations was founded by Venezuela's late anti-western leader Hugo Chavez, and specifically excludes the United States and Canada.

Its second summit was hosted by Chavez's closest ally, communist Cuba, a major diplomatic coup for a country Washington has tried to isolate through a five-decade-old trade embargo.

"We're building on the harsh reality, laboriously, the ideal of a diverse but unified Latin America and the Caribbean," Cuba's President Raul Castro, 82, said ahead of the meeting.

Castro was joined by several regional leaders in the town of Mariel to mark the opening of a major container port, partly funded by Brazil and a major outlet for an island nation excluded from US trade.

"Brazil wants to be a first-order economic ally to Cuba," Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff declared at Monday's ceremony, which precedes a three-day summit ending on Thursday.

The region of 600 million people is seeing economic growth, with 3.2 percent predicted for 2014, up from 2.6 percent this year, according to UN figures.

But the recovery can not mask signs of underlying instability in the region's major economic powers, problems that will only worsen as the United States tapers its own economic stimulus.

In recent days Argentina has jettisoned currency controls in the face of a plummeting peso, Venezuela has tightened its own controls and powerhouse Brazil has sluggish growth and a falling real.

Emerging economies worldwide have been hit by the global financial tightening led by the US Fed signalling an end to the stimulus measures put in place after the 2008 crisis.

Since the beginning of the year, the Argentina's peso has lost about a fifth of its value, and the measure was seen as a bid to halt that precipitous slide by boosting confidence in the economy.

Meanwhile, Caracas last week said it would allow only importers of high priority goods like food to buy dollars at the official rate, forcing others to pay nearly twice that.

Despite government denials, critics said Venezuela's change is a de facto devaluation, to help control skyrocketing inflation.

Brazil, the world's seventh-largest economy and Latin America's biggest, posted its lowest annual trade surplus in 13 years this January and has raised its key interest rate to 10.5 percent.

Argentina's President Cristina Kirchner railed against "speculative" attacks against the currencies of emerging countries after meeting with her Brazilian counterpart Dilma Rousseff in Havana.

CELAC, which first met in Caracas in December 2011, was the culmination of an effort by Chavez to to bring together both right-wing and leftist governments to counter the influence of the United States.

It's future seemed doubtful after Chavez succumbed to cancer, but with this week's meeting in Havana, it appears to be moving forward.

It is still unclear, however, how the group will coexist alongside the Organization of American States, established under Washington's leadership after WWII, and which has excluded Cuba since 1962.

Communist "Cuba has never had such a strong show of support from across the region," said Arturo Lopez-Levy at the University of Denver.

Perhaps, 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.

Havana vowed not to rejoin the OAS, even though the suspension was overturned in 2009, but invited the OAS secretary-general to the summit in what will be the first such visit to the island since 1959.

And as foreign ministers in Havana maneuver over the meeting's final statement, the main sticking points appear centered in this question of the group's identity.

The greatest friction has centered around a paragraph recognizing Chavez's contribution to the bloc, which is opposed by conservative Panama.

No leaders plan to meet with Cuban dissidents during the gathering, unlike when Cuba hosted the 1999 Ibero-American summit, when ministers and leaders from seven countries did, outraging the host.

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