Cuba assumed the presidency of a key Latin American group here Monday, scoring a major diplomatic coup at a summit at which it urged regional integration and independence from the United States.
President Raul Castro, whose island nation is still languishing under a crippling 50-year-old US trade embargo, formally took over the chairmanship of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) from summit host Chile.
The development, hailed by Argentine President Cristina Kirchner as a sign of the "changing times," marks Cuba's full regional reintegration and represents a major diplomatic coup for Castro.
"We are building the ideal of a diverse Latin American and Caribbean region united in a common space of political independence and sovereignty over our enormous natural resources to advance toward sustainable development, regional integration," the 81-year-old Cuban leader said in his address.
Set up in Caracas in December 2011 at the behest of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, CELAC groups all nations from across the Americas except the United States and Canada.
Chavez, who is undergoing cancer treatment in Havana and has not been seen in public for weeks, sent a message of support to his Cuban ally to the summit.
"Latin America and the Caribbean are telling the United States with a single voice that all attempts to isolate Cuba have failed and will fail," the leftist firebrand said in a message read out by his vice president Nicolas Maduro.
"We have pledged to give all our support to Cuba which, beginning in this summit, assumes the presidency of the community in an act of justice after more than 50 years of resistance to the criminal imperial embargo," Chavez said.
In his remarks, the Cuban leader praised Chavez's "extraordinary leadership" and the Venezuelan people for "setting an outstanding example of loyalty, determination and unity ...in spite of their pain and concern over the health" of their president.
Castro also seized the occasion to warn the region that "transnational corporations, basically Americans, will not renounce their control over strategic energy, water and mineral resources nearing depletion."
In another dig at Washington, he said "our community will not be complete without Puerto Rico, a truly Latin American and Caribbean sister nation submitted to (US) colonial domination." Puerto Rico is a self-governing US possession.
And he expressed gratitude for the region's support for Argentine sovereignty over the British-ruled Falklands and its opposition to the US trade embargo on Cuba.
Meanwhile the secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS), Jose Miguel Insulza of Chile, said CELAC was not a "threat" to the OAS -- which includes the United States and Canada -- but rather a "useful component".
"They are two distinct (organizations) and not meant to compete with each other," he said. "The OAS has a hemispheric role, includes also countries of North America, which make up a third of the population of the region."
The OAS kicked out communist-ruled Cuba in 1962 at the height of the Cold War. The expulsion was rescinded in 2009, but Cuba has refused to return.
Insulza stressed that he could not question CELAC's decision to hand its chairmanship to Cuba.
"It is not my organization. I have always believed that the inclusion of Cuba and cooperation with Cuba are better than exclusion and isolation, to promote democracy," he noted.
In a balancing act agreed in Caracas when CELAC was created, Cuba assumes the presidency for the first year and Costa Rica for the second.
Earlier Monday, Chilean President Sebastian Pinera paid tribute to Chavez, but also to former presidents Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil and Felipe Calderon of Mexico "for their vision and leadership" in helping create CELAC.
Sunday, CELAC leaders opened their summit focused on forging greater regional integration, immediately after wrapping up talks with their counterparts from the European Union.
In closing remarks at the EU-CELAC meeting, the seventh for the two blocs, European Council President Herman van Rompuy said the "discussions have given new energy and momentum to our strategic partnership."
Pinera, the summit host, meanwhile hailed a "new strategic alliance to promote growth, create jobs and improve the quality of life" for citizens.