SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) - Cuban President Raul Castro assumed the presidency of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States on Monday in a demonstration of regional unity against U.S. efforts to isolate the communist government through a 50-year-old economic embargo.
Castro was warmly welcomed by his colleagues as he spoke Monday at the closing ceremony of the CELAC summit in Santiago, taking over the rotating presidency from Chile.
He described what he called "a common vision for the Latin American and Caribbean homeland," saying that CELAC "joins the 33 independent nations of our America to build a space for national sovereignty and encourage integration."
Castro said Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez had helped realize South American independence hero Simon Bolivar's dream of unifying the region by negotiating the creation of the CELAC bloc in December 2011.
"It's one more sign that Latin America wants Cuba to fully integrate to regional bodies, even though Cuba, unlike the rest of Latin America, has a one-party state," said Phil Peters, Cuba analyst and vice president of the Lexington Institute think tank outside Washington.
Many of the leaders speaking in Santiago described CELAC as a counterweight to the economic and political power of the United States, which for decades froze Cuba out of the Organization of American States and other regional groupings.
"Cuba's assumption of the presidency of the CELAC marks a change of times," Argentine President Cristina Fernandez said. "For Chilean President Sebastian Pinera to transfer the presidency pro tempore to Castro shows the times we're living."
The transfer of power from a Chilean leader to a Castro would have been unthinkable some years ago.
Former Chilean President Salvador Allende committed suicide during the 1973 military coup that ousted his democratically elected socialist government. He used a rifle that he had received as a gift from Fidel Castro, the current Cuban president's brother.
The dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet then persecuted leftists, and the Chilean government officially estimates that 3,095 people were killed by his regime.
Leftist Uruguayan President Jose Mujica, a former leftist guerrilla leader imprisoned and tortured during Uruguay's dictatorship, said it was refreshing to meet European presidents and prime ministers on equal terms for the first time in more than 70 years "without the boss from the north" at the table.
Critics of Castro's appointment as head of CELAC, say that the move contradicts CELAC's founding document signed by member countries in Mexico in 2010.
Miami Herald columnist Andres Oppenheimer, who does not support the U.S. embargo in Cuba said, "it's hard to take the CELAC seriously when in their foundational charter they put that they're going to defend democracy and then they elect a military dictator as its president,"
"It's a joke," he said. "Either they should abstain from electing Raul Castro as president or they should delete from their foundational charter their vow to promote democracy. Both, together, are a contradiction that doesn't make sense."
Back in Havana, Chavez was undergoing medical treatment after struggling with complications following cancer surgery, Venezuelan officials said.
Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro read a lengthy typewritten letter he said came from Chavez in Cuba, asking countries to remain unified and fight economic imperialism.
"We have to live with our differences ... always trying to find the best way of complementing each other. We cannot let intrigues divide us," said the letter, which ended with what appeared to be Chavez's signature in red ink.
"After 30 years of resisting this criminal imperial blockade," the letter said, referring to the U.S. embargo of Cuba, "Latin America and the Caribbean are using a single voice to tell the United States: All your attempts to isolate Cuba are failing."
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Associated Press writers Eva Vergara and Michael Warren in Santiago, Chile, Andrea Rodriguez in Havana, Cuba, contributed to this report.
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