LatAm leaders declare region a ‘zone of peace’

HAVANA (AP) – Leaders from across Latin America and the Caribbean signed a resolution declaring the region a “zone of peace” on Wednesday, pledging to resolve their disputes as respectful neighbors without the use of arms.

The joint declaration came on the final day of a summit of Western Hemisphere nations minus the United States and Canada. The grouping, conceived as a vehicle for regional integration independent of Washington’s influence, was born in 2011.

The 33 nations gathered in Havana committed to nonintervention in each other’s internal affairs, to cultivate cooperation and friendship and to respect “the inalienable right of every state to choose its political, economic, social and cultural system,” Cuban President Raul Castro said, reading from the text of the resolution.

Heads of state gave speeches highlighting the need to solve urgent problems such as regional insecurity and economic struggles. Others called for Puerto Rican independence from the United States, and for Argentine sovereignty over the British-controlled Falkland Islands, known in the Spanish-speaking world as the Malvinas. Some left-leaning presidents railed against cultural imperialism, consumerism and “savage capitalism.”

Cuba is handing off the rotating presidency of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, or CELAC, to Costa Rica, which will host the next summit.

The Central American nation’s ambassador to Cuba met for about a half-hour Wednesday morning with two independent human rights activists to hear their concerns.

“We asked that under the pro-tempore presidency of Costa Rica, Cuba be encouraged to begin a process of gradual reforms on the issue of human rights,” Elizardo Sanchez, head of the non-governmental Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, said after he and his group’s communications director met with the envoy.

The previous day, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he had spoken to Cuban leadership during a visit and pressed them on human rights, free expression and freedom of assembly.

Cuba considers its small community of outspoken government opponents to be treasonous “mercenaries” bent on undermining the island’s political system at the behest of foreign interests. Dissidents have reported increased detentions and harassment during the summit.

Earlier Wednesday, Castro, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and other leaders attended the inauguration of a museum dedicated to the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, one of CELAC’s staunchest proponents.

The two-room museum in a Spanish colonial fortress in Havana covers the history of Venezuela and of Chavez, who died of cancer last March.

Permanent exhibits display personal effects including a military uniform and shoes. Every month on the 28th – the day of Chavez’s birth – a Communist youth group is to hold a public act in his honor.

Chavez was a close ally of Cuba and considered Fidel Castro a friend and mentor. Venezuela has supplied Cuba with billions of dollars in cut-rate oil in recent years.

(Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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