December 17, 2008 - 1:30 p.m.
COSTA DO SAUIPE, Brazil (AFP) — Latin American leaders wrapped up a two-day summit Wednesday with a demand the United States end its 46-year-old embargo on Cuba, and expressing hopes strained US ties will change under incoming president Barack Obama.
Presidents and top officials from 33 countries covering virtually all of Latin America and the Caribbean -- including Cuban President Raul Castro on his first foreign tour abroad -- were keen to turn the page on their experience with US President George W. Bush's administration.
The two-day summit in the northeastern Brazilian resort of Costa do Sauipe flew high its assertion of independence from the United States right from the start on Tuesday.
The leaders issued a special statement demanding an end to the US economic sanctions imposed on Cuba since 1962.
The Rio Group -- a policy-coordinating bloc covering most of the region -- also welcomed Cuba as its newest member, delivering a pointed challenge to Washington's bid to isolate Havana.
Castro, making his first appearance at a multilateral forum outside Cuba since taking over from his brother Fidel more than two years ago, thanked his counterparts for that and their support against the "illegal and unjust" US embargo.
He reiterated his willingness to hold talks with Obama, but only on condition the sanctions be lifted and the two talk to each other as equals.
Obama, who takes power on January 20, said during his campaign that while he was ready to meet Cuba's leaders, the embargo would stay.
Bolivian President Evo Morales urged the leaders at the summit to give Washington an ultimatum: lift the embargo on Cuba or risk having its ambassadors kicked out of the region.
"If the new United States government doesn't lift the economic blockade, we should expel its ambassadors," said Morales, one of a growing number of leftwing leaders taking Latin America out of the US orbit.
But the summit's host, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, distanced himself from Morales's call, even though he reaffirmed his opposition to the US embargo.
"Prudence and political diplomacy" was needed until Obama was formally made US president so the region can "see what he proposes for Latin America, what treatment he will give Cuba," he told a post-summit news conference with other leaders including Morales at his side.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Cuba's main ally and a frequent critic of Washington, said Tuesday he believed "a new era is starting" in the region, one free of US influence.
He added Wednesday: "Full independence has not come about because we have never been as united as we are now. Maybe now is the true moment for full integration."
Both Morales and Chavez in September kicked out the US ambassadors to their countries, accusing them of siding with the opposition and fomenting unrest.
Latin America's ambitions to assert its independence from the United States could also be seen in efforts to establish joint institutions.
Unasur, a South American bloc counting 12 of the biggest nations, on Tuesday agreed to set up a regional defense council to act as a forum for confronting common threats and to clear the air during moments of tension between members.
And Mexican President Felipe Calderon said many Latin American leaders wanted to formalize their regional summits within a mooted organization which would not include the United States.
If realized, that body would effectively rival the existing Organization of American States, which has seats for US and Canadian representatives.