Chávez convenes group to rival U.S.-backed bloc

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has opened a two-day summit of Latin American leaders to inaugurate a new regional bloc that excludes the United States and Canada.

The regional leaders gathered Friday in Caracas as the 33-member Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, or CELAC, was launched. Unlike the Washington-based Organization of American States, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States will have Cuba as a member. Cuban President Raúl Castro and Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff are among the leaders attending the Caracas talks.

When asked about the U.S. exclusion from the grouping, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the U.S. will continue to work with Latin American nations through the Organization of American States.

The summit was to have taken place in July to coincide with Venezuela’s 200th anniversary of independence. The talks were delayed because Chávez recovered following surgery in Havana to remove a malignant tumor. The Venezuelan leader has not said what kind of cancer he was diagnosed with, but said he has beaten the disease.

Chávez has said previously he will be healthy enough to campaign and win re-election to another six-year term in 2012. Chávez, who is 57, has been in power since 1999.

In San José, Casa Presidencial said that Vice President Alfio Piva was attending the Caracas meeting. The Costa Rican government acknowledged that Chile will preside over the organization for 2012, and Cuba will preside in 2013. However, Costa Rica has been tapped for the presidency in 2014, said Casa Presidencial.

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