CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — South American independence hero Simon Bolivar once dreamed of unifying several nations as a counterweight to their powerful hemispheric neighbor, the United States.
Two centuries later, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is tapping into that legacy at a two-day summit of the Americas starting Friday. Chavez describes the new regional bloc that excludes the U.S. as a tribute to his idol, saying the time has come to put an end to U.S. hegemony.
"This is the achievement after 200 years of battle," Chavez said Thursday. "The Monroe Doctrine was imposed here: America for Americans, the Yankees. They imposed their will during 200 years, but that's enough."
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega echoed Chavez's statements, saying it's time for Latin American and Caribbean countries to ensure the policy of U.S. intervention to protect hemispheric nations, declared by President James Monroe in 1823, is never revived.
"We are sentencing the Monroe Doctrine to death," said Ortega, speaking before joining fellow presidents for the summit's opening ceremony on Friday.
Chavez also sees the nascent Community of Latin American and Caribbean States as a tool to strengthen regional integration.
"We must march toward what Bolivar called a great political body," Chavez said.
The 33-nation bloc, known by its Spanish initials CELAC, includes every country in Latin America and the Caribbean. Unlike the Washington-based Organization of American States, or OAS, it will have Cuba as a full member and will exclude the U.S. and Canada.
Cuban President Raul Castro also supported Chavez's stance as he arrived Friday, saying the creation of the new bloc is "the biggest event in 200 years."
Many Latin American leaders, however, say they see CELAC as a forum to build closer economic and political relations across the region rather than a platform for challenging U.S. policies.
Visiting Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff also referred to Bolivar as an inspiration, but did not cast Washington as the region's unwelcome neighbor.
"Our countries are demonstrating this vocation for a common future," Rousseff said at a meeting with Chavez on Thursday. "Two hundred years ago, Caracas stood out like a light for the independence struggle. ... I believe in Bolivar's dream."
Plans for the new organization, which grew out of the 24-nation Rio Group, have been in the works since a 2008 summit hosted by Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
Chavez's closest allies share his hopes of a region increasingly free of U.S. influence.
"With the creation of CELAC, Chavez is realizing his Bolivarian vision and dream for the region. Other CELAC participants will recognize Chavez for that and give him due credit," said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue. "There is a strong strain of regionalism throughout Latin America and the Caribbean."
Chavez has long sought inspiration in the legacy of Bolivar, who in the early 1800s served as president of Gran Colombia, a republic made up of much of northern South America and modern-day Panama until it broke up into individual states following years of dissent and political upheaval.
Chavez calls his political movement the Bolivarian Revolution and has changed the country's name to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Last year, Chavez even oversaw the opening of Bolivar's coffin to re-examine the cause of his death, and the Venezuelan government is building a new mausoleum to house Bolivar's remains.
Bolivar was an admirer of the American Revolution, although he warned the unrivaled power of the United States could eventually pose a threat to the young nations of Latin America that had won independence from Spain.
Ecuador's president, Rafael Correa, hailed the CELAC as an alternative to the OAS.
"It's time to have a more a forum that's more of our own, closer to our reality, without the bias in favor of North America," Correa said.
Associated Press writers Ian James and Jorge Rueda in Caracas contributed to this report.
Christopher Toothaker on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ctoothaker