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New bloc revives Bolivar vision

Leaders from across the Americas are gathering in Venezuela to launch a new regional bloc of 33 countries from Argentina to the Bahamas.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez says the new group is a milestone and a tribute to the ideals of 19th century independence hero Simon Bolivar, who dreamed of uniting much of Latin America.

The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States includes every country in the Americas except the United States and Canada. Leaders across the political spectrum say the new group will be a forum to resolve regional conflicts, defend democratic principles and promote economic development.

Bolivar dreamed of unifying several nations as a counterweight to their powerful neighbour to the north, the United States. Two centuries later, Mr Chavez is tapping into that legacy at a two-day summit, describing the new regional bloc as a tribute to his idol and saying the time has come to put an end to US hegemony.

"This is the achievement after 200 years of battle," Mr Chavez said. "The Monroe Doctrine was imposed here: America for Americans, the Yankees. They imposed their will during 200 years, but that's enough."

Mr 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," he said.

The bloc, known by its Spanish initials CELAC, will have Cuba as a full member. Cuban President Raul Castro echoed Mr Chavez's stance as he arrived today, saying the creation of the new bloc was "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 US policies.

Visiting Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff also referred to Bolivar as an inspiration, but did not cast Washington as the region's unwelcome neighbour.

"Our countries are demonstrating this vocation for a common future," Ms Rousseff said at a meeting with Mr Chavez. "Two hundred years ago, Caracas stood out like a light for the independence struggle ... I believe in Bolivar's dream."

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