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Cuba's Castro calls for Latin American integration

HAVANA--Cuban President Raul Castro called on Latin American and Caribbean leaders Tuesday to work together on pressing regional problems at a gathering of all Western Hemisphere nations except the U.S. and Canada.

In his keynote speech as host for the summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, or CELAC for its initials in Spanish, Castro argued that the bloc should aspire to unity despite diversity, describing it as “the legitimate representative of the interests of Latin America and the Caribbean.”

“We should establish a new regional and international cooperation paradigm,” Castro said. “In the context of CELAC, we have the possibility to create a model of our own making, adapted to our realities, based on the principles of mutual benefit.”

The summit's main theme is fighting poverty, inequality and hunger. According to the U.N.'s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, 28 percent of the region's inhabitants live in poverty and 11 percent in extreme poverty.

But if unity and feel-good talk about lifting up the poor were the order of the day, Castro also heard a rebuke from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who was invited as an observer and met with the Cuban leader Monday.

During his first trip to Cuba, Ban praised Havana for its historical preservation efforts, its international medical missions that treat the poor and its work fighting violence against women and girls. But he also criticized the Communist-run nation on human rights.

“I emphasized the importance of playing a greater role in enhancing human rights, and providing spaces for people's right to peaceful assembly and freedom of association, and the cases of arbitrary detention occurring in Cuba,” Ban told reporters.

Dissidents, international human rights groups and Washington have expressed concern at reports of increased harassment and detentions of Cuban government opponents in the days before and during the summit. The Cuban government officially considers dissidents to be traitors in service of foreign interests and out to undermine its sovereignty.

Tuesday's session of heads of CELAC states began with a minute of silence to remember the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who succumbed to cancer last March.

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In this photo released by Cubadebate, Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff visits with Cuba's former President Fidel Castro in Havana, Cuba on Monday, Jan. 27.

(AP)

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