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LatAm leaders open summit, noting Chavez's absence

29 january 2013, 10:47
0
Venezuelan Vice-President Nicolas Maduro (R) and Foreign Minister Elias Jose Jaua at the summit. ©AFP
Venezuelan Vice-President Nicolas Maduro (R) and Foreign Minister Elias Jose Jaua at the summit. ©AFP
After wrapping up talks with their European counterparts, Latin American leaders on Sunday opened their own summit here, with the event notable for the absence of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, AFP reports.

"I want to acknowledge a president who is not with us -- President Hugo Chavez," Chilean leader Sebastian Pinera said in tribute, as a 24-hour summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean states formally got under way.

Pinera said Chavez's "vision made it possible to set" CELAC in motion. Since December 2011 it has grouped together all American nations except the United States and Canada with the aim of boosting regional trade and integration.

Referring to Chavez, who is convalescing from cancer surgery in Cuba, Pinera said: "We all pray so that he can win this battle, perhaps the toughest of his life; so that he can resume his functions as president of Venezuela."

On Saturday, Venezuelan Communications Minister Ernesto Villegas said Chavez has beaten a severe respiratory infection that occurred after his latest cancer surgery in Cuba.

But doubt remains about Chavez's health and when or indeed if he will return to Caracas to be sworn in for his fourth term in office.

The Venezuelan leader has not been seen in public for more than six weeks. He underwent his latest round of cancer surgery in Havana on December 11 and his inauguration has already been delayed once.

At the CELAC summit, Pinera is scheduled to hand over the chairmanship of the 33-member group to Cuba for one year.

The changeover will mark Cuba's full regional reintegration and represents a major diplomatic coup for visiting President Raul Castro, whose communist-ruled island is still reeling from a 50-year-old crippling US trade embargo.

Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa, who is campaigning for re-election, is also absent from the regional meeting, as is Paraguay's Federico Franco and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.

Rousseff cut short her Chilean visit in the wake of Sunday's devastating nightclub fire that killed at least 233 people in southern Brazil.

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