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Leaders create Latin American bloc; spat mars summit

PLAYA DEL CARMEN, Mexico - Latin America and Caribbean leaders united yesterday to create a regional bloc excluding Canada and the United States, but its birth was undermined by a spat in which the Colombian president told Venezuela's Hugo Chávez "to be a man."

Many of the 32 Latin American and Caribbean countries participating in the summit have long called for a new organization not dominated by the interests of their two wealthy northern neighbors.

Mexican President Felipe Calderón, who hosted the summit in a Caribbean resort, said the bloc "will consolidate and globally project a Latin American and Caribbean identity." Latin American countries, however, have competing interests of their own - a point driven home by bickering at the summit.

At a dinner Monday night, conservative Colombian President Alvaro Uribe started complaining about Venezuela's trade sanctions against Colombia, according to an official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The official said Chávez shot back that Venezuela was constantly threatened by paramilitaries in the neighboring country and suggested the Colombian government was involved.

Chávez then stood up from the table, ready to storm off, when Uribe told him to stay and "be a man." Chávez told Uribe to "go to hell," according to Venezuelan state television.

After they calmed down, the leaders agreed to create a "group of friends" to mediate between the two leaders.

Then, Bolivian President Evo Morales, a Chávez ally, reignited tensions by suggesting Uribe was a U.S. "agent" sent to sabotage the bloc.

Meanwhile, Washington welcomed the new group.

"Virtually all of the countries attending the unity summit are strong partners of the United States, and we are working together with them on a broad range of initiatives," said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley. "So we consider the meeting in Mexico as consistent with our goals for the hemisphere."

The leaders agreed to meet again in Venezuela in 2011.

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