HAVANA (AP) -- Foreign ministers from 33 Latin American and Caribbean nations met Monday in the Cuban capital for a summit of Western Hemisphere countries minus the United States and Canada.
Topics of discussion included the cultivation of traditional crops like quinoa, historical disputes such as Argentina’s claim to the British-controlled Falkland Islands and initiatives like promoting literacy in the region.
Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez says he was "deeply pleased" and the talks were characterized by an "extraordinary and permanent spirit of solution."
Heads of state are to meet Tuesday and Wednesday at the second summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, or CELAC for its initials in Spanish.
The secretary-general of the Organization of American States, Jose Miguel Insulza, arrived later in the day after being invited to attend as an observer -- an unusual encounter 52 years after Cuba was kicked out of the regional bloc.
Insulza’s chief of staff, Hugo Zela, said the OAS has no record of a secretary-general visiting Cuba.
The OAS was formed in 1948. In 2009 it ended Cuba’s suspension, but Havana said it was not interested in rejoining a group it accuses of obeying Washington’s interests.
"The celebration of this summit ... in Havana demonstrates Cuba’s importance in the process of Latin American and Caribbean integration," Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff said.
Also in town as an observer was U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Islanders gathered around him Monday as he toured the colonial old quarter with City Historian Eusebio Leal, who oversees the restoration of the neighborhood. Ban also stopped into a barber shop for a haircut and clapped along with singing schoolchildren.
The United Nations Development Program and other U.N. agencies "are working very closely to help the Cuban government and people to preserve this area," Ban said.
He later met with President Raul Castro’s daughter, Mariela Castro, the island’s most visible advocate for LGBT and women’s rights as the head of the National Center for Sex Education.
"I would like to take this opportunity to symbolically give the secretary-general of the United Nations my personal commitment and that of (her sex education center) to join his campaign to end violence against women and girls," Mariela Castro said.
Some heads of state arrived early and squeezed other activities into their agenda.
Rousseff and Raul Castro presided over a ceremony launching a new port built with Brazilian financing.
The Argentine presidency released photographs of President Cristina Fernandez’s lunchtime encounter the previous day with retired leader Fidel Castro and his longtime companion, Dalia Soto del Valle. Fernandez also published them on her official Twitter account.
"We talked about everything, but above all a symbol of the meeting of all Latin America and the Caribbean in Havana. ... Yes, of course we talked about Hugo too. A lot. Indelible memories," her Twitter feed said.
The late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who died of cancer last March, was a driving force behind the formation of the CELAC in 2011. He and others envisioned it as an alternative to the OAS for addressing regional concerns free of Washington’s influence.
Associated Press writer Luis Alonso Lugo in Washington contributed.
Andrea Rodriguez on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Peter--Orsi