``New winds are blowing through our continent, the winds of independence.'' Those words from Brazilian President Jos'e Sarney underscored the assertiveness that prevailed at last weekend's Latin American summit here. Nonetheless, the eight Latin presidents left their first ever meeting here Sunday without the expected ringing denunciations of United States policy or threats to torpedo the international financial system over their debt burden.
Instead, they drew satisfaction from the unprecedented fact that they had forged a Latin American view of Latin America's problems, unencumbered by Washington's opinions.
The fact that the leaders expressed ``their points of view outside the Organization of American States [OAS],'' said Carlos Croes, Venezuela's information minister, is ``a recognition that the system does not satisfy them.'' Latin Americans have long complained that the US unfairly dominates the OAS, imposing an agenda that its neighbors do not always share.
At this year's OAS summit, for example, ``Washington focused all its attention on Nicaragua,'' lamented one foreign minister ``Do they think there are no other problems in Latin America?''
Two junior American Embassy officials who followed the meeting here expressed skepticism about the long-term impact of the summit. ``I don't know how much the joint positions taken by the Group of Eight will affect each country's bilateral relations with the [US],'' one said.
He was concerned, however, that the leaders of Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Panama, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela would ``decide to use this [meeting] as a forum to replace the OAS and exclude the United States from Latin American affairs.'' The leaders plan to meet again next year.
Officials here stressed they were not building an alternative OAS. ``This is a mechanism for political consultations, it's not replacing any institutions,'' insisted Uruguayan Foreign Minister Enrique Iglesias.
``We are making a great effort to unite to face our common economic, social, and political crises,'' said Croes. ``But the [US] and the industrialized world must pay more attention to our drama.''
Argentine President Ra'ul Alfons'in made this plea most forcefully, warning that fragile South American democracies such as his may not survive unless a solution to the debt crisis is found.
While the region's $350-billion debt burden ``is the fundamental root of our problems, it is also the principal motor of continental unity,'' said Peruvian President Alan Garc'ia P'erez.
That unity has long proved elusive. But now, says an Argentine official, ``the nature and size of the problems we are facing, the depth of our economic crisis, have convinced us that we can only face them together.''
``The mistake the United States always makes is to see Latin American unity aimed against them'' says Mr. Iglesias. ``But there can be no real pan-Americanism without real Latin Americanism.''