LatAm leftists hold summit in support of Venezuela

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro delivers a speech before supporters outside the presidential palace in Caracas on March 12, 2015 (AFP Photo/Federico Parra)

Caracas (AFP) - Leaders from leftist Latin American regional bloc ALBA gathered Tuesday for a summit in Caracas, a show of support for Venezuela in its mounting standoff with the United States.

The meeting of the 11-nation Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America comes as the United States faces backlash in Latin America over its new sanctions on Venezuela.

President Barack Obama rubbed many governments in the region the wrong way by declaring Venezuela an "extraordinary threat to the national security" of the United States last week -- language that US officials said was a formality for imposing sanctions, but that Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said showed the US was itself an "imperialist threat."

Ecuadoran Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino, in Caracas for the summit, said it was "fundamental" for the region to unite against "what could be an intervention in Venezuela."

"Declaring a country a threat is a prelude to an invasion," he said.

Presidents Raul Castro of Cuba, Evo Morales of Bolivia and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua were also in town for the summit.

ALBA was launched in 2004 by late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and former Cuban president Fidel Castro as a leftist alternative to the United States' proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas.

ALBA's members are Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Saint Lucia, Granada, Saint Kitts and Nevis, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.

The fallout from the new US sanctions threatens to tarnish the goodwill Obama fostered in the region by moving to end Washington's five-decade isolation of Cuba.

After Obama imposed the new sanctions on seven senior Venezuelan officials accused of rights abuses and an opposition crackdown, Maduro responded by recalling Venezuela's envoy to Washington and lashing out at the "imperialist elite."

The socialist leader then ordered 10 days of "defensive military exercises" and asked Venezuela's National Assembly to grant him the power to rule by decree on defense and public safety matters -- a request voted through by his legislative majority Sunday.

Hemispheric relations are in the spotlight ahead of the Summit of the Americas in Panama on April 10-11, where Obama will rub elbows with his Latin American counterparts and Cuba will participate for the first time.

A top US diplomat downplayed struggling oil giant Venezuela's current influence in the region Tuesday.

"Venezuela's ability to exercise influence has been greatly undermined by its serious economic problems and its ongoing efforts to try to stave off a balance of payments crisis," Alex Lee, the US deputy assistant secretary of state for South America and Cuba, told a Senate subcommittee.

But, he added, "the crisis in Venezuela will be a priority for Obama at the Summit of the Americas."