Leaders from across Latin America put aside domestic financial stability concerns to converge on Cuba for the summit of a major group set up to counter US influence.
The CELAC bloc of 33 Latin American and Caribbean nations was founded by Venezuela's late anti-Western leader Hugo Chavez, and specifically excludes the United States and Canada.
Its second summit is hosted by Chavez's closest ally, communist Cuba, a major diplomatic coup for a country Washington has tried to isolate through a five-decade-old trade embargo.
"We're building on the harsh reality, laboriously, the ideal of a diverse but unified Latin America and the Caribbean," Cuban President Raul Castro, 82, said ahead of the meeting.
Castro was joined by several regional leaders in the town of Mariel to mark the opening of a major container port, partly funded by Brazil and a major outlet for an island nation excluded from US trade.
Cuba looks less isolated
"Brazil wants to be a first-order economic ally to Cuba," Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff declared at Monday's ceremony, which precedes a three-day summit ending Thursday.
The region of 600 million people is seeing economic growth, with 3.2 percent predicted for 2014, up from 2.6 percent this year, according to UN figures.
But the recovery cannot mask signs of underlying instability in the region's major economic powers, problems that will only worsen as the United States tapers its own economic stimulus.
Argentina has jettisoned currency controls in the face of a plummeting peso in recent days, Venezuela has tightened its own controls and powerhouse Brazil has sluggish growth and a falling real.
Emerging economies worldwide have been hit by the global financial tightening led by the US Fed signaling an end to the stimulus measures put in place after the 2008 crisis.
Since the beginning of the year, Argentina's peso has lost about a fifth of its value, and the measure was seen as a bid to halt that precipitous slide by boosting confidence in the economy.
Meanwhile, Caracas said last week it would allow only importers of high priority goods like food to buy dollars at the official rate, forcing others to pay nearly twice that.
Despite government denials, critics said Venezuela's change is a de facto devaluation, to help control skyrocketing inflation.
Brazil, the world's seventh-largest economy and Latin America's biggest, posted its lowest annual trade surplus in 13 years this January and has raised its key interest rate to 10.5 percent.
Argentine President Cristina Kirchner railed against "speculative" attacks against the currencies of emerging countries after meeting with Rousseff in Havana.
CELAC, which first met in Caracas in December 2011, was the culmination of an effort by Chavez to bring together both right-wing and leftist governments to counter the influence of the United States.
Its future seemed doubtful after Chavez succumbed to cancer, but with this week's meeting, it appears to be moving forward.
It is still unclear, however, how the group will coexist alongside the Organization of American States, established under Washington's leadership after WWII, and which has excluded Cuba since 1962.
Communist "Cuba has never had such a strong show of support from across the region," said Arturo Lopez-Levy at the University of Denver.
Perhaps, but "the United States is not going to change (its isolationist policy toward Cuba) just because a lot of regional leaders visit Havana," stressed Patricio Navia, a New York University political scientist.
No leaders plan to meet with Cuban dissidents during the gathering, unlike when Cuba hosted the 1999 Ibero-American summit and ministers and leaders from seven countries did, outraging the host.
On Monday, Cuban authorities refused entry to a blogger from Argentina, Gabriel Salvia, who was coming to cover a dissident gathering Tuesday on the sidelines of the summit.
About 20 dissidents were to speak at the event but it seemed unlikely to be held because its host, Manuel Cuesta Morua, was "apparently detained," according to dissident representative Elizardo Sanchez.