Rights group laments Cuba's leadership of regional group

Human Rights Watch criticized Latin American nations Thursday for honoring Cuba with the leadership of a key regional group, calling the communist state a "totalitarian regime."

Cuba formally assumed the presidency of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) on Monday, scoring a major diplomatic coup at a summit in Chile at which it urged regional integration and independence from the United States.

Set up in December 2011 at the behest of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, CELAC groups all nations from across the Americas -- except the United States and Canada.

"It's seems like a lamentable fact, a serious mistake," Jose Miguel Vivanco, America's director at Human Rights Watch, told reporters.

"Cuba is a totalitarian regime that denies the exercise of public freedoms, democracy and fundamental rights," he said after presenting the group's annual global rights report that identified Cuba as the most repressive country in the region.

"It's a pity that the states of Latin America distinguished Cuba and its current leader... with the responsibility of regional representation," Vivanco said, adding that this "undoubtedly represents the abandonment of principles that cost a lot to build and self-imposed collective obligations."

The Cuban chairmanship of CELAC marked Havana's full regional reintegration, with Cuban President Raul hailing it as "a great honor" and "recognition of the determined struggle of our people for independence."