By VANESSA ARRINGTON | Associated Press Writer

A Latin American medical school created as a regional initiative in 1998 after two hurricanes devastated Caribbean and Central American nations graduated its first class on Saturday.

Students at the school come from Latin American, Africa and the United States. Most come from low-income families and receive a free education on the condition they return home to serve their communities after graduation.

On Saturday, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Cuban President Fidel Castro—who have become close allies as they stake their leadership on opposition to the United States—handed out diplomas to several of the 1,500 graduates.

“This graduation was just a dream nearly seven years ago,” Castro said at the ceremony. “Today is proof of the capacity of human beings to reach the most lofty goals.”

The leaders of Panama and several Caribbean nations also attended the graduation.

Earlier in the day, Castro said the group of politicians had come together Saturday for the school, and that “we’re not conspiring, or wanting to destabilize any government or region.” His comments were an apparent reference to comments this week by U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on a trip to Latin America.

Rumsfeld and other members of the Bush administration have said Chavez and Castro are destabilizing influences on teetering Latin American democracies. On his way home from visits to Paraguay and Peru, Rumsfeld told reporters Thursday that “there certainly is evidence that both Cuba and Venezuela have been involved in the situation in Bolivia in unhelpful ways.”

Social uprisings in Bolivia have pushed out two presidents in less than two years.

The medical school was created after Hurricanes George and Mitch devastated several Caribbean and Central American nations, provoking serious health and sanitation issues.

Dozens of Americans, many of them minorities from urban neighborhoods, are among those currently attending the medical school. Fifteen new students from the United States also recently arrived to Cuba to start studies this year.

Only one American was among those graduating Saturday.