With Latin America in transition, same old Castro visits summit

July 19, 1991|By John M. McClintock | John M. McClintock,Mexico Bureau of The Sun

GUADALAJARA, Mexico -- Nineteen Latin American countries opened their first summit yesterday hoping to persuade Fidel Castro to end his 32-year-old Marxist rule.

But in individual meetings with four of his colleagues, the Cuban president gave no hint that he was about to change.

In his first public statement here, Mr. Castro said that he welcomed the chance to join Latin American forces but that Cuba "could not submit to political pressures" to change.

Mr. Castro warned the assembled leaders against an overreliance on getting help from Western nations.

"The great powers have no friends, only interests," he said.

His presence dominated this first summit of the Latin American countries and their old imperialist masters, Portugal and Spain. "This is like Gorbachev attending the G-7 summit in London," said a senior Mexican official, referring to this week's meeting among leaders of the seven richest nations of the world and the Soviet president.

"We want to resolve our differences in the hemisphere, and we need Castro to do it," the official said

Guarded by more than 40 Cuban security men and countless Mexican secret police, the aging ex-guerrilla seemed like a historic anachronism.

With his army fatigues, Mr. Castro appeared to be dressed for war only to find himself at a cocktail party of young Latin American technocrats espousing democracy and liberal economics.

The significance of Mr. Castro's visit is that he came at all to Mexico's second-largest city for the summit. It was his first Latin American conference in 30 years, ever since the United States and its allies ousted Cuba from the Organization of American States.

The 21-nation Latin summit is scheduled to hold its second conference in Spain next year -- the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' discovery of America. Mr. Castro has indicated that he will attend that summit as well. His presence here also underscores Cuba's new reality of lessened Soviet economic aid, the loss of East bloc support and the loss of its major ally in the region, the Nicaraguan Sandinistas.

Clearly, Cuba's socialist economy is feeling the pinch.

Mr. Castro raised his need of foreign aid twice in separate meetings with Venezuelan President Carlos Andres Perez and Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez of Spain, said spokesmen for both officials.

But in both cases, Mr. Castro was gently told that Cuba needed to hold elections and adopt a market economy.

Mr. Perez conceded that President Bush needed to soften the administration's hard line against Cuba, beginning a process that would lead to normalized relations and a lifting of the U.S. economic blockade.

Mr. Bush has called on Cuba to hold free elections, to release political prisoners and to end arms shipments to Salvadoran rebels.

The Cubans deny that they are shipping arms, and on Tuesday they freed Mario Chanes, calling him their last political prisoner. Mr. Chanes, a former Castro ally, had completed a 30-year jail sentence for conspiring against the government.

As for free elections, Mr. Castro recently reaffirmed that he would permit no party except the Communist Party, saying that its leadership had been democratically elected.

The Latin American and Spanish leaders here have been playing down U.S.-Cuban differences in favor of using the summit to establish a Latin free-trade network.

But while welcoming the presence of Mr. Castro, many leaders said privately that the price of Cuba's admission to the proposed economic network would be democratization and a market economy -- both goals shared by the Bush administration.

"While I have not had the opportunity to say this to Castro, I would not hesitate to insist that he attempt democratic reforms," said President Carlos Saul Menem of Argentina.

The Latin countries are forming three trade zones that are to encompass the whole region. The trade zones, now in their infancy, rely heavily on President Bush's "Initiative for the Americas," on the administration's debt-reduction plan and on the United States as a major trading partner.

And while Washington was not invited to the summit, its views weighed heavily in the thinking of leaders here.

The only American of Spanish descent invited was Gov. Rafael Hernandez Colon of Puerto Rico. He was to attend purely cultural events.

The meeting in Guadalajara, once the center of the nation's illegal drug trade with the United States, was the brainchild of Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who has proved to be the biggest Latin champion of liberal economic policies.

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