Cuba at center stage in Latin summit Leaders urge Castro to compromise

July 21, 1991|By John M. McClintock | John M. McClintock,Sun Staff Correspondent

GUADALAJARA, Mexico -- Cuban President Fidel Castro left here yesterday, no longer the Western Hemisphere's most awkward guest.

The 65-year-old comandante of socialist purity had been polishing his reputation as a humorless curmudgeon, telling a summit of Latin presidents that they would not persuade him to alter his hard-line Marxist views -- views that even many Soviets now find appalling.

At least four leaders and a king had failed to dent Mr. Castro's stoicism during most of the two-day summit of 19 Latin countries and their former colonial masters, Spain and Portugal.

One of the unstated aims of the first Ibero-American summit here was to persuade the only unelected Latin president to adopt democratic reforms and liberalize his state economy.

But so little progress had been made by Friday morning that the most substantive question journalists asked the leaders dealt with Mr. Castro's military cap and whether he removed it in their private meetings.

The answer was no, not even for King Juan Carlos I of Spain.

The cap and military uniform came to symbolize Mr. Castro's image as the odd man out among the striped-suited presidents seeking to reform their economies through the World Bank and other capitalist agencies.

Before his arrival Wednesday, public relations men had gone out of their way to assure the world that the summit was not going to be Castro vs. the rest of Latin America or even Castro vs. President Bush.

But when the Cuban president's grim face emerged from the plane, it was clear that he was wary about what lay ahead.

Some of the presidents, notably Alfredo F. Cristiani of El Salvador, had accused him in advance of sending arms to the HTC leftist Salvadoran guerrillas. Former Costa Rican President Oscar Arias Sanchez had even likened him to Kim Il Sung, the Stalinist North Korean leader.

And President Guillermo Endara of Panama was under some pressure from the extreme-right Cuban-American Foundation, whose president urged him to use the summit to call for Mr. Castro's ouster.

But the snowy-bearded ex-guerrilla leader was willing to come here primarily because Cuba desperately needs foreign aid and new markets.

The Soviet Union, Cuba's chief benefactor, sharply reduced economic support, and old East Bloc allies have turned into foes.

The falloff in aid compounded the crippling effects of Washington's 30-year economic blockade against the island nation. Today, Cuban shoppers get one roll a day and a chicken once every three weeks.

Thus Mr. Castro was "open but resolute" as Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez of Spain, Venezuelan President Carlos Andres Perez and others sought to explain the economic facts of life to him: He must adopt reforms or there will be no aid and very little business coming Cuba's way.

"You cannot have different economic models side by side and expect that the majority will conform to the odd system," said Mr. Gonzalez, who is credited with engineering Spain's economic prosperity. "We have pluralism and different cultures in the European Economic Community, but we all basically share the same economic system."

Mr. Castro's military cap stayed firmly on his head.

But if there was no progress on economic or political issues during the conference, there was on another front.

According to two foreign ministers, something magical seemed to happen to Mr. Castro late Friday morning.

The Spanish prime minister jokingly said to him: "And how is the dictator today?"

"Well," said Mr. Castro, "I will trade places with you, Felipe. You can be the 'Cuban dictator' and I will be the prime minister of Spain."

The room fell silent.

The other presidents at the working session expected a major verbal battle. Mr. Castro looked like Zeus about to explode. But then a slight smile creased his lips.

The room burst into riotous laughter.

"It broke the ice," said Enrique Dreyfus Morales, the Nicaraguan foreign minister. "From then on, Castro was one of the boys. He was back in the family."

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