The Americas' Odd Man Out

July 21, 1991

Presidents Cesar Gaviria of Colombia, Carlos Andres Perez of Venezuela and the host, Carlos Salinas de Gortari of Mexico, upstaged Fidel Castro at the first-ever Ibero-American summit at Guadalajara, Mexico.

They signed a free trade agreement that is the first of its kind in Latin America and is due to take effect next year. They did this on the eve of negotiations toward a North American free trade agreement incorporating Mexico, the United States and Canada. The vision of a hemispheric free trade area is at last imaginable, if by no means assured.

The spotlight was on Cuba's maximum leader, but the best he could bring off was a speech, limited to a cruel eight minutes, of his customary bombast, sounding curiously quaint and old-fashioned and out-of-step. He said that Cuba wants to be part of a united Latin America, but denounced as imperialist tricks all the policies favored by the Bush administration on which the real movement toward Latin unity is based.

Once Fidel Castro was the brash and exciting self-proclaimed emissary from the future at the Latin table. Now he is the old man among vigorous new thinkers, the single military uniform among civilian suits, the only leader un-elected, clinging to socialist rhetoric that has failed worldwide, deserted by Moscow and repudiated by Eastern Europe.

The remarkable gathering, which was thought up as a way for Spain to engage the Latin Americans in commemoration of Christopher Columbus' voyage of discovery half a millennium ago next year, brought together 20 presidents, one king and one Communist dictator (Mr. Castro). It was a chance for the Latins to mingle with their Spanish and Portuguese -- rather than North American -- counterparts.

Most of these regimes ostensibly favor association rather than Washington-style ostracism in dealing with Cuba. Colombia and Chile announced restoration of consular relations. Most want Cuba back in the Organization of American States, from which it was suspended, under U.S. pressure, in 1962. Latin leaders want, as President Bush wants, to guide Cuba toward political democracy and free enterprise economics. Though they are publicly more accommodating, we suspect they privately welcome the cover of U.S. caution.

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