Published Tuesday, November 12, 1996, in the Miami Herald

Castro rebuffs Latin summit reform pleas

By KATHERINE ELLISON Herald Staff Writer SANTIAGO, Chile -- They badgered him on buses; they bothered him at meals, but the only concession Fidel Castro's Latin colleagues got from him during their just-concluded democracy summit was a blue polka dot tie. The Cuban head of state traded neckties with the dapper young Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar after the two sat together at lunch Sunday, midway into the Ibero-American summit ending Monday afternoon. The swap took place after Castro complimented Aznar's tie following what Aznar later described as an ``intense'' interchange in which he promised to back a European aid package for Cuba if Castro undertook democratic reforms. Not only did Castro refuse, but he walked away with the nicer necktie, Aznar later complained. Aznar's effort was only the most picturesque of several attempts to embarrass or sweet-talk Castro before and during the three-day summit of 22 Latin American and European heads of state plus the king of Spain. Chilean President Eduardo Frei, in his inaugural address, disparaged Castro's claim that Cuba offers an alternate form of democracy. Argentine President Carlos Menem told a reporter before the summit started that ex-Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet did ``much more for Chile than Fidel did for Cuba.'' On a bus ride between events, Bolivian President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada offered Castro his services should he need an intermediary with the United States. Even Hortensia Bussi, the widow of Chile's former Marxist president Salvador Allende, urged Castro during his meeting with Chilean socialist supporters Sunday night to hold free elections. But Castro, his big beard wispier and once-sonorous voice weaker than in summits past, walked away, as ever, unrepentant and unscathed. ``It was a tranquil summit for us,'' said Cuban diplomat Carlos Gallegos, who said Cuba considered it ``outside the ethical standards of this kind of meeting'' for one head of state to pressure another. Gallegos added that Cuba looks forward to hosting the 1999 Ibero-American summit, after Venezuela and Portugal take their turns. Castro described his own position at the meeting Sunday night, at which he raised a pamphlet published by his opponents urging ``death to the dog Fidel.'' He said: ``I'm honored that they call me a dog, because dogs are always very loyal.'' In the same speech, Castro said he anticipated seven percent growth in Cuba this year, despite its economic problems, adding, ``If we didn't have the system we have . . . we would be in the hands of right-wing mafias from Miami.''

No embarrassment

Not only was Castro unembarrassed by the summit's final declaration, which made no explicit mention of Cuba, but he achieved a victory in the statement's strong protest against the U.S. Helms-Burton law extending the economic embargo against Cuba. And on Sunday morning, Castro was applauded by his fellows at the end of a rousing if brief speech in which he implicitly denounced them for failing to address the region's growing poverty, unemployment and foreign debt. ``The gap separating the rich and the poor continues to widen, leaving Latin America in the sad role of champion of these differences among all world regions,'' he admonished them. Aznar maintained that Castro's unwillingness to deal with him at the summit did not mean he had failed. ``It doesn't mean he's going to dismiss the option in the future,'' he said. ``So I don't want to close things on that note.'' Still, the inability of Latin leaders to extract reforms from Castro at their annual meeting -- the only regional forum Castro routinely attends -- is owed to several factors, including Castro's tight grasp on power at home and somewhat intimidating status among younger attendees. ``He has held on for 37 years, so he must be doing something right,'' said one president, who asked not to be named. Another factor in Castro's favor was his fellow summit guests' unanimous objection to U.S. strategies against him. ``You might get a lot more from an exchange than an embargo,'' said Bolivia's Sanchez de Lozada, who said Castro had complained to him, on the bus, that he had ``gotten no response, no interface'' from the U.S. government.

Dodging criticism

Another possible reason Castro's fellow attendees failed to unite to condemn him in more effective terms is that many of them find it convenient to keep a low-grade focus on him -- thus dodging criticism for less than perfect democratic progress in their own countries. * In Chile, for example, this year's summit host, ex-dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet remains head of the army -- with President Frei powerless to dismiss him -- while military officers censor films. * In Argentina, host of last year's meeting, Menem frequently rules by decree, and has backed a controversial law establishing criminal penalties for libel equal to those for manslaughter, kidnap and rape. * In Central America, death squads pursue critics of the powerful. * And in Mexico, President Ernesto Zedillo holds his office as the hand-picked, government-party backed beneficiary of former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. The list goes on, but it lends at least a little weight to Cuban diplomat Gallegos' claim that, ``After all, no one's democracy is perfect.''

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Copyright 1996 The Miami Herald