CubaNews / November 2003
By Larry Luxner
Fidel Castro’s dissident crackdown has earned him many enemies in Washington, and with his incessant rantings against the European Union, the Cuban leader has lost his hero status in Madrid, Paris, Rome and Berlin.
But in many Latin American capitals from Caracas to Quito, Castro-worship is alive and well. In fact, the region’s four most economically significant countries — Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and Venezuela — all appear to be aligning themselves closely with Fidel.
The dramatic shift began several years ago, when Venezuela’s populist President Hugo Chávez proclaimed that he wanted to plunge his country into the same “sea of joy” in which Cuba now finds itself (see related story, page 10).
It received an even bigger boost with the Sep. 26-27 visit of Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to Cuba — during which $200 million in business deals were signed, and barely a word was spoken about human-rights abuses and Castro’s recent arrests, jailings and executions.
And now, Argentina — under former President Carlos Menem a vocal critic of the Castro regime — has also done a 100% about-face. The country’s new president, Néstor Kirchner, sent his foreign minister, Rafael Bielsa, to Havana last month to re-establish diplomatic relations.
Bielsa also installed a new ambassador, Raúl Abraham Taleb — more than two years after Argentina withdrew its envoy following Cuban criticism that former President Fernando de la Rua was “licking the boots” of the United States for having sided with Washington in a UN vote condemning the island’s human-rights record.
“We are under a strict directive that Cuban-Argentine relations deepen and bear fruit,” Taleb told reporters in Havana, after the signing of various trade and cultural agreements between Bielsa and his Cuban counterpart, Felipe Pérez Roque, and indications that Buenos Aires is offering to reduce Havana’s $1.9 billion debt to Argentina.
It’s not just big countries that want to be friends with Fidel. In Guatemala, thousands recently turned out for a rally in support of the Cuban revolution, and even in Paraguay — the only South American country that doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Cuba — crowds warmly welcomed the 77-year-old leader during a recent visit there.
Finally, in mid-October, the government of Peru’s largest but most sparsely populated region, the department of Loreto, said it will cooperate with Cuba in several sectors. Héctor Minguillo, advisor to Loreto’s governor, Robinson Rivadeneyra, said Cuba will help the desperately poor region improve education, health, science, agriculture and environmental protection.
“Generally, Latin American leaders are farther to the right than the populace, but they have to be mindful of their public opinion,” said Larry Birns, director of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs, in an interview with the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. “Reaching out to Castro has always been a way for leaders to establish their bona fides with the left.”
Yet Kevin Whitaker, coordinator of the State Department’s Office of Cuban Affairs, says the close ties being pursued by Bielsa, Lula and Chávez fly in the face of decency and respect for human rights.
“These are all representatives from countries which have thriving democracies — in large part because of democratic activism during times of dictatorship,” Whitaker said in an Oct. 24 speech in New York. “For these folks to go to Cuba now and fail to similarly recognize the pain and the achievements of civil society in Cuba is a serious disappointment. Latin America ought to do better, and we ought to help them do better as well.”
But Latin America doesn’t want Washington’s advice on how to deal with Cuba. In fact, the warming ties seem to almost make a mockery of the Bush administration’s recent efforts to isolate Castro as much as possible.
While in Havana, Bielsa announced that his country had negotiated reciprocal tariff exemptions on 1,600 products, and that the Argentina Horizontal Cooperation Fund would finance 15 scientific and technical projects in Cuba. Separately, the island’s ambassador in Buenos Aires, Alejandro González Galiano, announced that Cuba will buy 50,000 tons of Argentine wheat and will pay for it in cash. The deal is reportedly worth $7.5 million.
Most significantly, Bielsa said he’d back a “4+1” agreement between Cuba and the four full members of Mercosur, which are Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay.
Such a pact is likely to be negotiated after Jan. 1, when Kirchner takes over the organization’s rotating presidency from Uruguay. It would give Cuba duty-free access to a South American market of over 200 million people.
Gustavo Vanerio, director of integration at the Uruguayan Foreign Ministry, said all four Mercosur members have partial agreements with Cuba within the framework of the Latin American Association of Integration (ALADI).
The 4+1 proposal could be materialized through an agreement similar to those existing between Mercosur and two associate members, Chile and Bolivia.
Carlos Pita of the Uruguayan Parliament’s International Affairs Commission called the initiative “positive,” noting that is supported by the people of the four nations involved.
Added Manuel Singlet, former senator fo the National Party: “As a Latin American brother, I wish Cuba could make its own way and independently solve its problems, without enduring blockades that lack moral authority.”
Yet Uruguayan President Jorge Batlle said it is “impossible” for Cuba to join Mercosur because the Caribbean island’s government is not democratic.
In an interview published in a Montevideo weekly, Batlle said “the only political agreement signed by Mercosur is the Ushuaia Declaration, which requires all Mercosur members to have democratic governments, and that, I do not think, is the case with Cuba.”
Andrés Oppenheimer would tend to agree.
The Miami Herald columnist, a longtime critic of Castro, described Lula’s trip to Cuba as “morally revolting” and said that “Mexico is giving signs of wimping out on its pro-democracy stand on Cuba.”
He cited a Sept. 26 government news release saying that Foreign Minister Luís Er-esto Derbez and Cuba’s Pérez Roque had held a meeting that day at the United Nations aimed at strengthening high-level political communication between Mexico and Cuba.
“In other words, this is exactly the opposite of what European democracies are doing in the aftermath of Cuba’s worsening repression of peaceful opponents,” Oppenheimer wrote.
“If [Latin officials] meet with Cuban officials without meeting with the opposition, like Castro does whenever he travels abroad, Brazil, Argentina and Mexico will follow Venezuela’s steps and turn back the clock on the collective defense of human rights and democracy in the region.”