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Uruguay, Panama to restore diplomatic ties with Havana
CubaNews / January 2005

By Larry Luxner

Uruguay plans to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba, following the victory of leftist politician Tabare Vazquez in the country’s Oct. 31 presidential elections.

Vázquez, a 64-year-old oncologist and ex-mayor of Montevideo, said he and his Frente Amplio (FA) coalition will place greater emphasis on social issues while distancing himself from the United States on a range of economic, trade and foreign policy issues.

This follows a recent trend in which Latin American voters have replaced their pro-Washington, conservative governments with leftist ones. The trend began with the 1998 election of populist Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, and has continued with the victories of Luís Inazio “Lula” da Silva in Brazil, Nestor Kirchner in Argentina, Ricardo Lagos in Chile and Lucio Gutiérrez in Ecuador.

Vázquez will be inaugurated Mar. 1 for a five-year term, taking charge at a time of se-vere economic crisis. According to the state-run National Institute of Statistics, 31% of Uruguay’s 3.4 million people are poor; of that percentage, almost 100,000 are destitute.

“Everything indicates that with the inauguration of Vázquez, we will put an end to neo-liberal policies to focus attention on social problems, and abandon automatic alignment with the United States to shift towards Mer-cosur and reintegration with the rest of Latin America,” said political analyst Jaime Yaffé.

Luís Alberto Lacalle, president of Uruguay from 1990 to 1995, told CubaNews that the election “gives the FA coalition a majority in both houses, so they’ll have no excuses in the future for not getting things done. That puts a lot of responsibility on this new government.”

Among other things sure to alienate the Bush administration, Vázquez said his first official act will be to resume diplomatic ties with Cuba. Those ties were broken by outgoing President Jorge Batlle in April 2002, after Uruguay sponsored a United Nations resolution condemning the regime’s human-rights record. Fidel Castro responded by calling Battle a “lackey” of the White House, prompting Batlle to break ties immediately.

“We bade farewell to the Cuban ambassador with a feeling of sorrow, but after relations between the two countries are re-established, we will welcome him back with joy, in accordance with the friendship and affection Cubans inspire in us,” said Vázquez’s choice for foreign minister, Reinaldo Gargano, whom Lacalle calls a “diehard Marxist.”

In fact, not only will Uruguay re-establish its largely symbolic relations with Cuba, it will also push for Cuba to become an associate member of Mercosur, along with Mexico.

Said Lacalle: “Mercosur turned 10 years old on Jan. 1. It was founded by me and three other presidents, and was always meant to be an economic and commercial venture. Now they’re putting political content into a treaty that doesn’t allow it.”

The promise to resume ties with Havana became an election issue in Uruguay, a traditionally progressive country whose people have warm feelings for Castro. Even though trade between the two nations is negligible, thousands of Uruguayans have studied in Cuba, and they admire the fact that Castro has stood up to Washington for over 40 years.

“My gut feeling is that Chávez, who is absolutely delighted that Vázquez won, will strike a deal,” said one observer who asked not to be named. “As soon as Vázquez announces that he’s re-established relations with Cuba, Chávez will supply cheap oil to Uruguay.”

Despite his many differences with Vázquez, Lacalle told CubaNews he thinks the resumption of ties with Havana is a good idea.

“I think it’s much better to have relations, so we can help the dissidents inside Cuba — especially with a foreign affairs minister who says publicly that he’s a Marxist-Leninist.”

Lacalle added, however, that “before, our embassy in Havana was much more political and apt to help the dissidents. Now it will be a pro-Castro embassy.”

Meanwhile, Cuba and Panama will restore consular relations, which are just short of full diplomatic ties.

The accord between Panamanian President Martin Torrijos and Cuba’s vice-president, Carlos Lage, came Nov. 19, on the sidelines of the 14th Ibero-American Summit in San José, Costa Rica. A day earlier, the summit nations, including Panama, condemned the action that led to the diplomatic break in late August: former Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso’s release of four Cuban exiles accused of trying to assassinate Fidel Castro.

Moscoso’s pardon, just six days before leaving office, outraged Cuba as well as Venezuela, which had issued an arrest warrant for the group’s leader, Luís Posada, who is wanted in the 1976 bombing of a civilian jetliner in which 73 people died.

Torrijos has denounced the pardons granted by his predecessor. Panama’s new foreign minister, Samuel Lewis, told AP “this is a clear and effective step down the right path.”

The two sides are discussing the reopening of consulates, though Amado Riol, spokesman for the Cuban consulate in San José, said a complete resumption of ties will need further talks and “could take a little longer.”

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