SANTIAGO, CHILE — Usually when world leaders make state visits, the local population is uninterested at best, or perhaps slightly aggravated by the inconveniences, such as rerouted traffic and disrupted schedules at the airport.
But when Fidel Castro Ruz comes to town, things are different: People take sides.
In Santiago, Chile, last weekend, the sixth annual Ibero-American Summit brought together heads of state and government of Spain, Portugal, and their former Latin American colonies. That meant a visit from Mr. Castro, his first to Chile since 1971.
Chileans held demonstrations both to greet the Cuban leader and to condemn him (the greeters far outnumbered the hecklers), while both houses of the Chilean national congress took the unusual step of condemning a leader who was about to visit the country.
Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, the former dictator who still heads Chile's armed forces, decided to conduct military maneuvers in the north to avoid meeting Castro. Castro, on the other hand, visited the grave of former Socialist President Salvador Allende Gossens, who died in a coup led by General Pinochet.
"The whole Castro thing has ended up dominating the summit," said a Spanish radio journalist. He lamented it because what to him were more interesting themes - like Spain's bid to play a bigger role in Latin America - were overshadowed.
Castro is the "star" wherever he goes, as one Spanish official says. In a hemisphere where 34 countries now follow democratic political ideals and free-market economic systems (albeit with varying degrees of success and dedication), his island nation is the only holdout.
To some, Castro is a totalitarian relic, no better than the right-wing military dictatorships of Latin America's recent past. To others, he is a useful reminder that there should be a way forward for Latin America that does not entail widening the rich-poor income gap, already the widest in the world.
Clearly, this second function is the one Castro assigns to himself. Like the chorus in a Greek play, the graying revolutionary wanted to act as the conscience of the summit.
He used the Sunday session to remind the leaders of Latin America's many and glaring social and economic failings. In one sentence of a seven-sentence speech, he offered a list of 16 growing problems, from the income gap to corruption and child prostitution (all of which, it should be noted, are worsening in Cuba too).
Castro is also a "star" because his regime is the target of a United States law, known as Helms-Burton, designed to force foreign companies to abandon investing in Cuba or at least take a hard line against the regime. The law also provides for legal proceedings against foreign firms that invest in properties formerly owned by Americans, although that provision has not yet been carried out.
The law, condemned by virtually every US trading partner, has had the effect of reinforcing impressions of the way the last superpower throws its weight around. Castro and the Cuban case provided a way to bring up the issue of Latin America's sovereignty, a theme dear to many Latin politicians and a segment of the population.