Sympathy for Cuba Grows in Latin America

CUBA is becoming a cause celebre in Latin America.While the communist Caribbean island failed to garner enough support to hold a vote in the United Nations General Assembly Wednesday to condemn the United States trade embargo, popular sympathy for President Fidel Castro's regime is growing. "The cold war's over. The strategy of an economic blockade relates to the political realities of another epoch," says Julio Cesar Sanchez Garcia, Colombia's ambassador to Mexico. "The radical attitude of the US toward Cuba is helping convert Castro into a sympathetic victim." "Superbarrio," a masked wrestler who normally crusades for the urban poor here in Mexico, recently showed up at concert by a Cuban singer and announced a campaign to collect earrings and cosmetics. "It's a nonideological gift from the Mexican people to the women of Cuba who can't get such things due to the US trade embargo," says Patricia Ruiz, a campaign organizer. Another Mexico City-based group, "Va por Cuba" ("It's all for Cuba"), began raising money here last month to send a boat of oil to Cuba. By selling vouchers in amounts of $1, $4, $8, and $16 - roughly the cost of one barrel of oil - the group hopes to ship 5,500 barrels of Mexican petroleum to the island nation by year's end. Even before the vouchers went on sale, the organization - composed of university students, labor unions, and three leftist political parties - received $2,600 in donations. "We've been really surprised by the reception," says Pricilla Pacheco, one of the organizers. Similar campaigns for Nicaragua and El Salvador in years past were much harder, she says. A similar campaign to send oil to Cuba is under way in Chile. Va por Cuba is also organizing fund-raising concerts and art exhibitions, easily enlisting the support of rock groups, artists, and well-known actors. Other Mexican organizations are raising money for medical and school supplies. And Ambassador Sanchez Garcia says several fund-raising groups are also forming in his country. This support, he says, is not limited to a few left-leaning political groups. "There is now, and has been for years, a sentiment of solidarity with Cuba among all Latin Americans. It's not anti-Yankeeism. We're past that," says Sanchez Garcia. "But Cuba is a brother country. So obviously when people see Cubans need food, they want to help for humanitarian reasons." Last Sunday, protesters waving Cuban flags made a 2-mile-long human chain stretching from the UN offices here to the US Embassy. Their goal was to focus attention on Wednesday's UN debate on US economic sanctions. So far, analysts note, this type of popular support has not translated into political capital Cuba can rely on. Although many Latin American nations disagree with the sanctions, taking President Castro's side would irritate Washington at a time when most countries in the hemisphere want to build closer trade ties with the US. Angrily denouncing US pressure tactics, on Wednesday Cuba's UN ambassador, Ricardo Alarcon de Quesada, postponed the UN vote to condemn US sanctions. Still, Latin American nations are looking for other ways to bridge the gulf between the US and Cuba. On Oct. 23, the presidents of Mexico, Venezuela, and Colombia met with Castro in Cozumel, Mexico. He explained the political changes made in the Cuban Communist Party Congress last month, but the three presidents made it clear no economic aid or subsidized oil would be available until Cuba undertakes further democratic reforms. They did, however, offer to mediate the US-Cuba dispute and help Cuba develop trade links in Latin America (Colombia and Chile restored commercial ties earlier this year), and they affirmed their opposition to US sanctions. At the Cozumel meeting and elsewhere, Venezuelan President Carlos Andres Perez has been the most outspoken critic of US policy. "We demand signs of change in Cuba, and we also demand signs of change in the treatment of Cuba by the United States," President Perez said at a UN General Assembly meeting in September. At the same meeting, President Bush said, "The people of Cuba suffer oppression at the hands of a dictator who hasn't gotten the word, the lone holdout in an otherwise democratic hemisphere, a man who hasn't adapted to a world that has no use for totalitarian tyranny." US officials argue that to lift the embargo now would let Castro off the hook just when the Cuban economy and Castro's support may be close to collapse. Indeed, the US has pressured other nations to reduce trade and investment in Cuba. But some Latin American diplomats wonder if the US goal is to help the Cuban people achieve democracy or to remove Castro at all costs. If Bush can forgive China for the Tiananmen Square massacre two-and-a-half years ago, they ask, why can't Castro be forgiven for the sins of 30 years ago? And if trade with China is supposed to speed progress toward democracy, why doesn't the same logic apply in Cuba? "In the eyes of third-world leaders, US policy is helping diminish Castro's obvious weaknesses," says Mark Rosenberg, director of Florida International University's Latin American and Caribbean Center. "They've turned him into a martyr."

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