Castro Warms Latin Leaders As US Chills


FOR pundits who said Fidel Castro Ruz of Cuba would quickly follow the Soviet Union and apartheid South Africa to the dustbin of history, it finally may be time to revise those predictions.

Despite passage in the US Senate last week of a bill designed to tighten the economic noose around Cuba, the Communist leader is enjoying improved international fortunes - especially in the Western Hemisphere where he was once largely shunned.

After warm welcomes last week in Uruguay, Argentina, Colombia, and at the United Nations this week, President Castro can return home confident that much of the world is on his side in his battle with "Goliath" - as he calls the United States.

Analysts cite several reasons for Mr. Castro's improved standing, including a perception that he is gradually opening the island's economy, as well as a growing acceptance of the idea that engagement rather than confrontation will better help Cuba move toward democracy.

But perhaps the most important factor has not so much to do with the bearded dictator himself as with the US policy toward him.

"Just as Castro is seen generally as an anachronism, so is US policy on Cuba seen as an anachronism" in the post-cold-war era, says Lisandro Perez, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University in Miami. "That view plays very well with the traditional elements of anti-Americanism in Latin America."

Last week, leaders from Latin American countries, Spain, and Portugal ended the Ibero-American summit in Bariloche, Argentina, with a strong condemnation of US policy toward Cuba. Citing the US by name for the first time in criticizing US-Cuban policy, the leaders said "legal changes now being debated in the US Congress ... would go in the opposite direction to the principles we want to see applied."

The US has upheld a 33-year embargo against Cuba in protest against Castro's repressive human rights record. President Clinton recently loosened the embargo a bit - easing travel, aid, and money transfers.

The so-called Helms-Burton bill - sponsored by Republicans Sen. Jesse Helms and Rep. Dan Burton of North Carolina - to tighten the embargo, calls for the US to penalize foreign companies doing business in Cuba. The Latin and European leaders reject the legislation as interference in another country's sovereign affairs, an issue that has always troubled US-Latin relations.

The legislation, which passed the House in September, finally won Senate approval in a watered-down form Thursday. Clinton opposes most of the bill, but Senator Helms says he will press for implementation of the full House version.

Many Latin leaders also appear concerned that the legislation portends a new willingness by the US to press sanctions against countries with which it is displeased. Speaking at the summit's close, Chilean President Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle called the leaders' criticism of US policy a "generic statement that does not refer exclusively to the Cuban case," but would extend to other issues "such as drug trafficking, that affect several countries in the region."

Argentine President Carlos Saul Menem cited "certain international principles that refer to noninterference in internal affairs" in explaining his criticism of the legislation.

Mr. Menem's shift in tone on Cuba is the most notable, as it comes from the one Latin leader that in the past the US could count on to hold up the anti-Castro banner. Although Menem said at the summit that he continues to seek "a political opening" in Cuba, he paid tribute to the island's "current economic opening."

That turnabout exemplifies how Latin American countries now favor economic engagement with Cuba, with the hope that economic reforms will gradually create pressure for political reforms.

"Before, Argentina's emphasis when it came to Cuba was always democracy and human rights," says Eduardo Van der Kooy, a noted columnist with Clarin, a Buenos Aires daily. "Now it's clear that economic relations will be the first priority."

The Argentine government has no intention of deviating from its close association with the US, adds Mr. Van der Kooy - but he says that association is more with the Clinton administration than with the Republican Congress. Indeed it was Clinton's abrupt change in policy on Cuban immigration last May - when the administration announced that Cubans caught off the US coast would no longer be automatically treated as political refugees - that told Menem his confrontational approach to Castro needed reworking, Van der Kooy says.

To a certain extent, Castro's improved relations with Latin leaders are made possible by the aging revolutionary's failure at his own game of exporting revolution. "He's no longer a threat," says Mr. Perez. "Cuba's success in establishing bridges is based precisely on that failure."

At the same time, he and his stubbornly state-run economy stand alone as the antithesis of the market-oriented reforms that have been widely adopted across Latin America - and which are increasingly under attack from left-wing politicians, labor unions, and religious leaders for increasing inflation and widening the gap between rich and poor.

In that context of growing disenchantment, Castro remains a hero to some. In Montevideo, Uruguay, he was feted by a crowd of more than 20,000 well-wishers chanting "Adelante Fidel" - Carry on, Fidel.

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