Dissidents steal some of Castro's limelight at summit

Cuban leader faces risks as host of the Ibero-American summit beginningtoday.

Cuba's Fidel Castro Ruz welcomes leaders from Spain, Portugal, and across Latin America today for a two-day summit. The gathering will be the biggest showcase for the Caribbean island to display its against-the-global-grain regime since Pope John Paul II's visit in January 1998.

But for President Castro's government, the opportunity to put on the show comes at a price.

Leaders attending the first-ever meeting in Cuba of Ibero-American summit arrive at a time when the Communist regime's illegal, pro-democracy dissidence is raising a renewed clamor. The government is responding with what one prominent dissident calls "the biggest wave of political repression in recent years."

Dissidents are calling for the visiting leaders to show their democratic stripes by meeting with them, and some leaders are already planning to do so. Between the crackdown and the attention-grabbing visits between leaders and dissidents, the risk for Castro is that the summit will end up blackening his regime's image with "friendly" countries. It may also provide new legitimacy at home and abroad for his internal opposition.

"A tense and disagreeable climate will greet the dignitaries when they arrive," says Elizardo Snchez Santa Cruz, who heads the illegal but tolerated Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation.

"They will already know about the threats, the house arrests, the detentions, and that can't have a good impact on the government's image," he says.

The Ibero-American meeting comes a week after the United Nations General Assembly condemned for the eighth year in a row the United States's 40-year-old embargo against the Communist-ruled island. But the UN vote on Nov. 9 was quickly overtaken by an abrupt increase in antidissident action in Cuba.

Dissidents say in recent days some 160 of their number have been hit with government actions ranging from warnings against carrying out "counterrevolutionary acts" during the summit to house arrests and detentions.

In one sense the Ibero-American summit is more problematic for the Castro regime than last year's papal visit because the annual 21-nation summit is blatantly political - whereas Pope John Paul II emphasized the pastoral nature of his trip.

Castro has signed past summit texts calling for countries to promote human rights and the exercise of pluralistic democratic government. As a result, government officials including Castro say the visiting leaders will have the right to meet with whomever they want while in Cuba.

Saying Cuba "tolerates" the "illegal" dissidents but would not permit "illegal acts," Castro told foreign journalists in Havana for the summit that, "The [Cuban] revolution is not hostage to this summit." Cuba also accused the US of "meddling" after US officals called on summit leaders to meet with human rights activists and to speak up for democracy while in Cuba.

Dissident groups say they have confirmed meetings with five government leaders: from Spain, Portugal, and three Latin presidents they declined to identify.

In another sign that Cuba's dissident movement is gaining legitimacy, Mexico's President Ernesto Zedillo met earlier this month with Cuban writer and anti-Castro activist Carlos Alberto Montaner, who lives in exile in Spain.

In addition to Zedillo's gesture, five Latin American presidents decided not to attend the summit. Chilean President Eduardo Frei is staying away to protest Spain's attempt to extradite former Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet from Britain. Argentine President Carlos Menem is joining him, ostensibly out of solidarity, although Menem has been a forceful Castro critic. In addition the presidents of Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and El Salvador declined the invitation.

Mexico also distanced itself from Cuba's vision of the world when it submitted a series of suggested changes to the summit's proposed final communique on the global financial system. The Cuban government sees the summit, whose theme is the international economic system, as an opportunity to condemn the failures of an increasingly global market-oriented economy.

The original, Cuba-inspired version warned of an imminent international financial collapse, but the tone was softened in subsequent revisions. According to diplomatic sources, the suggested Mexican amendments would moderate the tone even further.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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