Castro's once-staunch Latin allies lose patience

Cuba's President Fidel Castro may be basking in the propaganda glow of the Elian Gonzalez case. Certainly, some of the stories filed by the American media in Cuba explored such heartwarming themes as "Elian and his Dad" and Mr. Castro's defense of family.

But here in Mexico, a leading, left-leaning newsmagazine was taking a different tack.

In a recent issue, the weekly Processo focused a four-page story on what was called "Elian's counterpoint": the dozens of children being held in Cuba against the wishes of parents who have settled in other countries. A few years ago such an article might not have been published in a Mexico or a Latin America that for decades stood solidly behind Castro's Cuba, no questions asked.

But increasingly, the region's governments are not just asking - but demanding - that Cuba show more respect for internationally accepted human rights.

Prompted in some cases by a shift in thinking among intellectuals and other elites, Latin and European countries are pressuring as never before for signs from Cuba of a transition to democracy.

"Mexico has always been the kind of friend to Cuba that looked the other way when others were turning up the criticism, but that patience has run out," says Augustn Gutirrez Canet, dean of international studies at Mexico City's Ibero-American University. "The truth is that Mexico is a little behind in this shift," he adds. But "Fidel now knows that, as has happened with other friends in Latin America and Europe, he can no longer count on Mexico's total support."

The most recent flare-up between Cuba and traditionally friendly countries occurred over a United Nations vote in Geneva late last month, that censured Cuba for its human rights record. On a condemnatory resolution sponsored by two former Cuban allies, the Czech Republic and Poland, Argentina and Chile voted "yes," while Mexico, Colombia, and Ecuador abstained.

Several members of the European Union, which is considering including Cuba in an international trade-assistance pact, also voted "yes." The final vote by the UN Human Rights Commission was 21 in favor, 18 against, and 14 abstentions.

Cuba was disappointed with Mexico, which switched from the "no" vote it cast last year on a similar resolution. The Cuban ambassador in Mexico City called this year's abstention a "step backward" for bilateral relations.

But Cuba was shocked by Argentina's "yes" vote, and expressed its anger by pulling its ambassador out of Buenos Aires a month early. Cuba had celebrated last year's election of Argentine President Fernando de la Rua, because it had thought he and his center-left governing coalition would be friendlier to Cuba than former President Carlos Menem.

Cuba had anticipated that both Mr. de la Rua and new Chilean President Ricardo Lagos - a socialist and one-time Cabinet member in the government of Salvador Allende -might shift votes to reflect a friendlier stance toward the Communist island.

But Chile also voted yes. However, along with Argentina, the country expressed its rejection of the US trade embargo on Cuba.

Argentine analysts say the vote should not have surprised anyone, being more a reflection of consistency with standing policy than a political statement.

"The government decided its position based on one question: Are human rights in Cuba being respected in a fundamental sense, or not?" says Buenos Aires political analyst Felipe de la Balze. "And it decided they are not."

Some left-wing members of the governing coalition were disappointed with the vote, he says, but they were a small minority. "You have some of the old-school leftists who still believe that Che [Guevara] and Castro are the good guys, but they are a very small core."

An unhappy Cuban government also called off a meeting that was to have been held with European Union officials last week to discuss Cuba's inclusion in a new trade pact. The EU is offering the accord to African, Caribbean, and Pacific developing countries, but is requiring respect for democratic principles and human rights as part of the deal.

European officials describe the last-minute cancellation as a self-defeating act by Cuba, and say it can only serve to encourage the island's isolation.

But Cuba sees things differently. In a stiff rejection of the UN vote, the Cuban government called the resolution's supporters "lackeys to Yankee imperialism." Referring to US lobbying for the resolution, Cuba said "the world knows who is pressuring sovereign nations to change their decision, who it was twisting wills to ensure this stunt was passed."

But some analysts say it is actually opinion-making elites and public opinion, swayed increasingly by high-profile, international demands for democracy and human rights, that are behind the growing "impatience" with the Cuban regime.

Before the UN vote last month, a list of 70 Mexican intellectuals sent an open letter to President Ernesto Zedillo, demanding that "the persistent limitations placed by the Cuban regime on universal individual guarantees not be ignored by Mexico."

At a March meeting of the Latin American Studies Association held in Miami, Spanish academic Ignacio Sotelo created a stir with his description of the soured relations between Europe's left-leaning intellectuals and the Cuban regime.

The conversion of Mexico's intellectual elite to a critical stance toward Cuba is a continuing process, says Mr. Gutirrez. "[Nobel laureate] Octavio Paz was the first to break with the Cuban revolution in the 1970s, but he was alone and heavily criticized for it," Gutirrez says. Later, others saw that Mr. Paz "was right" but kept quiet out of admiration for the revolution's accomplishments or out of fear of appearing to side with the US, he adds.

Mexican writer Carlos Monsivis, whose name appears first on the group letter, says that if anything it is difficult to find intellectuals or young people who admire the Cuban regime. "It's a dictatorship; no one can claim there is anything to do with democracy in Cuba," he says.

But he takes exception with those who argue that Paz was alone in his break with Cuba. "In 1971, Juan Rulfo, Carlos Fuentes, and I joined Octavio Paz in signing a similar letter about rights in Cuba, so it's not a new position," he says.

Where virtually all these thinkers agree is that the US trade embargo is actually the central pillar of support to the Cuban regime, which Castro has hid behind to strangle any democratic opening.

"For four decades the embargo has given Fidel the excuse he needed to put off any transition," says Gutirrez, who calls himself a sympathizer with the Cuban revolution. "The tragedy is that this giant of the 20th century whose prestige was built as a fighter for the people, will now go down as a spent dictator."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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