Throughout the Americas, US increasingly isolated over Cuba

Colin Powell's criticism of Castro met silence at this week's OAS summit.

When Secretary of State Colin Powell appealed to Latin America's leaders earlier this week to help hasten the end of Fidel Castro's rule in Cuba, his message fell largely on deaf ears.

Calling Mr. Castro's government "our hemisphere's only dictatorship," Mr. Powell used an address to the annual meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS) in Santiago, Chile, Monday to remind members that "the people of Cuba increasingly look to the OAS for help in defending their fundamental freedoms."

But during Tuesday's closing statements, even as regional leaders vowed to fight poverty, corruption, and respect for human rights, Cuba didn't even come up.

The on-again, off-again relationship between the US and its southern neighbors is reflected in the current debate - or lack thereof - over Cuba. Left-leaning populists now reside in the presidential palaces of some of South America's most influential nations, with a pro-Castro symbiosis that is now increasingly at odds with US regional policy.

Feeling neglected by the US since Sept. 11, 2001, South America's leaders are now asserting their independence over Cuba in what some analysts say could be a signal of waning US influence in the Americas.

"The Castro issue allows some to remain true to a fabled South American solidarity," says Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington. "But it also exposes a region being divvied up between the United States, a superpower, and Brazil, a major regional power."

While many OAS members had registered their disapproval over a recent political crackdown that ended in the imprisonment of over 75 Cuban dissidents, the organization failed to pass a measure condemning Castro's government, despite Powell's appeal.

"Latin America seems to know better than the United States that Castro will be Castro whether one brandishes a stick or a carrot," says Bill Leogrande, dean of the school of public affairs at American University in Washington, and an expert in Cuban affairs. "If they felt that there was a plausible strategy to democratize Cuba, they would probably be supportive. But US policy has not been effective in the past, and Powell does not seem to be proposing anything new."

Some experts see the divergence between the US and much of South America as a sign of emerging divisions over the future of free trade.

Brazilian President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, a strong critic of Washington's Cuba policy, has emerged as a leading skeptic of US-sponsored Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) - a plan to expand components of the North American Free Trade Agreement to all other countries in the region, excluding Cuba.

While many South American governments were once enthusiastic proponents of FTAA, the global economic slowdown has countries like Argentina contemplating trade protection as the only way to stabilize their economies. In his address to the OAS, Powell repeated 2005 as the target date for ratifying the FTAA, but chances of reaching an agreement by then look remote with many governments in the region still expressing deep misgivings.

"An emerging entente among Brazil, Argentina, and Venezuela is raising the fundamental questions about whether neoliberal economic policy is even right for the region," Mr. Birns says. "In many ways, Castro has been asking those same questions. Many respect him for that, as they respect him for standing up to Uncle Sam for more than 40 years."

Mr. da Silva may have gained an ally in Nestor Kirchner, Argentina's newly elected, populist president. Mr. Kirchner came to office in what many here see as a backlash against the previous government and its close economic ties with the US. Kirchner has expressed misgivings about US-led economic reform, though he hosted Powell in Buenos Aires on Tuesday for a brief meeting on the last leg of the secretary of State's trip through the region.

The Cuba issue strained US-Argentine relations last year when Argentina abstained from siding with the US in condemning Cuba over human rights violations. Kirchner has been reluctant to criticize Castro as the Cuban president remains a popular revolutionary figure in Argentina. At Kirchner's inauguration two weeks ago, Castro was heralded as a hero during an impromptu address to thousands on the streets of Buenos Aires.

But if Castro is heartened by the respect he still engenders around South America, that attitude has dismayed Cuba's internal critics.

"Castro has been able to create this romantic image of the liberator who overthrew colonialism and defied the United States," acknowledges Oswaldo Payá, a leading Cuban dissident. "But anyone who looks at Cuba now should see that there are over 11 million people who want their rights. That is more important than an intellectual hypothesis or an ideology of the right or left. We appeal to them. It is right that they should show their solidarity with the cause of freedom."

Material from the wires was used in this report.

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