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On Cuban friends and dissidents

Lucia Newman

By Lucia Newman
CNN Havana Bureau Chief

November 18, 1999
Web posted at: 11:11 a.m. EST (1611 GMT)

This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.



  ALSO
 

In this story:

Some meetings with dissidents

Some direct words

'Our silence would have been misinterpreted'

Will seeing be believing?


HAVANA (CNN) -- Once a year, leaders from Latin America, Spain and Portugal meet to discuss their concerns, goals and differences in a forum that's unique as the only regional venue where the United States is not invited.

The idea is for the heads of state from 21 nations, plus the king of Spain, to be able to forge stronger ties and cooperation without pressure from Washington, which wields enormous political and economic influence in the region.

Summit attendees
The group photo of attendees at the Ibero-American Summit in Havana  

The Ibero-American summits began in 1991, and Cuba -- which for four decades has been excluded from continental meetings -- was invited to join the flock, despite Washington's disapproval.

This week, Cuba's President Fidel Castro hosted the ninth Ibero-American summit in Havana.

"We do not need to be summoned or receive anyone's permission to meet like a family without exclusions," Castro said as he opened the summit.

Castro acknowledged that many at the summit have considered Cuba the "black sheep which strayed from the flock to find its own path."

But while Cuba is included in the group, it is still fighting what appears to be a losing battle to be accepted for what it is: A communist nation with a one-party state, with a state- controlled economy and media and no room for organized opposition or public dissent.

Some meetings with dissidents

While the United States was not invited, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright makes no apologies for having sent a letter to some of the participating nations beforehand.

King Juan Carlos
Jose Maria Aznar
King Juan Carlos became the first reigning Spanish monarch to visit Spain's former colony; Spanish President Jose Maria Aznar met with Cuban dissidents  

The letter urged them to meet with dissidents and human rights organizations, as well as to pressure Havana into democratizing its political system.

Furious about what he charged was "a shameless show of U.S. interference" in the Ibero-American forum, Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez blasted Washington.

"Those who are not invited to the party should shut up and take their music somewhere else," said Perez.

Nevertheless, in an unprecedented diplomatic affront to Castro, at least four heads of state -- including Spain's President Jose Maria Aznar -- and six foreign ministers met with government opponents.

Castro had said that his guests were at liberty to meet with whom they pleased in their free time. But he clearly could not have been amused to see them going off to fraternize with those whom he calls "enemies of the revolution at the service of U.S. imperialism".

Some direct words

And, one after another, Ibero-American leaders made thinly veiled, very public calls for democratic reforms in Cuba.

"True democracy requires respect of individuals, of their fundamental rights, of their capacity for free initiative: In short, respect for freedom," said Portuguese President Jorge Sampaio at the inauguration ceremony.

Panama's President Mireya Moscoso said restrictions on political and personal freedoms were "unacceptable and discriminatory measures that have no place in today's world order."

Castro
Castro
Castro, listening during the summit, where his guests spoke of democracy; as host he said: "We listened politely to their advice with the half-smile of Mona Lisa and the biblical patience of Job."  

Perhaps the speech most painful to Cuba came from President Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, a country which has been a close, even unconditional ally of communist Cuba, despite its own close ties to Washington.

"There can be no sovereign nations without free men and women -- men and women who can freely exercise their essential freedoms, freedom of thought and opinion, freedom of participation, freedom of dissent, freedom to choose," said Zedillo.

'Our silence would have been misinterpreted'

How does Cuba justify the criticisms from its regional "friends"?

Havana's explanation is that they are all buckling under pressure from Washington, that they must make concessions to the United States because of their economic dependence on what it dubs "the empire."

Ibero-American leaders, however, have another explanation. Since the summits began, they say, they have been waiting patiently for Cuba to show signs of political reform.

Regional leaders have, time and again, expressed their condemnation of the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba. But while they oppose U.S. attempts to isolate Cuba economically and politically, many believe the time has come to take Cuba to task on its stated commitment to democracy and pluralism.

Castro and King Juan Carlos
Cuba's communist leader, left, and Spain's king in conversation  

"We could not come to Cuba and remain silent," said one head of state, who requested anonymity. "Our silence would have been misinterpreted as approval."

Will seeing be believing?

Interestingly, Cuban authorities took a gamble and broadcast the Ibero-American leaders' speeches live on state-run television.

At the same time, Castro described his internal opposition as a U.S. fabrication -- "virtual reality," to use his words.

But the fact that Cuban authorities referred to opponents numerous times in recent days, if only to dismiss them, has given them a spotlight they did not have before.

Whatever the effect all this will have on the Cuban people, they have never seen anything like it before.


RELATED STORIES:
CNN Analysis
  • y: archives -- Americas

CNN World -- Americas

CNNenEspanol.com

CNNemPortuguês.com

CNN In-Depth: The Papal visit to Cuba

RELATED SITES:
U.S. State Department: The U.S. and Cuba
CubaWeb - National web site of the Republic of Cuba
The Cuban American National Foundation
LatinWorld: Cuba

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