Castro runs Pinochet out of town

Forty years on, Cuba's leader updates image with suits, CNN and a papal visit
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It was a classic case of "this town ain't big enough for both of us". And who, but one man, could have driven Chilean strongman General Augusto Pinochet from his own town? Fidel Castro, that's who.

Gen Pinochet, former dictator and still armed forces commander, chose to leave Chile's capital, Santiago, this weekend to avoid meeting the Cuban leader during the Sixth Ibero-American Summit - attended by heads of state or government from Spain, Portugal and Latin American nations.

The General and Chilean air force chief Fernando Rojas, who would have had to greet Mr Castro with military honours, suddenly remembered a previous engagement - military exercises in northern Chile, which will last until Tuesday, the day the Cuban leader leaves.

Aged 70, and pushing four decades in power, el Comandante still has the power to infuriate and mesmerise. His pending arrival today is already the focus of the Santiago meeting, just as he is bound to steal the show in Rome next week at the World Food Summit of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.

Sometime during the 13-17 November Rome summit, he is expected to have an historic audience in the Vatican with Pope John Paul II, the man who helped topple communism in his native Poland. Diplomatic sources say Mr Castro will almost certainly invite the Pope to Cuba - the only Spanish- speaking Latin American country he has never visited - by the end of next summer. It is part of a new abertura (opening up) by Mr Castro in economics and religion, a trend which he has yet to follow in the political sector, where the Communist Party continues to reign supreme.

At the Vatican, you can be sure it will be "el Presidente" Castro who calls on the Pope, not "el Jefe Maximo" (the renowned olive fatigues will be cast aside for a respectful and diplomatic dark suit).

As part of his "New Man" image, Mr Castro took to wearing civilian suits last year during overseas trips. The military gear he retains for domestic consumption. Some believe he is at last trying to move with the times, to soften his traditional Marxism and give the world less reason to ostracise and isolate him. Others say he simply fears he will go down in history as a stubborn dictator who left his country starving.

Mr Castro's latest diplomatic offensive, likely to be hammered home in Santiago and in Rome, may specifically be aimed at keeping the rest of the world from backing US policy on Cuba. A Bill Clinton campaign to persuade Europe to join a "choir for democracy" in Cuba could pick up steam after Mr Clinton hinted he may delay or veto parts of the so-called Helms-Burton law criticised by Europe, Canada and others for affecting their trade.

US officials were delighted by a speech by Sir Leon Brittan in New York on Thursday, in which he said "we believe very strongly that Europe and the United States should work together as soon as possible to nurture democracy, freedom and human rights" in Cuba.

Mr Castro's latest concession came on Thursday when his government announced it would allow the US TV network CNN to open a bureau in Havana. US media have been barred from being based in Cuba since shortly after the 1959 revolution, although the island authorities regularly allow American correspondents in on temporary working visas.

Ironically, CNN is so far unable to accept Mr Castro's offer. Under US sanctions, American citizens cannot work in Cuba, and the TV network will have to await permission - a tricky decision for President Bill Clinton while he is tightening the economic screws on the island.

The controversial Helms-Burton law would allow American media to operate in Cuba but on condition that Cuba does not interfere with media run by Cuban exile groups.