Castro walks tall at Latin gathering: The defiant Cuban leader is determined not to be rushed into reform, writes Phil Davison

Click to follow
SAY what you like about him but at the ripe old age of 66, he has still got that star quality. Even some of the protagonists at the third annual summit of Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking nations opening today in the Brazilian city of Salvador de Bahia admit the meeting was in danger of becoming a giant yawn without the presence of Fidel Castro.

'Presence' is something he has more of than most and Brazilian troops and police have launched a massive security operation to ensure his presence runs its intended course and that a large contingent of anti- Communist Cuban exiles restrict their Fidel-bashing to the verbal kind. An influx of Cuban dissidents from Miami over the past few days led to strong rumours of a plot to assassinate the Communist leader.

Since he has given up smoking his beloved Havanas, the CIA's notorious idea of trying to do him in with an exploding cigar has become more of a non- starter than ever. So the security forces have been frisking the Cuban dissidents for more obvious types of pulse-stopping implements. None have been found, so far at least, and the Brazilian security forces, after receiving information through Interpol, embarrassingly admitted that the man they had suspected as a Jackal-style hit man was in fact a well-known, albeit anti-Castro journalist based in Madrid.

Nevertheless, Mr Castro is expected to use his usual gambit of travelling in one of two identical planes and moving between several bedrooms to confuse would- be assassins. So, presumably alive and well, a little bit greyer but towering above his counterparts in the protocol photographs, He will still be the centre of attraction, not to mention controversy, at a summit that even delegates have predicted will be anything from 'low profile' to 'insipid' and 'decaffeinated'. The leaders of Spain, Portugal and their former American colonies first got together in Mexico in 1991 and met again last year in Madrid. Now, according to Spanish diplomats, there is a general feeling that the 'Ibero-American nations' cannot make enough concrete progress to justify meeting every year. The Spaniards have suggested every two years but have so far been defeated by the 'isn't it lovely to get a break from domestic politics' school.

Mr Castro is expected to continue his recent attempts to assure not only his Spanish and Portuguese-speaking counterparts, but also Bill Clinton, that 'Cuba is not trying to export' its Communist model to the US or elsewhere but 'simply wants to be recognised and respected as a legitimate part of the political plurality of Latin America'. Specifically, he will be seeking support from the other heads of state for a lifting of the US embargo against Cuba which is coming under increasing criticism world-wide as Cubans suffer deepening poverty, hunger and disease.

Doubtless, diplomatic words of support will be conjured up as always. But Mr Castro can be expected to face calls for democratisation from many of his counterparts. Argentina's Carlos Menem, for example, a strong proponent of a proposed South American military peace-keeping force under the auspices of the UN and the Organisation of American States, is said to have a specific goal for such a force in mind: to defend or, in the case of Cuba, restore democracy

In a further overture aimed mainly at Mr Clinton, Mr Castro has allowed several leading opposition figures, such as human rights leader Elizardo Sanchez, to tour Europe. In a recent interview in Madrid, Mr Sanchez called on Mr Castro to initiate a dialogue with opposition leaders aimed at a transition to democracy. It is, some diplomats believe, as though the Cuban leader is putting up trial balloons and seeking face-saving formulae to lead him out of his own anachronistic system.

Formally, the two-day summit is to discuss a common Agenda for Development. But diplomats admit they have had trouble developing an agenda.

Chance for Clinton, page 26