Cuba back in Latin American fold

Campaign News | Thursday, 18 December 2008

By Helmut Reuter

Raul Castro returned to the Latin American fold this week with a showering of hugs, back-slaps and vigorous handshakes. He could barely catch his breath.

At Tuesday and Wednesday's gathering of leaders from Latin America and the Caribbean at the northeastern Brazilian resort of Costa do Sauipe, the Cuban leader was greeted like no other at the event - 'comrade,' 'friend,' 'brother.'

With emotions echoing the Biblical return of the prodigal son, Cuba was accepted as an official member of the so-called Rio Group, which was holding the summit with three other regional blocs - Mercosur, Unasur and the Conference of Latin American and Caribbean countries.

Notably absent from the laughing family portraits was the United States, reflecting the unspoken motto of the two-day summit: Whoever is for Cuba must distance themselves from Washington.

Brazil's pragmatic President Luiz Inacio da Silva filled in the blanks, saying, as have all Latin American leaders at one time or another, that it was high time for the United States to end the 46- year embargo levied by late US president John F Kennedy in 1962.

The blockade has caused 90 billion dollars in losses, according to Cuba's reckoning.

'There is no reason for the embargo,' Lula said.

Bolivia's left-wing President Evo Morales called for the summit to send an ultimatum to US president-elect Barack Obama to end the embargo.

The Latin Americans are in good company with their demands. Every year, a strong majority of the United Nations General Assembly demands that the US end its embargo.

Cuba's closest friend Venezuela, which has subsidized Cuba with cheap oil prices from its energy wealth, joined the choir.

'Cuba has returned to where it has always belonged,' said Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. 'The US can't give orders around here any more. That power play is over.'

Chavez received Raul Castro just last week on his first foreign trip since taking over Cuba's presidency in February from his revolutionary leader-brother Fidel Castro.

Raul Castro rose to expectations at the bucolic Atlantic coastal resort of Costa do Sauipe in Salvador da Bahia. He was confident that it will become increasingly difficult to isolate Cuba - and followed it with action, meeting Mexico's conservative President Felipe Calderon, who has sought to repair relations with communist Cuba after they badly frayed under his predecessor Vicente Fox.

Calderon, who met for an hour with Raul Castro and sought him out on other occasions at the summit, plans to visit Cuba next year and receive a return visit from the Cuban leader.

Argentine President Cristina Kirchner plans to visit Havana in January.

Raul Castro hoped for an end to the US embargo, sending the ball into Washington's court, where Obama will be inaugurated on January 20.

'If Mr Obama wants to talk, then we'll talk. If he doesn't, then not,' Castro said.

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