Hero's welcome for Castro as Venezuela joins US challenge

Campaign News | Sunday, 23 July 2006

From the Scotland on Sunday Newspaper

By DEBORA REY in Cordoba, Argentina

THE charisma is still shining through and the revolutionary fervour seems undiminished. Approaching his 80th birthday he may be, but Cuban leader Fidel Castro still has the power to both draw a crowd and needle his oldest enemy.

The communist firebrand left Argentina yesterday after igniting an audience of thousands with a surprise visit to the integration of Venezuela into a new South American power bloc that is alarming US strategists to the north.

As he mounted the stage to embrace Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's new left-wing president, the roars of the 15,000-strong crowd grew and the flags began waving.

"Ole! Ole! Fidel!" the crowd chanted as some waved red banners emblazoned with the image of Argentine-born revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara, who spent several boyhood years in Cordoba before joining Cuba's revolution.

Castro, who will celebrate his 80th birthday on August 13, did not let them down. "This kind of integration has centuries-old enemies," he growled in a thinly veiled reference to the US.

The legendary Cuban leader was making one of his increasingly rare international appearances to endorse the growing South American "Mercosur" trading bloc but also to dispel constant rumours about the state of his health.

Last weekend, the Latin America rumour mill was buzzing with a story that Castro had died. In Cordoba, he was keen to make it clear that the rumours of his demise had been exaggerated.

"I die just about every day," he told Venezuelan state TV. "But it's really a lot of fun for me and it makes me feel healthier."

So, too, does the growth of Mercosur, and especially the acceptance into its fold of Venezuela, which is increasingly helping Cuba to circumvent the hardships imposed by the 40-year trade ban imposed by the US.

Mercosur was once confined to the southern nations of Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, but with Venezuela's accession, it now has influence right up to the Caribbean coast.

Critics say the new Mercosur marks a worrying decline in US influence in the region. Michael Shifter, an analyst at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, said Venezuela's entry should be a "wake-up call" for US officials distracted by the conflict in the Middle East. "Mercosur seems to have less and less to do with free trade and more to do with politics," he said.

Castro and Chavez would undoubtedly agree. "Mercosur once was just four countries. Now it is improved and is expanding," Castro said during a three-hour speech given beneath a banner reading, "Integration is our flag". Cuban, Venezuelan and Argentine flags flapped nearby.

The rally was a rare chance for Argentines to see the Cuban leader, who last visited in May 2003 for the inauguration of moderate leftist president Nestor Kirchner.

Also attending were leaders of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, human rights activists whose sons and daughters went missing during Argentina's 1976-83 dictatorship.

Castro vowed his communist nation would continue to survive a more than four-decade-old US trade embargo. He said: "In the neo-liberal world everyone is talking about globalisation, about the globalisation of goods and services. But nobody is talking about the globalisation of solidarity among nations."

He lauded Chavez for emulating Cuba's own programmes to send doctors and teachers to poor people throughout Latin America.

Kirchner, meanwhile, welcomed the "historic" addition of oil-rich Venezuela, the continent's No 3 economy after Brazil and Argentina, into the once-sleepy Mercosur customs union.

Chavez, who admires Castro as his leftist ally and political mentor, urged Mercosur to put aside internal squabbles and stand against the US-backed free-market policies he says enslaved the region. He told the rally that a Free Trade Area of the Americas, or FTAA, proposed in 1994 amid lofty goals of uniting the hemisphere in one tariff-free zone, was now dead. "FTAA be damned!" Chavez declared to applause.

Chavez said Mercosur would be the engine for Latin American growth, adding that he hoped leftist president Evo Morales of Bolivia, who took office in January along with Cuba, would become full members of the trade bloc. "Latin America has all it needs to become a great world power. Let's not put any limits on our dreams. Let's make them reality," Chavez said.

The addition of Venezuela gives Mercosur a combined market of 250 million people and a combined output of $1 trillion in goods and services annually, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said during Friday's summit.

Nafta, combining the markets of the US, Canada and Mexico, has 450 million consumers and a combined gross product of about $14 trillion dollars.

Alejandra Lopez, a 57-year-old Argentine who watched Castro from the crowd, said she hopes that a region where millions are still in poverty will be transformed. "We are all now fighting for the liberation of Latin America," she said.

What alarms the US most is the warm relationship between Castro and Chavez. Last week, US officials condemned potential outside interference in Cuba's future by those who do not support democratic elections there - singling out Chavez as "meddling" in Cuban affairs.

The US also dislikes Castro and Chavez's efforts to expand their influence throughout the hemisphere using money Venezuela receives from its oil exports. Much of the money is from the US, which buys more than $30bn in petroleum-related products from Venezuela every year. Using US dollars to foment leftist opinion through South America may amuse Castro but it is likely to leave Washington cold.


Fidel calls for integration at MERCOSUR summit

If Europe can do it, we can too, he says

Cordoba, Argentina, Jul 22 (Prensa Latina) Cuban President Fidel Castro on Friday called the member countries of MERCOSUR to boost solidarity for the sake of subregional integration, and offered the Island?s cooperation to achieve that goal.

The countries with more resources can cooperate with those having less, the Cuban statesman told the presidents of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Venezuela, Bolivia and Chile at the 30th MERCOSUR Summit.

Fidel Castro wondered why Latin America cannot integrate like Europe, and recalled that it was possible there because of the solidarity of the biggest (countries) with the smallest ones.

He noted that the only thing the region needs is human capital, something that, according to him, is abundant in Latin America.

In that regard, he offered Cuba?s expertise in education, public health and electricity saving, which could be implemented with few resources, he added.

In the field of education, he highlighted the good results of the Cuban literacy method "Yo si puedo" (Yes, I Can), which has been implemented in Venezuela, where 1.5 million people learned how to write and read.

He went on to say that the program is also being implemented with promising results in Bolivia, where Cuban and Venezuelan experts are working in that field.

The president also referred to the good results of "Operation Miracle", which is sponsored by Cuba and Venezuela to provide free eye care in the subregion and which has restored vision to tens of thousands of people.

Two years after this program was kicked off, 261,034 Latin American and Caribbean patients have been treated, excluding those who underwent surgery in Venezuela, he added.

Fidel Castro underlined that the program also involves the creation of facilities in other countries of the region to provide that kind of assistance, like in the case of Bolivia, where 100,000 patients can be operated on every year at eight ophthalmologic centers.

He explained that the original project was aimed at performing more than 600,000 surgeries a year, restoring vision to six million people in this part of the world.

Those estimates, he added, are insufficient when we know that more than 30 million Latin Americans need that kind of service, a challenge that can be met with will and integration.

Fidel Castro pointed out that nearly 30,000 Cuban doctors are rendering their services in several parts of the world, while more than 17,000 youths from other countries are studying medicine at the Latin American Medical School in Havana.

A lot can be done, he stressed, to reduce the infant mortality rate south of the Bravo River. He noted that in Cuba, that indicator is currently at 5.6 deaths per every 1,000 live births, even lower than that of the United States.

In another part of his speech, Fidel Castro referred to the complex panorama of world economy, as a result of high fuel prices, so an energy-saving policy must be implemented.

He said that this is a field in which a lot can be done, using new technologies and making rational use of resources. He offered participants Cuba?s expertise in what the country has called the Energy Revolution.

Fidel Castro expressed satisfaction with what he considered the strengthening of MERCOSUR. That was precisely the reason why we traveled, he assured, adding that he was happy of visiting the Argentine city of Cordoba (north), because he has verified that the (integration) process is not in crisis.

On Friday, MERCOSUR and Cuba signed an economic complementation agreement, which is aimed at boosting trade by reducing or eliminating tariffs and restrictions on the negotiated products.


Cuba and Mercosur sign tariff-eliminating trade pact

Deal will help offset effects of blockade

Cordoba, Argentina, 22 July: The Common Market of the South (Mercosur) and Cuba on Friday signed an agreement on eliminating tariffs and boosting complementary trade, on the sidelines of the 30th Mercosur Summit in Cordoba, Argentina.

The group deal, known as the Economic Complementation Accord, is an integration of the four agreements that the Mercosur members already have with Cuba, and was signed by presidents of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay on behalf of Mercosur, and Cuban President Fidel Castro for his nation.

Cuba-Mercosur trade reached 405 million U.S. dollars in 2005, with Mercosur member states registering a surplus of 323 million dollars.

Cuban authorities said the deal would help offset the consequences of the 40-year-old blockade imposed on Cuba by the United States.

Analysts say the agreement is of more political than economic significance, showing that Mercosur rejects the U.S. way of treating the Caribbean island nation.

Source: Xinhua


Mercosur trade summit opens with Fidel as guest

From the Dominican Today newspaper

Buenos Aires, 20 July - Cuban leader Fidel Castro arrived at a Mercosur trade summit, with his ally, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, attending as a member for the first time.

Castro, nearly 80, appeared in an olive military uniform at the door of a Cubana airliner.

Chavez arrived earlier at Argentina's second-largest city in the Andes foothills promising that "Mercosur will enter a new phase" raising "the banner of social concerns".

With all five Mercosur presidents politically left of center, the political moment "could not be more favorable for Castro's visit," an Argentine diplomat told AFP before the Cuban president's arrival was confirmed.

Castro, who turns 80 on August 13, rarely travels outside of Cuba. Cuba is not a Mercosur member, but he is expected to sign an agreement easing trade with the South American free-trade zone.

Chavez joined the presidents of Mercosur's founding members - Argentina's Nestor Kirchner, Brazil's Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva, Paraguay's Nicanor Duarte and Uruguay's Tabare Vazquez - along with Chavez, Michelle Bachelet of Chile and Evo Morales of Bolivia, leaders of Mercosur's associate members.

Mexican Foreign Minister Ernesto Derbez will also attend as an observer.

Castro last traveled to Argentina in 2003 for Kirchner's presidential inauguration. At the time he was the keynote speaker at a vast rally at the law faculty at the University of Buenos Aires.

Leftist militants here in Cordoba, some 600 kilometers (375 miles) northwest of Buenos Aires, plan a rally at the local university headlining Chavez, Morales and possibly Kirchner. They now hope that Castro will join the speakers.

But Castro's presence, still larger than life in Latin America, threatens to eclipse what was supposed to be the main event, Venezuela's first-time summit appearance as a full member.

Venezuela is the world's eighth largest oil producer and fifth largest oil exporter. It became the fifth Mercosur member at a special July 4 summit.

With its new member, the bloc now has a total population of more than 250 million people, a gross regional product of over one trillion dollars and regional trade surpassing 300 billion dollars.

Non-governmental organizations are on hand as well, hoping for a more sympathetic ear from the left-leaning heads of state.

"Within Mercosur we need a space to discuss our problems as do the heads of state and to have the right to participate in the design of public policy," said Gabriela Pereira, of the International Network of Environmental Clubs, operating in 28 countries.

Chavez said that Venezuela will be better off in Mercosur than in the Andean Community, and recently quit that trade bloc comprising Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.


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