August 27, 1999

By Andrew Cawthorne

HAVANA, Aug 27 (Reuters) - Months before it even starts, an Ibero-American Summit to be hosted by President Fidel Castro in Cuba is causing controversy, with some leaders planning boycotts and others carefully mulling their stance.

The annual meeting, usually attended by all heads of state from Latin America, Spain and Portugal, will throw more international attention on communist-run Cuba than it has received since the historic visit of Pope John Paul II in January 1998.

Havana wants the mid-November summit to strengthen its foreign ties, highlight the failure of four decades of U.S.-led efforts to isolate Castro, and boost regional unity.

But two factors threaten to undermine those aspirations: differences between Spain and Latin America over the Pinochet case, and question-marks over Cuba's human rights' record.

Chilean President Eduardo Frei confirmed Thursday he would boycott the Havana meeting to protest Spain's attempt to try former dictator Augusto Pinochet, which Chile considers a violation of sovereignty.

Argentine President Carlos Menem last week promised to follow suit, in solidarity, if Chile stays away.

One long-confirmed absentee is Nicaragua's right-wing president Arnoldo Aleman, a bitter critic of his Cuban counterpart whom he describes as a ``dinosaur'' running a dictatorship that rides roughshod over human rights.

Some other leaders are sitting on the fence

Costa Rica, for example, said this week it would send representation, but its president, Miguel Angel Rodriguez, was still ``considering if he goes or not, and maybe he won't go.''

The Central American nation's Foreign Minister Roberto Rojas added that involvement in the summit should not be viewed as a gesture to Havana: ``In no way should the participation of Costa Rica be seen as a bilateral visit to Cuba, but as our support of the Ibero-American process.''

Thankfully for Cuba, unconditional attendance is guaranteed from some quarters -- not least Latin American heavyweights Mexico and Venezuela.

Mexico was the only nation in the region not to cut diplomatic ties with the Caribbean island in the years after Castro's 1959 revolution, and has always backed Cuba.

But the most enthusiastic guest in Cuba is sure to be Venezuela's flamboyant new President Hugo Chavez. The left- leaning former paratrooper has a strong personal friendship with Castro, and frequently speaks up for Cuba.

``It's not great news for Castro if Frei and Menem don't come, but at least he can blame it on the Pinochet case, and be sure of vocal support from elsewhere -- like his number one fan Hugo Chavez,'' one South American diplomat in Havana said.

Elsewhere, Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori is likely to remember with gratitude Castro's asylum offer for Marxist rebels holding the Japanese ambassador's residence during the four-month Lima hostage crisis that ended in April 1997.

Colombian leader Andres Pastrana may want to talk further with Castro about a possible Cuban role in helping solve that nation's bloody guerrilla conflict.

From Spain, Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar and King Juan Carlos have confirmed their attendance despite a cooling of the European country's ties with Cuba this year.

Aznar's government criticised Havana over its treatment of local opposition activists, particularly the March trial of the so-called ``Group of Four'' dissidents who are serving jail sentences for ``inciting sedition.''

That case led to the cancellation of a planned Spring visit to Cuba by Spain's royal couple.

``Spain is working for the summit to be a success, but believe me, it's not proving an easy task,'' Aznar said recently. ``It's the Cuban government's responsibility to create the best atmosphere possible for it to be a success.''

Officials in Havana say they have no confirmation of any non-attendance at the summit, and are preparing to receive the region's leaders with typical Cuban hospitality.

``Officially, all the countries are, of course, invited, and we expect that they will attend ... We have no official prior communication referring to any absence,'' foreign ministry spokesman Alejandro Gonzalez said recently.

Havana rejects criticism of its rights' record, saying social policies such as its provision of free education and health services prove its commitment to human rights.

08:43 08-27-99

Copyright 1999 Reuters Limited