Local leaders invite Cuban chief to WTO
Tuesday, August 3, 1999
By MICHAEL PAULSON
WASHINGTON -- Dear Fidel Castro: Please come to Seattle.
That's the invitation sent to the Cuban leader by Rep. Jim McDermott, a majority of the Seattle City Council, and a minority of the Metropolitan King County Council.
The elected officials, undaunted by what Secretary of State Madeleine Albright last week called "growing concern about Cuba's dismal human rights" record, sent separate letters urging Castro to attend the meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle beginning Nov. 30.
It is not clear that Castro needs a invitation from Seattle to attend the meeting -- Cuba is an active member of the organization, attending a WTO meeting in Geneva last year. But McDermott, unhappy that Castro had been snubbed by New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani when the Cuban leader attended a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the United Nations in New York in 1995, wanted Castro to know he would be more welcome in Seattle.
"I believe that our entire community would be eager to hear from you, discuss with you, and probably debate with you about the future of our relationship," McDermott, a Seattle Democrat, wrote to Castro. "You will be received respectfully, graciously and warmly."
McDermott described himself in the letter as an opponent of the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba who visited the nation in 1992. McDermott touted what he said was Seattle's "long history of involvement with Cuba."
"Seattle was one of the most ardent supporters of the Venceramos Brigades of the late 1960s and early 1970s," McDermott wrote. "In fact, several of Seattle's prominent political and business leaders were Venceramos Brigade graduates or supporters."
(In 1970, a group of young Seattleites chartered a Greyhound bus for Canada and then boarded a freighter for Cuba, where they spent several months helping to harvest sugar cane. They returned denouncing U.S. policy toward Cuba.)
The members of the city and county council wrote somewhat less enthusiastic letters urging Castro to attend.
"In the expectation that Cuba, as a founding and current member of the World Trade Organization, will be sending a delegation to Seattle . . . we hope you will take this opportunity to personally visit us," wrote five of the nine City Council members, including President Sue Donaldson and members Nick Licata, Richard McIver, Tina Podlodowski and Peter Steinbrueck.
The County Council letter was signed by five of the 13 members, all Democrats.
"Should you decide to lead the Cuban delegation to this historic event, we would be honored to have you visit with us," wrote council members Maggi Fimia, Larry Gossett, Greg Nickels, Dwight Pelz and Larry Phillips. "We think your visit here will be a very educational and enriching experience, both for you and the people who reside in communities throughout our region of the country."
One Republican county councilman, Peter von Reichbauer, said he didn't sign the letter only because he wasn't asked, but that he had no objection to its contents. "I happen to be a strong believer in free trade, and I believe that by inviting Fidel Castro to Seattle, we recognize he is the leader of a nation in our regional sphere of influence as well as internationally," von Reichbauer said. "It would be shortsighted not to invite him to participate in the WTO meeting."
But two City Council members said they declined to sign the letter because they oppose the sentiment.
"I do not think it's appropriate because of our (lack of) diplomatic relations with him," said City Councilwoman Martha Choe. "I was embarrassed by the letter. I took one look at and said, 'I'm not signing it.'"
Councilman Richard Conlin said it was inappropriate to single out only one head of state to invite.
"I would feel differently if he was a hero -- if it was Winston Churchill after World War II," Conlin said.
But Licata said he signed as a courtesy to McDermott.
"The World Trade Organization is open to a wide variety of organizations, and inviting Castro would encourage a more fuller discussion of the WTO's role," Licata said. "And we might get some business out of this. I'm concerned about improving trade opportunities."
Washington Council on International Trade President Patricia Davis said she believes it is up to President Clinton to decide which world leaders to invite, because the WTO meeting is geared for trade ministers. She said Seattle would welcome any world leader who chose to attend.
Cuba is so politically touchy that the United States Trade Representative's office declined to comment on the letters to Castro. State Department officials were not immediately available for comment last night, and a spokesman at the Cuban government's interest section in Washington, D.C., said he did not know whether Castro would attend the gathering.
Washington state is heavily dependent on exports, and industries such as aerospace and agriculture have chafed under the strictures of the United States' many economic sanctions against other countries. The state's pea and lentil growers in particular have mourned the loss of Cuba as a trading partner, because it had been the largest importer of those commodities in the late 1950s.
Castro took power in Cuba on Jan. 1, 1959, and, according to the State Department, consolidated his power by imprisoning or executing opponents. Castro declared Cuba a socialist state in 1961, and maintained close relations with the Soviet Union until its demise in 1991.
The State Department says the Cuban government's human rights record is "abysmal" and that "it systematically violates fundamental civil and political rights of its citizens. The United States has maintained an economic embargo since 1962.
P-I reporter Alan Snel contributed to this report.
P-I reporter Michael Paulson
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