By TIM JOHNSON
Herald Staff Writer
HAVANA -- A few years ago, Colombian politician Andres Pastrana regularly
rubbed elbows with Cuban exile activists in South Florida and suggested that his
country should sever relations with Cuba.
Now he is in Havana as the first Colombian president to make a state visit
in 40 years.
On Friday, the second day of a four-day visit, Pastrana praised President
Castro as vital to ending Colombia's interminable civil war because he ``still has a
lot of influence'' with the country's leftist guerrillas.
``The involvement of Mr. Castro is a guarantee for the peace process,''
told a news conference.
Vast differences divide Pastrana, a conservative given to elegant suits
manners, and Castro, the fatigues-wearing revolutionary, but they have found
plenty to chat about since Pastrana's arrival Thursday. One nine-hour session
ended at 5 a.m. Friday.
In his public remarks, Castro agreed that Cuba would take part in Colombia's
peace process but did not say how. He said only that Cuba would avoid ``a
leadership role'' in efforts to end the insurgency of Colombia's largest rebel group,
the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Colombian government
officials began peace talks with the rebels Jan. 7.
``Without the necessary discretion, gains won't be made,'' Castro said.
Pastrana and Castro plan to have lunch today with another visitor, populist
President-elect Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, who stopped in Havana at Pastrana's
request on his way home from a pre-inaugural trip to Europe.
The private lunch will bring together what analysts describe as a broad
of interests among the three leaders, highlighted by Pastrana's desire to seek peace
at home, so overwhelming that it has led Colombia to improve its relations with
Cuba to their best point in decades.
Pastrana condemns embargo
Whether in payoff to Castro for his eventual support in Colombia's peace
or out of genuine conviction, Pastrana has publicly supported Cuba's return to the
Organization of American States, and has invited Castro to Colombia for a state
In a speech Friday at the University of Havana, as a solemn Castro looked
Pastrana offered his biggest payoff, rejecting the U.S. embargo of the island.
``It is immoral to besiege a society or a community, wherever it is. No
one may try
to vanquish or persuade a cornered opponent, forcing him into extreme need,''
Pastrana noted a new dynamic between the two nations, hinting that both
would be served by better relations.
``Colombia and Cuba need each other,'' he said. ``I have come to Cuba to
that in Colombia the seeds of peace have begun to grow, and with your help, it will
also mean peace throughout America.''
Pastrana needs support
Observers said Pastrana would be hard-pressed to reach peace with the FARC
without Castro's support, even though the Marxist leadership of the FARC,
doggedly independent, has shown no signs of heeding Cuban advice.
Castro has an unusual vantage point on Colombian history. As a student
was in Bogota on April 8, 1948, when charismatic Liberal Party leader Jorge
Eliecer Gaitan was assassinated, touching off a decade-long upheaval known as
La Violencia. which left an estimated 200,000 people dead.
A subsequent splintering of the Liberal Party led armed renegades to form
would later become the FARC, which now threatens Colombia's stability.
``Pastrana is looking for credible intermediaries with the guerrillas as
confidence-building gesture,'' Rodrigo Pardo, a former Colombian foreign minister,
wrote last week in El Espectador newspaper, of which he is now editor. ``And
from that point of view, Fidel Castro -- the patriarch of Latin American guerrillas
-- and Hugo Chavez Frias -- [leader of] the new revolution against The
Establishment -- constitute the best alternatives.''
Pastrana said it was natural for him to tap Chavez, a populist former army
leader and avowed admirer of Castro, for the peace process.
``Peace for Colombia means peace for Venezuela,'' Pastrana said.
Chavez toned down rhetoric
Chavez's visit marks his first trip to Cuba since he was granted state
arrival in late 1994, two years after he led an unsuccessful army uprising against
Venezuelan President Carlos Andres Perez.
Since winning election Dec. 6, Chavez has moderated his fiery populist
and sought to portray himself as a statesman capable of leading his country and
keeping its troubled economy on track. Involvement in bringing peace to Colombia
would help his image, diplomats said.
While in Havana, Pastrana has also made clear that the United States ``must
role'' as one of the nations in the ``group of friends'' of Colombia that will facilitate
Pastrana denied that Colombia's warming relations with Cuba might rub U.S.
diplomats the wrong way.
``We don't see why relations with the United States may cool [over the
visit],'' Pastrana said, adding that Bogota's relations with Washington are ``at their
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