The Miami Herald
January 17, 1999
Colombian leader takes new stance on Cuba ties

             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 to Cuba
             in 40 years.

             On Friday, the second day of a four-day visit, Pastrana praised President Fidel
             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,'' Pastrana
             told a news conference.

             Vast differences divide Pastrana, a conservative given to elegant suits and refined
             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 intersection
             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 process,
             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 on,
             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 said.

             Pastrana noted a new dynamic between the two nations, hinting that both countries
             would be served by better relations.

             ``Colombia and Cuba need each other,'' he said. ``I have come to Cuba to tell you
             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 leader, he
             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 what
             would later become the FARC, which now threatens Colombia's stability.

             ``Pastrana is looking for credible intermediaries with the guerrillas as a minimal
             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 coup
             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 honors on
             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 rhetoric
             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 play a
             role'' as one of the nations in the ``group of friends'' of Colombia that will facilitate
             peace talks.

             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 Cuba
             visit],'' Pastrana said, adding that Bogota's relations with Washington are ``at their
             best moment.''


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