Castro to firm up ties with Dominicans
Following Caribbean summit, leader to stay three more days
By JUAN O. TAMAYO
Herald Staff Writer
Cuban President Fidel Castro's visit to the Dominican Republic this week
expected to finish cementing ties between two nations that compete head-on in
tourism and cigars but share much history and culture.
Castro arrives Thursday for a two-day summit of 16 Caribbean leaders, but
to stay three more days to get acquainted with a nation that only in April resumed
full diplomatic relations with Havana after 36 years.
Thousands of Dominican police and soldiers and a reported 100 Cuban agents
guard the summit, following reports last week of a Cuban exile plot to assassinate
Some Dominicans fret that their rapprochement with Havana will strain relations
with Washington, and some of the 15,000 Cuban emigres in the Dominican
Republic complain the media is making too much of the visit.
``As a Dominican citizen, I must say the government has a right to invite
but we're giving too much importance to a person who has nothing to contribute to
the world,'' said Cecilio Vasquez, former president of the Association of Cubans in
the Dominican Republic.
But Castro is likely to get a warm welcome from a nation where most Dominicans
have a positive view of Cubans, those from the island as well as exiles.
``Cubans and Dominicans are the most similar people in the region because
share the same openness, friendliness and love of salsa music,'' said Rudy
Gonzales, editor of the newspaper Listin Diario.
Cuba and the Dominican Republic also have major stakes in key industries.
A team of Cuban cigar experts spent several weeks in the Dominican Republic
winter learning production and marketing techniques that have helped make
Dominicans the world's largest exporters of hand-rolled cigars.
Havana officials also have studied a Dominican tourism industry booming
same type of visitor that Cuba now attracts, Europeans and Canadians on
low-cost vacation packages.
Both countries are also fighting to revive state-run sugar industries so
that their production costs are higher than world sugar prices.
A market in Cuba
Cuba is now a growing market for Dominicans who export construction materials,
food, household chemicals and hotel furniture. Dominicans have been importing
Cuban breeding cattle, horses and even fighting cocks.
Castro also is likely to get a warm welcome from President Leonel Fernandez,
New York-educated lawyer whose Dominican Liberation Party (DLP) was
founded in 1974 as a leftist party and kept close ties to Cuba.
``Our party always held that the U.S. policy of isolating Cuba and subjecting
an implacable blockade [the trade embargo] is wrong,'' said Luis Ernesto Simo,
vice minister of tourism and deputy DLP secretary for international affairs.
DLP founder Juan Bosch, a self-described Marxist, was exiled briefly in
during the Trujillo dictatorship in the 1950s. Elected president in 1963, he was
toppled seven months later in a coup that led to a civil war and ultimately the U.S.
invasion in 1965.
Castro has reportedly expressed interest in meeting with both Bosch, now
from politics, and former President Joaquin Balaguer, a conservative who refused
diplomatic relations with Castro as he ruled the country for 22 of the last 32 years.
Now 90 years old and blind but still active in politics, Balaguer is considered
of the craftiest politicians in Latin American history, a man who ruled through force
and fraud until he was barred from seeking reelection in 1996.
Fernandez has pushed the DLP toward the center and adopted a foreign policy
more active than Balaguer's, joining several Caribbean and Central American
organizations and mending relations with Cuba.
Santo Domingo restored consular relations with Havana last year in a bid
legalize the status of thousands of Cubans who arrived in recent years on
short-term visas and stayed. It also negotiated an immigration agreement in order
to return home several dozen who had arrived illegally by boat.
`Problem for the Cubans'
``We are a sovereign nation that maintains diplomatic relations with all
Simo said. The Cuban issue, he added, ``is a problem for the Cubans in Cuba and
Cubans in Miami. We don't meddle in that.''
Castro is expected to visit the city of Montecristi, 170 miles north of
Domingo, where Cuban independence hero Jose Marti issued a call in 1895 for a
final war against Spain. He returned secretly from there to Cuba, and was killed in
battle two months later.
The Cuban president also will inaugurate a museum in the nearby town of
Maximo Gomez, a native son who commanded the Cuban rebel army in the 1880s
and earned a reputation as an invincible guerrilla fighter.
Gomez's tactic of horseback charges with three-foot long machetes terrified
Spanish foot soldiers accustomed to moving in tight groups, and eventually forced
the Spaniards to withdraw to city garrisons.