Visits Dominican Republic
By The Associated Press
Dominican Republic (AP) -- For nearly four
decades, Fidel Castro kept to one side of a sometimes-bitter ideological
divide between his communist Cuba and a neighboring Dominican
Republic dabbling in democracy.
The walls of
that divide fast crumbling, Castro said he felt right at home
when he finally set foot on Dominican soil for the first time since becoming
Cuba's leader in 1959.
``To be here
in the Dominican Republic, I hardly believe it,'' he told
Dominican President Leonel Fernandez on Thursday. ``It's been my
Attending a 16-nation
Caribbean summit starting today, Castro prepared
to join another struggle -- of small island states fighting for economic
survival in an era of increasingly global free trade.
to that struggle as he recalled the strong cultural ties that
historically wed Cuba and the Dominican Republic. ``We have done a lot
together, but we must do a lot more together in the future,'' he declared.
has struggled since the collapse of its biggest trading
partner, the Soviet-era Eastern bloc, and the continuation of the U.S.
states, meanwhile, have seen U.S. aid dwindle since the
end of the Cold War -- from $200 million a year to $25 million last year
-- and are fighting to maintain access in foreign markets for such exports
as bananas, sugar and textiles.
No longer fearing
reprisals from Washington, Caribbean democracies are
reaching out to Castro, hoping for some extra muscle in upcoming talks
with European trading partners and on a proposed Free Trade Area of
At the summit,
Castro will observe the signing of a trade agreement
between the Dominican Republic and the Caribbean Community
economic bloc, a combined economy of $30 billion that would rise to $40
billion if Cuba were included. Cuba asked for a similar pact this year.
said they hoped to nudge Castro toward democratic
reforms as a step to closer relations.
Castro, 72, planned
to stay in the Dominican Republic for at least two
days after the summit to get acquainted with a nation that restored full
diplomatic ties with Havana in April after a 34-year hiatus.
A series of U.S.-backed
Dominican governments, however, shunned
Castro, especially those of six-term conservative President Joaquin
Balaguer. The centrist Fernandez, who succeeded Balaguer in 1996,
enjoys strong U.S. ties but moved quickly to restore relations with
tight for the visit following several reported plots against the
Cuban leader. Rifle-toting troops stood guard in many parts of Santo
Domingo, and two navy patrol boats trolled off the seaside hotel hosting