Castro fails to show at summit, cites storm crisis
BY JANE BUSSEY
LIMA, Peru -- Cuban President Fidel Castro stunned leaders of the world's Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking nations Friday by failing to attend their annual summit, citing a last-minute excuse of urgent hurricane reconstruction work on the island.
The early morning announcement that Castro would not be at the Ibero-American Summit, attended by presidents and prime ministers of 21 countries, rippled through the opening day's events, sparking surprise and reaction in Lima as well as Havana.
A personal letter sent Thursday from Castro to Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo noted that it was ``impossible'' for him to be absent from the island ``because of the lashing of Hurricane Michelle in Cuba, the worst natural disaster in 100 years.''
Peruvian Foreign Minister Diego García Sayán called
the regrets ``absolutely understandable,'' and Toledo issued a statement
saying he would immediately send aid,
particularly medical help.
But the political undercurrents surrounding Castro were already
swirling before he announced his absence. On Tuesday, Toledo met for an
hour with Cuban exiles,
including prominent exile leader Carlos Alberto Montaner, who are Castro's sworn enemies.
And breaking summit protocol, Toledo announced he would decorate another severe critic of Castro, Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, with the country's highest distinction, previously reserved only for foreign dignitaries.
Vargas Llosa received the Order of the Sun of Peru of the Diamond Degree at a banquet of summit leaders Friday night for his pro-democracy efforts, and could scarcely contain his glee at Castro's absence.
``What an honor and what a pleasure it is that for the first time in its 11 years of existence, the Ibero-American Summit is attended only by democratic heads of state and government, chosen in free elections that respected legality and liberty,'' Vargas Llosa said.
``This was a very uncomfortable summit for Fidel Castro,'' Montaner said. ``He was upset that Toledo met with members of the Cuban opposition, including me.''
Montaner said that Cuban authorities had registered their displeasure over the exiles' meeting with the Peruvian Foreign Ministry. He added that Toledo had informed him personally late Thursday of Castro's decision to not attend.
Castro has attended every summit since the first one held in Guadalajara,
Mexico, in July 1991 and hosted the 1999 summit, often stealing the limelight
from both the
meeting and other heads of state.
The Ibero-American meetings, which have had strong cultural overtones
harking back to the Spanish and Portuguese colonial heritage, are among
the few regional
meetings where Cuba is not banned because of its lack of democracy.
Ironically, just a few months ago, Peru was under attack as an authoritarian pariah by many of the same officials attending this summit.
But Toledo's election in June helped boost the country's profile for the two-day event that will end today.
``Welcome to this reborn democracy in Peru,'' Toledo said at the opening ceremony.
While Castro reportedly toured Cuba, hit by Hurricane Michelle on Nov. 4, Cuba sent Vice President Carlos Lage and Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque to Lima.
Uruguay and Honduras were the only other countries not represented by heads of state or government.
Spain's King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofía arrived early Friday for the summit and a state visit.
Peruvian authorities stepped up security as the summit date approached, particularly in view of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States and past plots against Castro at such summits.
By Friday, police erected barricades around the Swissotel hotel in Lima's posh San Isidro district, where the meetings were being held. Traffic and the public were barred from access; only participants with credentials could enter.
Besides the Declaration of Lima that will be issued at the end
of the meeting, the leaders are also to sign a declaration condemning terrorism
and asking that ``those
responsible for terrorist acts be brought to justice.''
In addition, the group of leaders is expected to appeal to foreign creditors to take a more flexible approach to the foreign debt problems, which are currently devastating Argentina.
© 2001 The Miami Herald