April 18, 1999

Castro, Chavez confer before leaving Caribbean summit

                  SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic (Reuters) -- Latin America's
                  two most radical leaders -- Fidel Castro of Cuba and Hugo Chavez of
                  Venezuela -- cemented their growing friendship with a lengthy private
                  meeting on Sunday before departing a Caribbean summit.

                  Passionate interventions from both
                  Castro and Chavez, who was four at the time of the 1959 Cuban
                  Revolution, enlivened an otherwise relatively sterile gathering of the
                  Association of Caribbean States (ACS) in the Dominican Republic.

                  "Great, as always" was how a beaming Chavez, 44, described his latest talks
                  with Castro at a seafront hotel in Santo Domingo. "Above all, we ratified the
                  strong will of Venezuela and Cuba to fight for the integration of the
                  Caribbean and Latin America."

                  Castro, 72, deliberately seeking a low profile at the summit and wearing a
                  smart business suit instead of his trademark military fatigues, waved at
                  waiting reporters without comment after the meeting. On his way to the
                  airport, he paused briefly to greet a pocket of Dominican supporters
                  chanting "Solidarity with Cuba!" and "Long live Socialist Cuba!"

                  Heads of state from the more than 20 nations at the meeting, ranging from
                  tiny banana-dependent islands to major Latin American countries like
                  Mexico and Colombia, were heading home Sunday after the two-day

                  Castro, while uttering barely a word in public, and Chavez, courting the
                  media at every turn, dominated public attention at the second ACS summit.
                  The hemisphere's only communist leader, Castro, and the left-wing former
                  leader of a failed military coup, Chavez, both urged stronger action from
                  fellow leaders.

                  In a closed-door speech at the summit which was released to Cuban media
                  only, Castro presented an apocalyptic vision of the capitalist-dominated
                  world as "a gigantic casino" and criticised the World Trade Organisation
                  (WTO) as a "fearful instrument of recolonization and exploitation."

                  He called on Caribbean leaders to join together "to make claims, to
                  denounce things, to express the realities of the world we are living in."

                  Castro also criticised a recent WTO ruling which upheld a complaint by the
                  United States and several Latin American nations that European Union
                  banana import regulations unfairly favoured former European colonies in the
                  Caribbean over Latin American banana producers, where U.S.
                  multinationals operate.

                  "This world is a gigantic casino, a chaos," he added in a familiar denunciation
                  of global capitalism.

                  In a stirring address late Saturday, Chavez challenged the leaders to put
                  words into action and get their peoples out of "terrible under-development."

                  "We go from summit to summit, but our peoples go from abyss to abyss,"
                  Chavez said. "We pray to God ... that the next century will be one of light
                  and peace."

                  Chavez, who won the Venezuelan presidency last December through the
                  ballot-box after his military coup failed in 1994, noted that he had already
                  attended six international summits since taking power in February.

                  Excusing himself as a "novice" and a dreamer, Chavez also presented to his
                  fellow leaders a vision of a future, united continent with full political
                  integration and "a vast Congress of the Americas" based in Panama.

                  Chavez, who is seeking at home to create a Constituent Assembly that
                  would dissolve Congress and rewrite the Constitution, also explained his
                  self-styled "peaceful revolution" in Venezuela. "The Venezuelan people were
                  dead ... now they rise up from the ashes," he said.

                  The leaders signed at the summit's end the Declaration of Santo Domingo
                  which pledged greater commercial and political unity into the 21st century.

                  Among the most important elements were an agreement to cooperate better
                  against natural disasters such as Hurricanes Mitch and Georges, which took
                  thousands of lives and set economies back years throughout the region in

                  The ACS declaration also protested Western nations' use of the Caribbean
                  sea to transport nuclear and toxic waste, and condemned the U.S. economic
                  embargo on communist-run Cuba.

                  One of the ACS' chief long-term aims is to create among its 25 member
                  states what would be the world's fourth-largest trading bloc, consisting of
                  200 million people and a combined gross domestic product of $500 billion.