Latin American leaders offer to help Castro in reconciliation with U.S.


COZUMEL, Mexico -- The presidents of Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela offered yesterday to help Fidel Castro overcome his differences with the United States.

But the three oil-producing countries apparently stopped short of offering to open oil sales to Cuba that would break Washington's attempt to isolate the island.

A communique issued by the three presidents after the meeting said that they had "offered their good offices" to begin a process of reconciliation between Cuba "and the countries with which it has differences."

The all-day meeting here with Mr. Castro was the strongest to date in showing support for the beleaguered dictator.

A Colombian diplomat said he viewed the gesture as "a pretty strong endorsement of Castro's legitimacy as a Latin American leader."

But it was anticlimactic in view of the buildup given the session by Mexican government officials who had hinted privately that the three governments might sell oil to Cuba at below-market rates.

President Castro, in a news conference, said the subject of oil never came up during his discussions with Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, Colombian President Cesar Gaviria and Venezuelan President Carlos Andres Perez.

He acknowledged that the loss of fuel supplies from the Soviet Union was hurting his economy but asserted that he had not come "crying like Mary Magdalene" for help from his Latin American neighbors.

The three countries at the meeting here would like to help Cuba but are anxious not to offend President Bush, who remains determined to isolate Mr. Castro politically and economically in hopes that he would mend his ways or be overthrown.

The offer to help Mr. Castro mend his differences with Washington is part of a Latin American campaign to "bring Castro out of the closet" in hopes that he will be more open to reforms, said a senior Mexican government official.

At the same time, the Latin Americans are trying to persuade Washington to lower its anti-Castro rhetoric and begin talks aimed at normalizing relations with the only Communist nation in the Western Hemisphere, the official said.

All three presidents have been active in trying to break the impasse between the 65-year-old revolutionary and the conservative Mr. Bush.

Mr. Bush, in a radio speech May 11, said relations could be normalized if Mr. Castro allowed free elections, freedom of the press, the release of political prisoners and access by United Nations human rights investigators.

Yesterday Mr. Castro effectively rejected all those conditions.

The three presidents have conditioned economic aid to Cuba principally on democratic reforms.

But earlier this month, the Fourth Congress of the Cuban Communist Party refused to yield its monoply on power by allowing multiparty elections.

The party congress did enact the direct election of deputies to the National Assembly, Cuba's supreme legislative body, and some minor reforms.

But President Gaviria said the changes were "not sufficient to meet the expectations of international opinion."

None of the three presidents announced any aid programs for Cuba, which is suffering an acute depression because of the 32-year-old U.S. blockade and the sharp cutback in trade with its main economic partner, the Soviet Union.

Mr. Castro said the country hoped to solve its problems by itself by increasing foreign investment and opening up new markets in Latin America for Cuban products.

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