Date: Fri, 22 Jan 1999 16:22:33 -0600 (CST)
From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Rich Winkel)
Subject: CUBA: Castro Strengthens Vital Ties with Colombia, Venezuela
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Castro Strengthens Vital Ties with Colombia, Venezuela
By Dalia Acosta, IPS, 18 January 1999
HAVANA, Jan 18 (IPS) - Colombia, Cuba and Venezuela took their first steps toward a strategic alliance that could go far beyond their common interest in achieving peace in Colombia.
That was the assessment by analysts after Sunday's "informal meeting" in Havana between President Fidel Castro, his Colombian counterpart Andres Pastrana, and Venezuelan president-elect Hugo Chavez, who takes office on Feb. 2.
The meeting ended with a joint communique, and according to Colombian Foreign Minister Guillermo Fernandez was "very informal, but really quite productive."
For the Cuban government, determined to insert itself into the region against continued U.S. attempts to isolate it, the closer ties with Colombia and Venezuela take on even greater significance because the countries comprise, along with Mexico, the Group of Three.
Local analysts say that only through the creation of links with subregional blocs will Cuba compensate for its exclusion from the future Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), which is to stretch from Alaska to Patagonia.
With Colombia, Venezuela and Mexico by its side, Castro will have obtained unprecedented support in Latin America, to counteract U.S. efforts against his government.
In December, Chavez invited the Colombian government to expedite the process through which the Andean Community - Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela - and Southern Cone Common Market (Mercosur - Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay - are seeking a trade agreement, in order to meet the Jan. 1, 2000 target for the creation of a South American free trade area.
Pastrana, meanwhile, conceded that his initiative to forge ties with the Cuban government responded to the Group of Three's interest in consolidating its position in the Caribbean, where Cuba occupies a strategic position.
Participating in the meeting with Castro, Chavez and Pastrana were Colombian Foreign Minister Fernandez, the president of the Cuban parliament Ricardo Alarcon, Colombia's high commissioner for peace Victor Ricardo, and Chavez' designated ministers of foreign affairs, Jose Vicente Rangel, and of the interior, Luis Miquelena.
According to the official report on Sunday's meeting, the leaders discussed the current international economic situation, in light of the latest developments in Brazil's financial crisis, as well as the bolstering of economic integration in Latin America and the Caribbean.
The participants stressed the significance of the next meeting of the Association of Caribbean States, to which their countries belong, and of the European Union-Latin American-Caribbean summit slated to take place this year.
The Castro government and Venezuela's future officials confirmed their support for Colombia's peace process, and all participants in the meeting expressed their willingness to collaborate in the fight against the growing trafficking of drugs.
On Dec. 3, the Colombian government confiscated 7,254 kgs of cocaine headed for Cuba, which according to Castro belonged to Spanish entrepreneurs who do business on the island.
At the meeting, Castro presented a progress report on the preparations for the 9th Ibero-American summit, scheduled for November in Havana.
Chavez took advantage of Pastrana's visit to Cuba to make a brief stopover in Havana during his third post-election journey in search of "strategic" contacts.
The president-elect of Venezuela triumphed in December at the head of a coalition of leftist groups and former coup leaders. On a visit to Havana in 1994, Chavez - who spent two years in prison for heading a military uprising in 1992 - was received with honours similar to those extended to a head of state.
Venezuela sees the negotiations between the Pastrana administration and Colombia's insurgents, set to begin Feb. 7, as vital to its own interests, since guerrilla activity takes place just across Venezuela's border with Colombia.
The first stage of the peace talks will involve the Colombian government, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) - the largest and oldest rebel group in the region - and the National Liberation Army (ELN) - the country's second largest insurgency.
Pastrana said that in the future, there would be attempts to set up a separate negotiating table with paramilitary groups in Colombia, whose umbrella organisation announced last Friday that it would present its own peace proposal.
Last Friday, the Quito-based Latin American Association for Human Rights (Aldhu) cited the armed conflict in Colombia - which claimed around 35,000 lives last year and forced 240,000 people to flee their homes from January to November 1998 - as the most critical problem in the region.
International human rights groups like Americas Watch have found paramilitary groups responsible for the majority of human rights abuses in Colombia. According to the Peace and Justice Service, paramilitary units were mainly to blame for the 964 human rights violations registered from January to June 1998.
Aldhu, meanwhile, also stressed the role of guerrilla groups in the violence that has dragged on for decades. In 1998, "occupations of towns, attacks on military posts and oil infrastructure, as well as ambushes and roadblocks were recurrent."
In Pastrana's view, Castro's participation in the peace process as a "facilitator," and even a possible visit by Castro to Colombia, are vital to the peace process, due to "the influence he still has over insurgent groups."
Last year, Castro ackowledged the support his government had provided insurgent movements in Latin America. But he also declared that the guerrilla struggle was no longer a viable route for the triumph of leftist ideas.
Even though Castro says he does not want "any kind of protagonism," local analysts in Cuba say he will not allow himself to be left at the margin of a peace process that is as vital to the region as the budding negotiations in Colombia.
Both Cuba and the United States have offered to serve as guarantors for peace in Colombia, which could help further Cuba's attempts to open channels of dialogue with the U.S. government, beyond discussions on migration issues, according to the University of Havana's Centre of Studies on the Americas.
During Pastrana's official Jan. 14-18 visit, Cuba and Colombia signed seven accords referring, among other issues, to promoting tourism, boosting Cuba's exports of medicine to Colombia, and collaboration in the fight against drugs.
[c] 1999, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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