Nonaligned nations ponder loss of Castro

Associated Press Writer

When Cuba last hosted the Nonaligned Movement summit, the Cold War still divided the world and Fidel Castro was a strapping 53-year-old inspiring armed movements in poor countries the world over.

The Cuban-inspired Sandinista rebels had just triumphed in Nicaragua, the Shah of Iran had just fallen, the U.S. still controlled the Panama Canal and wars of liberation from colonial powers raged in Africa.

To the leaders who gathered in Havana in August 1979, Castro was the symbol of their struggle for self-determination and freedom from U.S. domination.

This time around, it's not even clear that Castro will show up. Now 80 and convalescing from intestinal surgery, he said he hopes to meet with some foreign dignitaries. No public appearances are on the schedule, but expectations of a formal appearance were raised Wednesday when state television showed photos of him sitting up in his pajamas and chatting with a visiting Argentine politician.

As Cubans contemplate life without the only ruler most of them have ever known, the nations coming together this week to map out the developing world's agenda must also learn to fight on without the bearded guerrilla leader.

This time, instead of rifles and rockets as their weapons against colonial oppressors, they are using pens, syringes and energy deals against the enemies of illiteracy, disease and poverty.

"The Cuban people have accepted his illness with great maturity," said Wayne Smith, the former top U.S. diplomat in Havana. "Now the rest of the world, and especially the developing world, needs to get used to Cuba being ruled by someone else."

Smith predicted that Castro, who temporarily ceded power in July to his 75-year-old brother while he recovers from surgery, will likely make at least a symbolic appearance.

"I think he will be there sufficiently in spirit, and to some extent in the flesh, enough to reassure the leaders," said Smith, who represented the United States as an observer at the 1979 summit and showed up in Havana on a nostalgic visit this week.

Cuban National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon noted that most of the foreign leaders haven't arrived yet, and he wouldn't rule out an appearance by Castro when they do.

"Fidel is not lounging in bed," Alarcon said. "He has a telephone in his hand, directing everything; he's up to date on everything, following it step by step."

But even government officials acknowledge that if Castro recovers enough to resume the presidency, it's unlikely he'll keep up the exhausting schedule he blamed for his still-undisclosed ailment.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Castro's good friend, has already begun asserting himself as the Third World's leading statesman, employing Castro's anti-imperialist rhetoric and building up Venezuela's military as he reaches out to other developing countries with social programs funded by his oil-rich nation.

But times have changed considerably since the days when Castro established himself as the iconic leader of the world's leftist revolutionaries, supplying troops and arms to Africa and training leftist guerrillas in Latin America.

"Another world is necessary, urgent and possible," but war is not necessary to achieve it, Cuban Vice President Carlos Lage told foreign ministers at the summit Wednesday. "If we use our conscience, if we unite, if we make ourselves willing to defend our rights with ideas and decisiveness, we can achieve it."

Some things haven't changed — U.S. domination remains a rhetorical favorite, and then as now, Israel's bombing of Lebanon angered the gathered leaders.

But Cuba stopped fomenting revolutions more than a decade ago, and more of the nonaligned nations are now young democracies. They came to Havana this time seeking support for trade deals and joint ventures, the training of doctors and teachers, and energy independence.

It was Castro who designed many of these social programs, aimed at peacefully capturing hearts and minds.

One example is the Operation Miracle campaign to provide free eye surgeries to the poor. Financed in part by Venezuela, the program has restored eyesight to hundreds of thousands of people in 28 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean and will be expanded to Africa and Asia soon.

Cuba's "Yes, I Can" adult literacy program also is being featured this week, as the kind of social program developing nations can share for mutual benefit.

But the nonaligned nations apparently aren't ready to work out the details of such social programs this week. A document describing an ambitious global expansion of Cuba's literacy, health care and energy programs was shelved, organizers said Wednesday, because the summit agenda is simply too full to deal with it.

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