Raul Castro Trumpets Rise of the Left

The Associated Press
Saturday, December 2, 2006; 6:33 PM

HAVANA -- Acting President Raul Castro on Saturday exalted the resurgence of the left in Latin America despite "interference" by the United States, which he blamed for deepening the divide between rich and poor.

Intellectuals and politicians from across Latin America and beyond flocked to Havana this week to belatedly celebrate his brother Fidel Castro's 80th birthday. Although the elder Castro's absence due to illness hung over the celebration, it soon turned into a hugfest among those who have spearheaded the rise of leftist politics in the Western Hemisphere.

During a speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of Cuba's Revolutionary Armed Forces, Raul Castro praised the rise of the left and launched a verbal broadside against Washington.

Free-market formulas "imposed by the United States and its European partners" have benefited those with easy access to foreign capital, while leaving most of those in Latin America in "poverty, unhealthy conditions and ignorance," he said.

"The populist and revolutionary movements are becoming robust, and despite Washington's barefaced multi-million-dollar campaigns of disinformation, blackmail and interference, new and experienced leaders are assuming the leadership of their nations," he said.

Raul Castro spoke to tens of thousands of Cubans in Havana's Plaza of the Revolution. In lieu of applause, the crowd waved small paper Cuban flags, which sounded like autumn leaves rustling in the wind.

While criticizing the U.S. government, he also reached out to Washington, saying Cuba was willing to negotiate long-standing problems with mutual respect.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Janelle Hironimus responded by saying the Cuban government must take democratic steps first.

"The dialogue that needs to take place is one between the Cuban regime and the Cuban people about the democratic future of the island," Hironimus said on Saturday. "Any deepening of our engagement with Cuba depends on that dialogue and the Cuban regime's willingness to take concrete steps toward a political opening and a transition to democracy."

Since breaking diplomatic relations in 1961, the U.S. has maintained a policy to undermine Cuba's one-party authoritarian rule through a trade embargo and restrictions on American travel to the Caribbean country.

At another birthday celebration in Havana on Friday night, Cuba's Latin American allies also praised the resurgent left.

Bolivian President Evo Morales, a coca farmer who has pledged to redistribute power and wealth to his country's Indian majority, said that leftist Latin American countries could counter U.S. influence.

"We have Venezuela, Cuba and soon Ecuador and Nicaragua," Morales said. "We want to make alliances with countries in the Middle East to bring an end to the United States' empire!"

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has become a leading opponent of Washington's role in the Middle East, from the Iraq war to its support for Israel. Chavez visited Iran, Syria and Qatar this year.

Chavez, who did not attend this week's birthday bash because he faces re-election Sunday, has been the most visible and outspoken figure in the region's leftward shift.

In a letter published Saturday in Granma, Cuba's Communist Party newspaper, the Venezuelan leader said he would dedicate his victory at the polls Sunday to Fidel Castro and the Cuban people.

Nicaraguan President-elect Daniel Ortega, a former guerrilla and leader of his country's Marxist-style Sandinista government in the 1980s, also said he was making his Nov. 5 victory a birthday gift for Fidel, who has not been seen in public since undergoing intestinal surgery in late July. Ortega was speaking Friday night at the same event where Morales spoke.

Ecuador joined the leftist club when it elected Rafael Correa as president on Nov. 26. A leftist economist, Correa has said Ecuador should cut ties with international lenders, called President Bush "dimwitted" and pledged a citizens' revolution against the country's discredited political system.

© 2006 The Associated Press