Friday, September 15, 2006

Iran, Venezuela Try to Forge Anti-US Front at Summit

Matthew Bigg, Reuters:
Iran, Venezuela and other states opposed to U.S. policy sought to forge a common front on Friday at a Non-Aligned summit that Cuban leader Fidel Castro was too ill to chair. The anti-U.S. drive could displease other summit countries such as India and Pakistan who have forged closer relationships with Washington since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

The question of whether Castro would make his first public appearance since undergoing emergency surgery for intestinal bleeding in late July and ceding power temporarily to his brother Raul Castro loomed over the summit.

State television showed the 80-year-old greeting friend and ally Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela, fueling talk that he might make a dramatic entrance.

Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque told delegates on Friday that Castro's health was "improving continuously" but said "the doctors have insisted that he continue resting and thus he will not lead the Cuban delegation at the summit."

In his absence, Raul Castro chaired the meeting in a rare appearance for one of Cuba's most powerful but least visible figures. But he was often upstaged by Chavez, whose banters and controversial speeches appeared to show him as Fidel Castro's heir apparent.

More than 40 heads of state and government and leaders from countries including North Korea are due to debate a document that backs Iran's right to nuclear technology and another sharply critical of Israel's recent war in Lebanon.

Leaders avoided most of those topics, using their speeches to salute the movement and press for greater cooperation between non-Western nations.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad praised Cuba's "outstanding role ... in advancing the objectives of our movement, the liberation struggle and the fight against imperialism." READ MORE

"There is a need to strengthen or revitalize our movement more than ever," he said, in a speech that did not mention Tehran's stand-off with the West over its nuclear policy.


Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said fighting terrorism must also be on the summit's agenda.

"It (the summit) cannot afford to equivocate on the subject of terrorism. A message must emanate from us that we are united in our desire and determination to find and eliminate the scourge of terrorism," Singh said in a speech.

Chavez quoted poetry and joked with Raul Castro, calling Fidel: "an example of resistance and dignity against the constant aggression from the north."

The Non-Aligned Movement, called a relic of the Cold War by critics, is trying to refine its role in a world where the United States is increasingly dominant, and unpopular among many Third World countries.

Even without Castro the summit offers Cuba a rare chance in the post-Cold War period to project itself on an international stage after more than 40 years of U.S. sanctions, drawing on its strong alliances with oil producers Venezuela and Iran.

A giant poster on Havana's waterfront showed U.S. President George W. Bush with the word 'murderer' below.

"The ... (summit) is more important to Cuba than to other countries because of Cuba's constant effort to demonstrate that it is not isolated diplomatically in spite of U.S. efforts," said Phil Peters of the U.S. Lexington Institute think tank.

Washington slammed Cuba's acting president on Friday and called for a referendum in Cuba on a transition to democracy.

"Virtually the entire hemisphere stands ready to welcome a democratic Cuba back into the inter-American fold," U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, a Cuban American, said in a speech at a Latin American economic conference in Miami.

The movement includes 116 nations and a wide range of agendas. Venezuela used the summit to lobby for votes to win a seat on the U.N. Security Council in the face of U.S. opposition and South African President Thabo Mbeki also used his speech to press for U.N. reform.

Singh and Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf were due to hold talks in Havana on Saturday, hoping to ease tensions after a year of recriminations over terror attacks and Kashmir.

(Additional reporting by Tom Brown in Miami and Anthony Boadle and Marc Frank in Havana)