"Working together for a free Cuba"



U.S. Official: Castro "Playing With Fire"

Mike Eckel
Associated Press
Tuesday, January 06, 2004

NEW YORK - The U.S. administration's point man on Latin America accused Fidel Castro on Tuesday of promoting "provocative" policies to destabilize democratic governments and warned the Cuban leader he was "playing with fire."

Roger Noriega, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, also singled out Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, calling on him to observe the rule of law in the run-up to a possible referendum on his presidency.

Speaking at a news conference following a speech at the Council of the Americas, Noriega accused Castro, whom he called "a broken-down, old dictator who doesn't cast much of a shadow," of sowing unrest in some countries in the region. He did not identify the countries.

"It should be very clear to Fidel Castro that his actions have caught the attention of Latin America leaders and that his actions to destabilize Latin America are increasingly provocative to the inter-American community," Noriega said.

"Those that continue in destabilizing democratically elected governments, interfering in the internal affairs of other governments, are playing with fire," he said.

Bush administration officials have expressed growing concern about ties between Castro and Chavez, who is a close friend of Castro and a vocal critic of U.S. policies. Chavez opponents are hoping to stage a referendum, possibly this summer, that would recall the leftist leader and lawmakers who support him.

U.S. officials told The Associated Press that Cuba and Venezuela are working together to oppose pro-American, democratic governments in the region with money, political indoctrination and training, such as in Ecuador and Uruguay. Venezuelan resources may have helped in the October ouster of Bolivia's elected, pro-American president, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, according to the officials, who declined to be named.

Venezuelan officials accuse the U.S. government of using slander and defamation to weaken their country. Venezuelan Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel demanded the United States provide proof that Venezuela helped finance the ouster of Sanchez de Lozada.

"If they have any evidence ... they should put it on the table so we can discuss it," Rangel told reporters in Caracas Tuesday. "What proof do they have of these statements?"

Noriega also expressed concern with some of Argentina's recent foreign policy decisions. He said the failure of Argentine Foreign Minister Rafael Bielsa to meet with Cuban dissidents when Bielsa visited Havana was "particularly disappointing."

Bielsa said he made no visit because his ministry had not received "a single concrete request" for such an encounter. However, the wives of several imprisoned dissidents said they requested meetings several times.

Noriega also urged Argentina's President Nestor Kirchner to stick to a $21 billion debt refinancing plan backed by the International Monetary Fund. Buenos Aires's financial standing has been battered by an economic implosion in December 2001 and massive $103 billion public debt default - the largest default ever by a country.

Noriega's comments came just days before a special summit meeting of Latin American leaders in Monterrey, Mexico, scheduled to begin Monday. Leaders from 34 Western Hemisphere countries, including the United States, Mexico Brazil and others, are expected to discuss promoting democracy, and reducing poverty among other topics, according to summit organizers.

Noriega said that the United States wants Latin American leaders to agree on deadlines for protecting property rights, fighting corruption and creating jobs.

He also said leaders should simplify regulations on remittances - money sent from immigrants and workers in the United States to their home countries - which he said should total some $30 billion this year.

Source: The Miami Herald.