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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Latin America Urges Democracy for Cuba

VINA DEL MAR, Chile -- Latin America's democratic leaders have issued their clearest collective call yet on the Western Hemisphere's lone non-elected regime, Cuba, to allow more political freedoms.


As expected, the leaders of 19 nations plus Spain and Portugal went through the motions of condemning the Helms-Burton law tightening the U.S. embargo on Cuba at an Ibero-American summit in Chile ending Monday.


But in a surprisingly strong statement, they issued a consensus view that no country can call itself a democracy without holding free and fair elections and allowing basic political freedoms.


Dubbed the Declaration of Vina del Mar, the statement said governments should let political parties operate freely, allow "open and transparent" debate and give public and periodic accountings of their actions to their citizens.


After three days of scrupulously avoiding any direct mention of Cuba, some finally admitted what this talk about elections and political freedoms was really referring to.


"The issue of Cuba was not treated in an explicit manner. But any observer realizes that it was treated implicitly in the declarations and deliberations," said Venezuelan President Rafael Caldera.


Chilean host and President Eduardo Frei, who set the tone in his opening speech by saying only electoral democracies were "legitimate," called the Vina del Mar statement the most significant ever adopted at an Ibero-American summit, an annual event since 1991.


"There is no pressure on Cuba. There are differences of opinion about it, and those have been expressed," said one foreign minister.


As if to signal respect for the difference of opinions, Cuban leader Fidel Castro signed the declaration along with the other leaders at the summit's final session.


But in the final hours, he heard a polite but steady drumbeat of calls for reform to the political system he has led since he overthrew dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959.


"Democracy means the same thing for everyone in the whole world and that includes Cuba," said Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres.


Argentine President Carlos Menem compared Castro unfavorably to former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, saying the latter had allowed Chile to return to democracy while Castro "has led Cuba for 37 years."


Such a comparison would have drawn scorn and shock from Latin American leaders only a few years ago.


"Some of the presidents wanted to express themselves on Cuba. There was a feeling that the best place to do that was in their individual statements," said the foreign minister.