It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like 1980

They were not the headlines the Bush administration wanted. FIDEL SECUDE LA CUMBRE shouted the Mexican newspaper Milenio on Friday. FIDEL SHAKES UP THE SUMMIT. Bush had come to the United Nations antipoverty summit here in Monterrey, Mexico, hoping to avoid wrangling with Cuba's Fidel Castro. "It won't surprise you that we're not meeting with Castro," national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice told reporters before leaving Washington.

When asked why Rice seemed so snippy, Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said today: "That's a topic on which we snip." Not a "demi snip" or a "diplo snip" but a "full-throttle snip," he said. The administration had made it plain that they didn't want Bush to have to even be in the same room as Castro. There were plans for the U.S. delegation to protest his dictatorship by leaving their seats when Castro gave his speech Thursday.

Instead, it was Fidel Castro who made the most dramatic exit. Castro wore fatigues and tennis shoes to the podium. In the past, when he's wanted to be conciliatory, he's donned a business suit. He was clearly in a fiery mood. He gave a passionate five-minute speech in which he called the world economy "a huge casino." He condemned the "plundering and exploitation" of the "existing economic order." Then, he said he was leaving the conference and returning to Cuba that very afternoon because of "a special situation created by my participation in this summit." And with that, he was gone.

Behind him he left a swirl of speculation that the U.S. had pressured the Mexican government to pressure Castro to leave so that he would not cross paths with Bush, who addressed the conference today. "There was no pressure, influence, gesture, request, suggestion or insinuation," said Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda. But the Cubans stoked the controversy. "The reasons Fidel Castro returned are not in Cuba," said Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque. Others said it was a beef Castro had with Castaneda. U.S. officials claimed to have no knowledge of why Castro left. Fleischer said he had "no knowledge" about it. They weren't even sure he was coming until the last minute. "This is the way he does it," one U.S. official said, dismissing the whole thing as an attention-getter. "It's a shame because there is so much going on at the conference."

The hullabaloo over Castro draws old battle lines. For all the talk of a new era in our relations with Latin America, it sometimes feels like we've instead stepped back in time. Our relationship with Cuba, the last undemocratic country in the region, is circa 1980. While the Clinton administration started to gradually open up on Cuba, the Bush administration has taken a hard line on the U.S. embargo. And it's not budging. (Nor can it; Jeb Bush is up for reelection for governor of Florida, and he's counting on the Miami Cuban vote.)

The man that Bush appointed (while Congress was out) to head the State Department's Latin American affairs, Otto Reich, is a staunch anti-Castro figure. Not only is he of Cuban descent, he has been an anti-leftist warrior in the region for decades. During the 1980s, when the U.S. was covertly involved in various Central American wars, Reich was a staunch supporter of Nicaragua's contras--who were waging war with U.S. support against the country's socialist government. When it comes to Marxist rebel groups like Colombia's FARC, Reich is unequivocal in calling them illegitimate terrorists.

Tomorrow, Saturday, we head for Peru where terrorism will be on the mind. Bush is meeting there with Andean leaders (though Venezuela's demagogic Hugo Chavez is not invited). Two days ago, a bomb exploded a few blocks from the U.S. embassy in Lima. No one has claimed credit for the bombing, but U.S. intelligence points to the Maoist group, the Shining Path. The State Department has issued a travel advisory, telling U.S. citizens to stay away and those there to leave.

Of course, it's Colombia that has the biggest problems. In addition to the FARC, there are two other known terrorist groups. Just how far Bush is willing to go to fight terrorism in the region is unclear. There has always been a blurring of the lines between fighting drugs and fighting terrorism. That line seems to be blurring further. Most of these groups traffic drugs to raise money.

When Bush gave his big address to Congress on Sept. 20 he talked about going after terrorists everywhere. Did that mean the IRA? FARC? some wanted to know. Since 9-11, the Bush administration has been trying to bulk up military aid for Colombia to fight both drugs and, increasingly, terrorism. The Andean region is the third-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, behind Israel and Egypt. That aid includes "security funds" to help fight terrorism.

But while the administration has put the FARC on its list of terrorist groups, one White House aide explains its members are not "global terrorists." When Bush was asked by a Mexican journalist this week if we'd soon see U.S. troops on the ground in Colombia, he said: "No, no, no, no." I guess that means no.