SANTIAGO, Chile -- Cuban leader Raúl Castro landed in Chile on Friday to take center stage at a meeting of Latin American and European leaders but his visit will likely be overshadowed by Cuba’s human rights record and a controversy over whether his regime is harboring terrorists involved in a decades-old political assassination.
On Thursday, more than 50 representatives of the Independent Democratic Union (UDI), the largest and most conservative party in the Chilean government, demonstrated outside the Cuban embassy and attempted to deliver a letter of protest to the embassy, but its gates remained shut.
The UDI has a long-standing score to settle with the Castro regime. The organization accuses Cuba of harboring at least four Chileans charged in connection with the assassination of Jaime Guzmán, a founder of the party and its guiding light. Guzmán, a Chilean senator, was shot and killed on April 1, 1991, as he left Santiago’s Catholic University.
His murder shocked Chile and threatened to overturn its fragile democracy. The country had returned to civilian rule just a year earlier after 17 years of military dictatorship.
Two members of the extreme-left Manuel Rodríguez Patriotic Front (FPMR) were arrested, tried and sentenced to life in prison for their roles in Guzmán’s murder. But in 1996, they staged a daring jailbreak.
One of escapees, Mauricio Hernández Norambuena, turned up in Brazil six years later where he was arrested for his part in the kidnapping of a businessman. He remains in a Brazilian prison, despite efforts by the Chileans to extradite him. The UDI believes the other fugitive, Ricardo Palma Salamanca, might be in Cuba along with four other FPMR members involved in Guzmán’s murder. The party has repeatedly sought information about them but the Castro regime has ignored their requests.
The UDI has compiled a dossier of evidence against the suspects and passed it to Chile’s President Sebastián Piñera, who has promised to raise the issue with Castro during the CELAC-EU summit of Latin American and European Union leaders this weekend.
“We’re going to make every effort to talk to the Cuban authorities to ask for as much cooperation as possible to ensure that these people, who may have been involved [in Guzmán’s murder], are brought to justice,” Chilean Foreign Minister Alfredo Moreno told reporters.
Government spokeswoman Cecilia Pérez said Guzmán’s murder was an issue for the entire country, not just the UDI, while Melero said the Cuban embassy’s refusal to accept the party’s letter was indicative of the Castro regime’s disregard for freedom of expression.
“This is the lack of dialogue of the Cuban regime, that has once again refused to cooperate with the courts of law,” he said.
The Chilean Communist Party accused the UDI of political opportunism and double standards, saying it had done nothing to champion the human rights of Chileans persecuted by General Augusto Pinochet’s 1973-1990 military regime, which Guzmán supported.
Castro is not only attending the summit — he is due to assume the presidency at the end of the meeting. Observers both in Chile and Florida criticized the decision to make Castro the next president of CELAC and blasted Cuba’s human rights record.
“I understand that CELAC counts the defense of democracy and human rights among its objectives,” Jorge Jaraquemada, head of the Jaime Guzmán Foundation, told The Miami Herald. “It seems a little contradictory that a Marxist dictatorship that’s been in power for 54 years should preside over an organization with those kinds of objectives.”
U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, said in a statement that it was “shameful that democratically elected leaders would share a forum with a murderous tyrant.”
“Latin American leaders claim to support democracy but yet fail to condemn the Castro dictatorship for not allowing free, fair, and transparent elections in Cuba after 50-plus years of brutal oppression,” she said.
Castro arrived shortly after 6 p.m. local time amid tight security. A police guard has been set up outside the Cuban embassy and will remain in place until Monday.
He is among about 40 heads of state from 60 countries attending the summit. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy are also be in Santiago, along with most of the leaders of Latin America and some Caribbean countries.
The summit is likely to be dominated by economics and trade, given the eurozone’s current woes and the importance of the EU as an investor in Latin America. The bloc accounts for 43 percent of all direct foreign investment in the region — that is more than it invests in China, India and Russia combined.
This year promises to be key for EU-Latin American trade. Until now, only Chile and Mexico have signed Free Trade Agreements with the EU but before the end of 2013, they should be joined by Colombia, Peru and Central America.
Aside from the controversy over the Guzmán murder, Castro will likely be pressed for details of the health of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. He has not been seen in public since undergoing treatment for cancer in Cuba last month.