Castro and Lula: Hugs, deals and tears

Brazilian President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva's recent assertion that he would not interfere in Cuba's internal affairs has infuriated relatives and friends of Cuban dissidents and human rights campaigners.

Most of the Brazilian press seems convinced, however, that the all-important issue of human rights in Cuba will eventually be discussed between Lula and the island's President Fidel Castro behind closed doors.
The two mens' recent re-encounter was filled with niceties and emotion.

Fidel Castro, 77, in the first of several breaks of protocol, went to Havana's Jose Marti international airport and received his old and close personal friend "Lula", 57, with a warm hug at the foot of the plane's steps.

Thus, Lula's official two-day visit to the controversial communist Carribean island began.


Soon after, on receiving another hug from Castro at the Revolution Palace, Lula's Chief of Staff, José Dirceu, simply couldn't contain his tears.

Dirceu lived exiled in Cuba from 1969 to 1974, after having been exchanged with 14 other prisoners for American ambassador, Charles Burke Elbrick, who had been kidnapped by a leftist guerrilla group.

Reportedly, Cuban authorities wanted to give Lula a memorable reception that would include a popular parade. Lula, however, whose relationship has been accused of being "too cosy" with the Cuban leader, turned down the offer with an eye to maintaining cordial relations with the United States, which Brazil does not want to antagonise.

After all, the US continues to be Brazil's largest trade partner. During this week-long overseas trip, however, the Brazilian President lambasted the Bush administration several times, accusing the American President of dividing the UN with the Iraq war and defending free trade for other nations while doing the opposite at home.

Lula's visit to Cuba was presented as a way for the two countries to strengthen their commercial ties.

Lula stressed that he wished to be seen not as "Fidel Castro's friend" whilst in Havana, but as the visiting Brazilian chief of state. The Brazilian President is expected to offer a total of US$400m in loans to Cuba's beleaguered economy, which is kept afloat almost entirely by "white gold" aka tourism.

Besides the tabled loan, some 50 top Brazilian executives from farming, oil exploration and hotel industries are reportedly ready to close deals with Cuba.

The whole presidential retinue comprises about 100 people, including entrepreneurs, ministers and presidential aides. Several are members of Lula's cabinet. Besides José Dirceu, the President also brought along key ministers from his cabinet, including Antônio Palocci of Finance, Luiz Dulci of the General Secretariat, José Graziano of Food Safety, José Fritsh of Fishing, Agnelo Queiroz of Sports (he belongs to the Communist Party of Brazil) and Humberto Costa of health.

The trip has already resulted in 12 co-operation pacts between the two countries' capitals, Havana and Brasília. Among them are the re-negotiation of Cuba's US$43m loan owed to Banco do Brasil, a new US$7m loan for the production of ethanol on the island and the transfer to Brazil of Cuban technology for the production of blood by-products and "Interferon": a drug used in the treatment of Hepatitis C and cancer.

Petrobras, the Brazilian state-owned oil company, which has already opened an office in Havana, is also expected to look for oil in two Gulf of Mexico areas, off the Cuban coast.

Lula's assertion that he will not interfere in Cuba's internal affairs has infuriated relatives and friends of Cuban dissidents who were jailed earlier this year after being sentenced to lengthy prison terms.

Most of the Brazilian press seems convinced, however, that behind closed doors the theme of human rights will inevitably be discussed between the two leaders. For some, Lula is the only world leader to whom Castro will lend his ear to in the current political environment.

Dirceu's detention

It is not hard to understand why Lula's chief of staff, José Dirceu, got emotional and cried when he was embraced by Fidel Castro.

Dirceu was the president of UNE (União Nacional dos Estudantes—National Union of Students) on October 1968, when he was imprisoned by the military government with other student leaders while trying to clandestinely hold the 30th UNE Congress.

Dirceu would stay almost one year in prison before being sent to Cuba as part of the bargain to save ambassador Elbrick's life.

In Cuba, Dirceu underwent plastic surgery which changed the appearance of his nose and cheeks and allowed him to go back to Brazil where he lived as Carlos Henrique Gouveia de Mello from 1974 to 1979, the year in which the military government offered amnesty to political criminals.

Before re-adopting his former persona, Dirceu went back to Cuba to undo the nose and cheek jobs and then re-entered the country as if he were just returning from a 10-year exile.

During his years in Cuba, the man who would become the power behind the throne of the Lula administration, worked, studied and learned guerrilla tactics.