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President Lula's Cuba Test

September 19, 2003

He's loved on Wall Street and beloved in South America's hinterlands. He's Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the Brazilian president who bragged Monday about how his country helped lead last weekend's revolt by developing nations against two-faced U.S., European and Japanese practices at the World Trade Organization meeting in Cancun, Mexico. Lula's also the politician who volunteered this week to help Colombia make peace among its warring internal factions, a goal that has eluded the country for decades. It's clear he wants a leadership role proportional to the size of his nation, South America's largest. The next week will show whether he is up to the job.

Lula arrives Sunday in New York to address the United Nations as it opens its 58th session. He'll then tour Mexico, and his schedule calls for him to go next to Havana. How will left-leaning Lula position himself there vis-a-vis Communist dictator Fidel Castro? Lula must show the world just how different, in substance and style, he is from the hemispheric dinosaur.

For starters, Lula was democratically elected in 2002 to a four-year term; Castro seized power 43 years ago and has ruled with an iron fist ever since. Lula, whom many feared because of his socialist past, has kept to an orthodox economic policy that has won him global praise; Castro has impoverished a once-prosperous country by imposing a Communist system discredited worldwide. Lula is covered by aggressive journalists from many free and independent media outlets; Castro dictates what he thinks is news to Granma, the puppet pamphlet that parades as a newspaper.

Beyond these marked differences, it will be up to Lula to define on this trip the gulf between Latin America's new and old left. If he desires real hemispheric stature, he must tell Castro that the times have passed him by and underscore just how much the region has embraced democracy. Lula can provide an example by trumpeting to the Cubans his efforts to improve human rights in Brazil. Most important, Lula should dramatize Castro's repression of his people. Lula should meet with relatives of Castro opposition members who were jailed recently for disagreeing with the regime. He could contrast Brazilian and Cuban religious freedom by saying a public prayer for would-be refugees shot by order of Castro after they tried to flee the island.

Will the world notice such actions? It did when Jimmy Carter visited Cuba last year and the former president and Nobel laureate pulled no punches in criticizing both the U.S. embargo and Castro's repression. If Lula can show outspoken, sensible leadership, that alone will be a huge contrast with Castro.

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