Clinton and Castro meet and chat at New York UN summit

 

Despite a diplomatic breach between their two countries that has lasted four decades, President Clinton and Cuba's President Castro shook hands and chatted briefly during a chance meeting at United Nations headquarters, according to UN sources.

They had just attended a lunch for the world leaders assembled at the Millennium Summit and were walking towards a conference room for a group photograph. The two men were caught up in a crush of dignitaries during which there was "a handshake and an exchange of words". A US official told Reuters that they had exchanged "just a sentence or two". However, the White House press secretary, Mr Joe Lockhart, later denied that any handshake had taken place.

In his address to the summit, the Cuban President sharply criticised the three dozen most wealthy nations of the world, especially the US, and accused them of monopolising power at the expense of their poorer neighbours. He decried the poverty afflicting the vast majority of the globe and said rich nations were using their power "to make us poorer, more exploited and more dependent". Inequalities in wealth were at the root of the world's conflicts, he said.

"Current underdevelopment and poverty have resulted from conquest, colonisation, slavery and plundering in most countries of the planet by the colonial powers," Mr Castro said. Wealthy nations were morally obliged to "compensate our nations for the damages caused throughout centuries."

The Cuban leader also complained that a radical reform of the UN to make it more democratic was not being discussed. He noted that when the world body was formed more than a half century ago there were far fewer independent nations.

He attacked the current UN system in which the five veto-holding members of the Security Council -- the US, Russia, China, Britain and France - have overwhelming power while the rest of the member-states have little. The UN system envisioned by Castro would take away the vetoes and make the General Assembly pre-eminent over the Security Council in running UN affairs.

But despite the gravity of his theme, the Cuban leader brought a note of humour to the proceedings. There had been some speculation about his willingness and capacity to abide by the rule limiting speeches to five minutes each, since he has been known to speak for as long as eight hours at a time. When he stepped to the podium - wearing a black suit rather than the olive green uniform he wears at home - he covered the speaker's warning light with a white handkerchief, bringing a round of laughter from the audience of political leaders. However, he adhered to the timelimit and removed the handkerchief when he was finished.

Meanwhile, tape recordings issued by the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston showed that, at the time of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, the US president and his advisers discussed under what conditions US troops could be sent to the Caribbean island. Kennedy, meeting with advisers in the Oval Office and the Cabinet Room at the White House, said he would invade if the Soviet Union refused to remove all of its nuclear weapons. The president also considered invading Cuba if there was a "major upheaval" - a civil war - on the island, or if Mr Castro threatened his neighbours, the Boston Herald reported.

A "Summit within the Summit" was arranged for the 15 UN Security Council members yesterday to agree on broad peacekeeping principles, with special emphasis on Africa. However the final resolution to be adopted was somewhat vague on specifics, including how a reorganised UN peacekeeping operation would be financed.

The US owes the world body $1.7 billion, most of it for past and current peacekeeping operations. A UN-commissioned report in August recommended the creation of a new peacekeeping structure, including more commanders ready to organise operations quickly, and troops on standby for action.

It has emerged that the Russian President, Mr Vladimir Putin, swapped speaking slots with the President of Cyprus, Mr Glafkos Clerides, so that he could give his address on Wednesday morning, during the same period as Mr Clinton, Mr Blair, Mr Jacques Chirac and China's President Mr Jiang Zemin, Israel's President Barak, the Taoiseach and others.

The main ancillary event this week has been the Middle East peace talks in New York. Mediators took a break for reflection yesterday after President Clinton failed to bridge the gap between Israeli and Palestinian leaders over Jerusalem. The President told reporters he had scheduled no new meetings with the Israeli Prime Minister or the Palestinian President, Mr Yasser Arafat, and may not see them again while they are in New York for the Millennium Summit.

"They both very much want an agreement and they understand they have a limited time in which to achieve it. And we discussed a whole range of things in terms of where we were and where we are going," Mr Clinton said yesterday.