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Chile and Cuba inch towards a better relationship

Earlier this month, Michelle Bachelet became the first Chilean president to visit Cuba since 1972.

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet and Cuba's Fidel Castro. (Source: Presidencia de la Republica de Chile / Presidency of the Republic of Chile)

SANTIAGO — In the book-burning frenzy following the 1973 military coup that ousted Socialist President Salvador Allende, it is said that Chilean soldiers destroyed a book called "Cubism" in their rage against Castro's Cuba. Of course, it was a book was about artists, not bearded revolutionaries.

This month, Chile and Cuba shared another book-related event, when Chilean President Michelle Bachelet visited Cuba from Feb. 11 to Feb. 13 for the XVIII International Book Fair, of which Chile was the guest of honor this year. The event brought together the leaders of the two countries for the first time in 37 years.

But things soured even before Bachelet left the island.

One day after meeting with Bachelet, Fidel Castro wrote a column supporting Bolivia's longstanding demand for coastal lands it lost to Chile in a war more than a century ago. The column upset Chilean officials, who felt that Castro was meddling in Chile's affairs, a fact that they expressed to Cuban President Raul Castro (Fidel Castro's brother). Right-wing Chileans were up in arms, and accused Cuba of using Bachelet's visit for propaganda.

The outcry, however, will pass. Business and politics will remain.

Although not one of Cuba's closest friends — these days, Chile is regarded as more pro-U.S. than most of Latin America — Chile has openly supported Cuba's reincorporation to the Organization of American States (OAS), from which it was expelled in 1962. Chile was also pivotal to Cuba becoming a full member in the Rio Group last December.

This, Bachelet said during at a luncheon she gave for her Cuban hosts last week, reflects "the need to strengthen political agreement in Latin America and the Caribbean … We welcome Cuba, and hope that its incorporation may mark the beginning of a regular multilateral political dialogue in Latin America."

Before Bachelet, the last Chilean president to set foot on the island was Allende in 1972. One of his first foreign policy decisions after taking office in 1970 was to reestablish full diplomatic relations with Cuba, which had been severed in 1964 at the behest of the United States.

But when Allende was overthrown by the military in 1973, Chile once again cut all diplomatic ties with Cuba. It wasn't until the return to civilian rule in 1990 that relations were gradually restored. By 1995, full diplomatic relations had resumed and in 1999, the two countries signed an Economic Complementation Agreement.

Integrating Cuba into the international community will "undoubtedly" be a topic of conversation with U.S. President Barack Obama, Chilean Foreign Minister Alejandro Foxley has said. In January, Obama called Bachelet to invite her to Washington, and there may be an opportunity for the two leaders to meet at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago in April.

While in Cuba, Bachelet met with Raul and Fidel Castro and the archbishop of Havana. The two governments signed cooperation agreements in a host of areas, including biotechnology. The accords further political and economic ties that have become increasingly tight over the past two decades (among the agreements the countries have developed over the years are scholarships for 500 low-income Chileans to study at Cuba's Latin American School of Medicine).

Chile has consistently opposed the U.S. blockade of Cuba. "The blockade seriously affects the life conditions of the Cuban people," Bachelet said in Havana. She then appealed to Chilean companies to boost  trade with Cuba — which totaled $80 million last year — and find new ways to invest there. 

When Bachelet visited the island, top Chilean business leaders were more than happy to join her delegation. They came back satisfied. Business is business, no matter the politics. Indeed, some of the largest economic players in Chile, linked to the political right, maintain healthy commercial relations with Cuba.

"The Cold War is over," said Foxley, of the centrist Christian Democratic Party (CD), before embarking on the trip.

But if Foxley's own party is any indication, things aren't so simple in Chile when it comes to relations with Cuba.

The CD "recommended" that its members pull out of the delegation after the Chilean government said it would not meet with Cuban dissidents. Foxley was one of just four members of his party to go against the party line. Weeks before the trip, the CD joined forces with the right-wing opposition in Congress to approve an agreement calling on the Cuban government to free political prisoners and set a timetable for free multi-party elections.

Right-wing opposition parties also refused to accompany Bachelet, although, like the Christian Democrats, many of its members have enjoyed Cuban hospitality in the past. Former presidential candidate Joaquin Lavin, of the ultra-right UDI party, met with Fidel Castro on a trip to Cuba in 2002, in which he admired the country's health system. Many more spend their family vacations in Cuban beach resorts. None have had time to meet with Cuban dissidents.

This time, however, they all focused on Cuba's human rights record, and they expressed frustration at the government's announcement that the issue of human rights wouldn't be part of the official agenda during Bachelet's trip.

But at the end of the day, the relationship between the two countries is at its highest point since Chile's military dictatorship, said Fernando Garcia, political counselor of the Cuban Embassy in Santiago, Chile.

"There is a general resolve to reach cooperation agreements and exchange programs of mutual benefit for our countries," he told GlobalPost. "This happens in a context of renewed momentum for regional integration, especially in light of the economic crisis, when Latin America urgently needs to unite and cooperate with one another. This was the backdrop of President Bachelet's visit."

More GlobalPost dispatches from Chile:

An uncertain future

Rum rush

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/chile/090217/chile-and-cuba-inch-towards-better-relationship