Clinton breaks taboo to shake Castro's hand
FROM JAMES BONE IN NEW YORK
BILL CLINTON has broken a decades-old taboo and become the first
United States President to shake hands
with Fidel Castro, Cuba's revolutionary leader.
The historic gesture, sure to provoke controversy in America,
took place during a fleeting encounter on
Wednesday in a crowd of other leaders at the United Nations summit in New York.
UN sources say the meeting happened as about 150 presidents,
princes and prime ministers ambled from a
luncheon thrown by Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General, into the nearby Trusteeship Council
for a "class photo".
"It's all the buzz," said one UN official. "As they went from
lunch to the photo there was a choke point and Castro
and Clinton moved gradually together and they shook hands and exchanged a few words."
A US official confirmed the meeting and said: "Castro approached
him [Clinton] at the end of the lunch and they
just exchanged just a sentence or two."
Mr Clinton told Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, about the encounter
when the two met for a drink at the
Waldorf-Astoria hotel later on Wednesday evening.
Speculation was rife that the meeting had been carefully scripted
following Mr Clinton's decision to please Cuba
by sending home the "boat child" Elián González, who was the subject of a bitter custody battle after being rescued
from a shipwreck that killed his mother as she fled their Communist homeland.
"He wouldn't do it accidentally," said one Western official.
"There may be some people who Clinton just bear-hugs
anyway, but I think he would recognise Castro."
According to one version, the encounter was almost disrupted
by Señor Castro's friend, President Chavez of
Venezuela, who was trying to meet Mr Clinton himself.
As Señor Chavez approched, another leader kept him away.
"Chavez made a lunge for Clinton just as Clinton
and Castro were coming together and someone threw a bodycheck to prevent him interfering," the UN source
Another diplomatic source confirmed that Señor Castro
took the initiative. "Clinton and Castro were watching
each other through the sides of their eyes," he said. "Castro started to move toward Clinton and Clinton
remained there. Chavez was about to be the next one to greet Clinton and Fidel cut across him."
The greeting, which took place out of view of reporters while
the assembled leaders were not accompanied by
aides or bodyguards, suggests that Mr Clinton intends a warming of relations with Cuba to be one of the legacies
of his presidency.
As well as returning Elián González, the Clinton
Administration has been pushing for a relaxation of the
trade embargo imposed on Cuba after Señor Castro seized power in 1959.
Direct telephone links have been restored between the two countries,
and the House of Representatives recently
passed a measure easing restrictions on exporting food and medicine to Cuba.
The rapprochement is fraught with political dangers for Vice-President
Al Gore's presidential campaign,
particularly in the key state of Florida. The vociferous Cuban exile community there fears that Mr Gore will
further relax sanctions if he is elected, while the Republican manifesto lays down stringent conditions on
any easing of the embargo and calls for "active American support for Cuban dissidents".