Cuban President Raul Castro shunned a summit of Latin America, Spanish and Portuguese leaders on Tuesday, shrugging off an invitation by Madrid to attend the gathering for the first time.
The communist leader waited until the last moment to indicate whether he would come to the 22-nation Ibero-American summit in Mexico’s eastern port of Veracruz, which ends Tuesday.
In the end, it was his vice president, Miguel Diaz-Canel, who flew in, Mexican officials and Cuba’s Prensa Latina news agency said.
Castro has never attended an Ibero-American summit since taking over duties from his brother Fidel in 2006, when the veteran leader underwent surgery.
Fidel Castro had already stopped attending the forum after a plot to assassinate him was uncovered at the 2000 summit in Panama.
But Spain’s conservative government sent Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo to Cuba last month to improve ties with Havana and convince Castro to attend the summit, the first for the new King Felipe VI.
Castro hosted his own summit in Havana on Monday for Caribbean Community (CARICOM)leaders.
Nevertheless, Mexican deputy foreign minister Vanessa Rubio said as late as Monday that Castro was “doing everything possible to come to this summit.”
– Waning summit –
The Ibero-American summit has been drawing fewer leaders over the years, with only 11 showing up at last year’s gathering in Panama.
This year’s event was billed as the summit of “renewal,” attracting 16 leaders this time, though Salvadoran President Salvador Sanchez Ceren fell ill after arriving and missed the first day.
But it is the last annual meeting, since member countries have decided to meet every two years from now on.
Apart from Castro, the leaders of South American heavyweights Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela stayed home. Fellow leftist leaders in Nicaragua and Bolivia also balked.
The Veracruz summit is focusing on boosting education, innovation and culture to spur growth in the region, which includes countries of the former Portuguese and Spanish empires.
Latin America is forecast to endure its lowest growth rate in five years in 2014, between one and 1.5 percent, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and a UN agency.
“It is urgent for Latin American countries to undertake a new wave of structural reforms” in order to “build more sustainable and inclusive economies,” OECD Secretary General Angel Gurria told reporters.
The talks come as Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto faces the biggest challenge of his presidency, with a wave of protests over the presumed massacre of 43 college students.
Prosecutors confirmed over the weekend that one of the 43 missing students was among charred remains found in a landfill and nearby river in Guerrero state.