VERACRUZ, Mexico – Cuban President Raúl Castro kept a summit of Latin American, Spanish and Portuguese leaders wondering if he would show up until the last moment Tuesday, only to send his deputy instead.
Castro has never attended an Ibero-American summit since succeeding his brother Fidel in 2006, but Spain made a special invitation for him to come this time at the Mexican port of Veracruz.
He was not the only big name to shun the two-day talks, which end later Tuesday. The left-leaning leaders of Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela also sent deputies.
The Ibero-American summit has struggled to fill seats as Latin Americans have formed various trade and diplomatic blocs in recent years.
But Mexican officials had hoped as late as Monday that Castro would make the short flight over the Gulf of Mexico, with a deputy foreign minister saying he was “doing everything possible to come to this summit.”
Rumors swirled that the communist leader would come, with a major Mexican newspaper wrongly announcing his arrival on its website.
In the end, it was his vice president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, who flew in.
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 José Manuel García-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, however, hosted his own summit in Havana on Monday for Caribbean Community (CARICOM) leaders.
“The president was going to come but he was with Caribbean colleagues who decided to spend more days in Cuba, so he was unable to come,” García-Margallo told reporters.
“Believe me, what’s important is not the absences,” he said, adding that he learned Castro would be absent on Tuesday.
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 Sánchez Cerén fell ill after arriving and missed the first day.
The Veracruz summit focused 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.
But it is the last annual Ibero-American meeting, since member countries have decided to meet every two years from now on.
“We wanted to renew the Ibero-American relation. Is it easy? It’s not easy,” García-Margallo said.
“I won’t hide the fact that there are different visions of the world and that this happens every time there is a meeting of this type,” he said.
“What summits won’t do is … make the Holy Spirit appear and make differences disappear, that I become [socialist] Bolivarian and [Venezuelan President Nicolás] Maduro become Christian-Democrat. These things don’t happen.”