Cuban leader Fidel Castro, in a taped television interview with Diego Maradona, told Argentine viewers that he welcomed the Argentine soccer legend's plans to take part in anti-American protests at the upcoming Summit of the Americas.
Maradona, who traveled last week to Cuba to conduct the two-part interview for broadcast on his popular weekly talk show, has said he would ride in a celebrity protest train taking opponents of U.S. President George W. Bush from Buenos Aires to the Argentine resort of Mar del Plata for the summit which opens Thursday.
Asked about the fourth Summit of the Americas, scheduled to be attended by Bush and 34 other democratic heads of state, Castro told Maradona in the interview broadcast Monday night that the U.S. has a "very pestilent name" and welcomed efforts by protesters to orchestrate dissent against Bush.
"We have struggled for various years" against the U.S., said Castro. As for Maradona, the Cuban president added: "I'm happy that you are going to be there" in the protests against Bush.
Maradona used his latest talk show appearance to urge Argentines to support planned protests of the Nov. 3-4 summit. Bush opponents vowed to gather thousands of anti-U.S. demonstrators in Mar del Plata for a peaceful citywide march Friday.
The upcoming summit at Mar del Plata, a popular summer resort 230 miles (370 kilometers) south of Buenos Aires, has sparked worries about protests and led to heavy security precautions, as with past summits. As of Monday, some 10,000 police and security forces had been deployed in the city.
The summit is to be the venue for talks on free trade, job creation and other issues including bolstering democracy in the hemisphere. In the interview, Castro predicted that U.S. efforts to lower trade barriers across the Americas, an ambitious proposal called the Free Trade Area of the Americas, would ultimately fail.
Free trade efforts have lost steam since the first Summit of the Americas in 1994 gave a big push for establishing FTAA by early this century from Alaska to Argentina.
"FTAA is buried," Castro predicted, without elaborating.
Castro has frequently chided U.S. efforts to organize the proposed trade group, saying it constituted an effort by the United States to "annex" Latin American nations.
He wore his trademark khaki uniform for the Spanish-language interview, which Maradona playfully closed by heading a soccer ball he gave Castro as a parting gift.
Argentine officials said they will have sufficient police forces on hand to counter any violent protests like those at past summits.
While the heads of state are meeting at a Mar del Plata luxury hotel at the center of the security corridor, various groups are planning protests in the city at the third "Summit of the People of the Americas" to be held from Nov. 1-5.
Speaking to local reporters, Maradona has cited the U.S. invasion of Iraq as one reason he opposes the Bush visit.
"No to Bush!" Maradona declared. "We're going to say it in the streets: fellow Argentines, we will be waiting for you at the march." Maradona's interview with the Cuban leader was broadcast in Argentina on his talk show called "La Noche del 10", Spanish for "The Night of 10", referring to his No. 10 soccer jersey. Maradona began the show in August as he made a return to the public eye. He retired from soccer in 1997 at a time he was battling cocaine addiction and other grave health problems. Now 45, he has lost much weight after recent stomach stapling surgery in Colombia, reports the AP. I.L.