Is Big Apple Big Enough for Clinton and Castro?

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Al Gore may have finally overcome his Bill Clinton problem, but can Clinton overcome his Fidel Castro problem? That's the question on the minds of most observers at Wednesday's opening session of the United Nations Millennium Summit in New York, which will be attended by both men. During Castro's last visit to a U.N. event in 1995, U.S. officials naturally snubbed him and left him off the guest list for President Clinton's gala event hosting all the world leaders present. But the wily Cuban strongman, who has outlasted eight U.S. presidents, wasn't about to sulk off to a movie. He simply went back to the same Harlem church he'd addressed in the early '60s for an uproarious pep rally that drew most of the press corps (and the headlines) away from the Clinton event.

Well, Castro's back in town, and President Clinton is hosting a reception for dignitaries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Wednesday night, but nobody's expecting the guest list to include the bearded one. But Castro is a big man, and can't easily be ignored, so the big question that has the press corps buzzing is "What will Fidel do next?" He blew into Manhattan at midday on Tuesday and went straight into meetings with China's President Jiang Zemin and with Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed. Later that night, he met some unspecified American "friends" at Cuba's U.N. mission. In the chaotic swirl of some 700 bilateral meetings around the city over the next two days, nobody knows quite what Castro is planning for the night of Clinton's gala. He is slated to attend an Upper West Side church service for invited guests only on Friday; that, too, could turn out to be a traffic-stopper, given the fact that thousands of Cuban-Americans still smarting from their defeat over Elian Gonzalez will relish the opportunity to vent their rage.

Castro's hobnobbing with the likes of Jiang and Mahathir (both of whom, like many other world leaders, have their own reasons for sticking it to Clinton in his own backyard) is irritating to Washington, to say the least. After all, according to the U.S. script, the Cuban leader is a polecat who should be shunned rather than feted by Washington's primary Asian trading partner. But these days, fewer and fewer countries are reading off Washington's script in the conduct of international affairs, least of all when it comes to Cuba. Which makes Castro's presence in New York that much more difficult for the U.S. to manage. In fact, more than anything it's Washington's efforts to simply pretend he isn't here that gives Castro carte blanche to grab the front page.