MEXICO CITY -- Taking her fight on behalf of children living in poverty to the international level, Mexico's first lady invited her counterparts from across the Americas -- including first lady Laura Bush and Canada's Aline Chretien -- to help her look for ways to alleviate poverty.
The 11th Conference of Spouses of Heads of State and Government was to open Wednesday with 23 of the hemisphere's 35 first ladies attending.
Cuba had planned to send Vilma Espin Guillois, wife of Fidel Castro's younger brother, Defense Minister Raul Castro. Espin was an active participant in the 1950s revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power.
But at the last minute, she was replaced by Maria Yolanda Ferrer, secretary general of the Federation of Cuban Woman. The change was not explained.
In March, Mexican President Vicente Fox asked Fidel Castro to depart early from a presidential summit in northern Mexico to avoid crossing paths with President Bush. An offended Castro later released tapes of the private conversation with Fox, straining relations between the two countries.
President Bush has been steadfast in his criticism of Castro, blaming Cuba for thwarting the war against terrorism, refusing to ease U.S. economic sanctions in place for more than 40 years, and opposing efforts to lift a ban on American travel to the communist island.
The goal of the conference of first ladies is to share experiences and discuss ways to help children and ease poverty.
Mexican first lady Martha Sahagun de Fox said Mexico's conference would stand out from previous summits in two ways: nonprofit organizations and civilian experts have been asked to participate, and each country will present a specific anti-poverty program whose success can be measured over time.
In Mexico's case, that program is "An Even Start in Life," a project recently launched by Mexico's Department of Health that seeks to lower mortality rates of pregnant women, women in childbirth, and of children younger than age 2.