ROME—800 million people on the planet are undernourished. To address the crisis, the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has convened a summit of world leaders. The meeting begins here Nov. 13 and will conclude Nov. 17 with heads of state signing a joint declaration that organizers hope will express a firm commitment to develop a plan of action that will guarantee food for everyone.

Preparatory sessions underscored the difficulties that often mark major U.N. summits. The asof-yet unsigned declaration features a host of bracketed sections, whose context has yet to be agreed upon. Thus far, it seems, the only consensus is on the proportion and tragedy of the hunger problem. “We consider it intolerable,”reads the draft, “that more than 800 million persons in the whole world, and especially in the developing countries, do not have sufficient food to satisfy their basic nutritional needs.”

One contested passage reads: “[T]he conflicts, corruption and degradation of the environment also contribute considerably to food insecurity.”Delegations from developed nations— including the United States—have objected to a proposal “to eliminate the unilateral application of economic and commercial measures by one state against another that affect the free flow of international trade and endanger food security.”

As at previous U.N. meetings, sharp disagreement about demography and world population growth will figure prominently at the summit. The so-called “group of 77”(which actually includes 130 countries today) and the Holy See have opposed proposals by the European Union and the United States to resort to “demographic strategies”to solve the food crisis. Their opposition hinges on the FAO's assertion that it is possible to produce enough food to feed all of humanity. The real problem, some experts insist, lies in distribution. Some proposals from richer nations also violate the constitutions of nations that guarantee parents' rights to determine the number of children they will have. Western initiatives have also been opposed by Japan, which retracted its support after noting a lack of “cultural sensitivity”in the proposed measures.

Some observers worry that the disagreements will obscure the overarching purpose for the gathering. In an attempt to keep the summit focused on hunger, John Paul II has asked Cor Unum, the pontifical council that coordinates the Church's charitable work (including Caritas), to draw up guidelines to avoid deadlock. A document was expected to be issued a week before the summit.

Archbishop Paul Josef Cordes, recently appointed president of Cor Unum, told the Register that the Vatican document will appeal to all believers to tackle the problems of hunger and poverty head-on. “People are accustomed to dealing with the problem of hunger as if it were a subject that politicians and economists have to solve,”the archbishop said. “In this way we shake off any responsibility. [But] putting the blame on others does not solve the problem. The document wants to overcome the attitude of those who say, ‘I have nothing to do with this.'”

“For Catholics,”he added, “the action of charity [is] the real test of the Church's credibility and [that] of her message.”

The Vatican document will focus on the concept of “a fair price”as the solution to the food distribution problem. A “fair price,”says the text, “is applied when the free market is not left adrift but is based on social justice, that is, when all human relations are based on the rights and duties of the person.”

Archbishop Cordes stressed that the Christian conscience demands that economic relations respond to the just demands of others; that they will have to take into consideration the right to fair play, compelling nations to undertake trade relations only with those partners who do not belittle the dignity of the working human person.

According to the U.N. data as of 1993, 34,000 children die from hunger every day. The FAO summit is drawing extra attention because of Fidel Castro's inclusion among the heads of state who will be present in Rome. It would be the first time that the Cuban leader, in his capacity as “maximum leader,”would set foot in Italy. Heads of state who visit Rome, especially for the first time, customarily pay a visit to the Pope, and all indications are that a Castro visit would be no different.

Recently, the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs has made overtures to encourage better relations with the Holy See. The minister of foreign affairs of the Vatican, Archbishop Jean Louis Tauran, spent four days in Cuba late last month, discussing Fidel Castro's Roman visit and a papal visit to Cuba next year. Last year, in an interview with CNN, Castro expressed his “high consideration of”and “esteem for”John Paul II, whom he labeled as “one of the most brilliant and extraordinary figures that the Church has had in the last centuries.”He also said that “he was in agreement with [John Paul II] in many aspects.”

Despite 30 years of persecution, Catholicism in Cuba is currently experiencing rapid growth. There were just 7,000 baptisms in 1971 but 34,000 last year. And religious marriages are starting to become a custom. Nevertheless, the Castro regime continues to bar the Church from opening schools or to assure a presence in the media, alongside other restrictions. Last Christmas the Communist Party even prohibited nativity scenes.

A Pope-Castro meeting would certainly be another step toward warmer relations, but whether the encounter will actually take place remains to be seen. The Cuban strongman never confirms his diplomatic commitments until the last minute.

Jesus Colina is based in Rome.