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Will Mexico Prove its Independence or Defer to Washington’s Confrontational Havana Policies?

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“Washington Unmakes Guatemala, 1954”
By COHA Research Fellow Matthew Ward

  • Mexican-Cuban diplomatic relations fully restored with the reinstatement of ambassadors on July 26.
  • Ties between the two Latin American nations have traditionally been characterized as close but cautious, but Mexico suspended diplomatic ties with Havana in May of this year.
  • Mexico cannot expect to court the U.S. while simultaneously regaining its former role as a regional leader and interlocutor for Latin American issues in Washington.
  • Mexico’s own troubled human rights record, which features far more high-visibility murders than Cuba’s record ever did, leaves little room for Fox to pontificate on Havana’s infractions.
  • In coming years, Fox’s stance on Cuba will affect Mexico’s reputation and the qualification of its sovereignty, as well as the way that the rest of Latin America views its regional solidarity.
  • After a protracted fracas that included salvos of barbed language loosed by each side, the shattered bilateral relations between Mexico and Cuba may yet be repaired, as both countries reinstated their ambassadors on July 26. The exchange of insults and accusations over Mexico’s alleged pandering to the United States and Cuba’s poor human rights record was in danger of becoming a lasting rift. The debate reached a fevered pitch when Castro announced in a May 1 speech that Mexico’s influence in the world had “turned into ashes.” Mexican president Vicente Fox responded by expelling Cuba’s ambassador, claiming that Havana was meddling in Mexico’s domestic affairs. Relations with Cuba are a sensitive subject; Mexico’s opposition groups often use them as a measure of the country’s independence from U.S. manipulation. The two countries are now attempting to patch up their bruised relationship and deal with the climate of distrust that has developed between them. Meanwhile, the majority of Mexico’s media maintain that it is in the country’s self-interest to protect its old image of being firmly in Latin America’s camp and not in Washington’s pocket when it comes to regional policies. They seek to win back the country’s former reputation, lost at the Monterrey trade conference, as being one of Latin America’s principle interlocutors in dealing with the U.S.

    July 26: A Bond Not to Be Forgotten
    July 26 marked the anniversary of the start of the 1959 Cuban Revolution, launched by Fidel Castro from Mexico’s shores. After the revolution prevailed in Cuba, Mexico remained a strong supporter of Castro’s Cuba, although it regularly relayed a variety of information on the island to CIA contacts at the U.S. embassy in Mexico City. Still, it was the only Latin American country to maintain full diplomatic ties with the socialist regime in the years following Castro’s rise to power. Prior to Fox’s presidency, Mexico’s center-left governments traditionally defied Washington’s efforts to win support in the hemisphere for a UN resolution condemning Cuba’s human rights shortcomings. During this period, Mexico also routinely defended Cuba in the Organization of American States, which suspended the island’s membership in the early 1960s. Other Latin American nations such as Costa Rica, Honduras, Chile and Peru caved in to U.S. pressure and denounced Cuba. However, Mexico earned a bold reputation during the U.S.-sponsored Central American wars of the 1980s as a voice of reasoned opposition to the region’s hegemonic power.

    Mexico Courts the U.S.?
    When center-right businessman and PAN leader Vicente Fox assumed the presidency in 2000, Mexico’s role as Cuba’s stalwart defender began to drastically alter. During his first year in office, Fox resisted U.S. pressure at the UN Human Rights Convention in Geneva and abstained from voting. He refused to support a measure so filled with double standards – notably, that the U.S. did not aggressively pursue the censure and isolation of China, though it too had a spotty human rights record. This position was dramatically altered in 2002, when Fox instructed the Mexican delegation to vote in favor of the UN resolution to criticize Cuba’s human rights situation, marking a significant change in Mexico’s policy toward its formerly close ally.

    In the same year, Fox made another ominous change in Mexican-Cuban relations when he abruptly replaced the highly respected Ricardo Pascoe as ambassador to Cuba. During his Havana stay, Pascoe was a strong supporter of maintaining warm ties with Cuba, arguing, “Mexico found in its relationship with Cuba a new way of renegotiating its relationship with the United States.” The former ambassador cited the importance of a Mexican-Cuban partnership, which has provided Cuba with textbooks, and Mexico with a healthcare and educational model. After leaving his post amid deteriorating bilateral relations with Havana, Pascoe told the Mexican press, “It’s a very unfortunate situation. I think it damages the geopolitical and geostrategic position of Mexico in Latin America,” said Pascoe. “It demonstrates a country and a government that is too servile to the interests of Washington.”

    Holding Washington’s Coat
    At any cost, President Fox has single-mindedly tried to improve relations with the U.S. in order to bolster Mexico’s economy and advance the prospects of a more NAFTA-compliant open border between the two countries, while at the same time struggling to keep the country from being seen as a U.S. lackey. The deterioration of Mexico’s previously positive relations with Cuba suggests that Fox is kowtowing to the U.S. by endorsing Washington’s favorite Latin American cause – Fidel Castro-bashing. Luis Rubio, Director General of the Mexico City based think tank El Centro de Investigaciones para el Desarrollo, Asociación Civil, attributes Fox’s decision to alter Mexico’s relationship with Cuba to “domestic politics.” Certainly Cuba’s recent comments on President Fox’s handling of everything from Mexico’s relations with the U.S. to the case against a Mexican businessman arrested on the island, have seriously increased domestic political squabbling in Mexico City.

    However, Mexico’s dependence on the United States for trade, tourism and its labor market cannot be minimized as a cause of the shift in its Cuban policy. According to a recent Seattle Post Intelligencer article, 89 percent of Mexico’s legal exports go to the U.S. and 10 percent of its population now lives north of the border. Furthermore, given the volume of money flowing across the border, Mexico can no longer afford to be too fussy over the implicit political strings attached to deals made with the U.S. Carlos Navarro, a writer for the Latin American Data Base’s SourceMex publication, views Mexico’s shift on Cuba as Fox’s attempt to coordinate his policies with those of the U.S. “I think behind the scenes Mexico wants to remain in the good graces of the United States, especially since it intended to go against U.S. policies on some things, such as the vote on Iraq,” said Navarro. “Fox also wants the immigration agreement with Bush and so by breaking off ties with Cuba, it’s viewed as not giving up too much [to the U.S.].” However, Fox’s decision to succumb to pressure from Washington proved politically awkward when the White House accidentally announced that Mexico would be voting for the UN resolution to condemn Cuba’s human rights situation before President Fox publicly announced his decision. An embarrassed Fox was forced to quickly declare that Mexico was undecided, but ignominiously proceeded to vote for the resolution two days later.

    The Ties That Unravel
    The March 2002 Summit of the Americas in the northern Mexican city of Monterrey was one of the first public displays of the rapidly deteriorating relations between Cuba and Mexico. Castro’s appearance at the Summit was rumored to have been meticulously planned by the Fox administration to avoid a face-to-face confrontation between President Bush and the Cuban leader. Tensions ran high: at one point President Castro stormed out of the conference and created a whirlwind of media attention when he refused to explain his abrupt departure. Castro later publicly released a recorded phone conversation with Fox (after the Mexican leader had denied that it had taken place) in which he implored Castro to make an early exit from the summit to avoid a run-in with Bush – “Cenas y te vas” (“You eat and then you leave”), Fox instructed Castro. Since the incident at the Summit, the Cuban president has become more openly critical of Mexico and its compliance with U.S. dictates.

    Castro Fires Back
    In his annual speech on May 1, Castro gave an especially vituperative critique of Mexico’s vote against Cuba at the UN, its “hypocritical” policy of ignoring the U.S.’s own human rights violations and its waning position of influence throughout Latin America. Castro’s biting remarks followed another spat with Mexico concerning the arrest of a Mexican businessman in Cuba. Carlos Ahumada Kurtz was wanted in Mexico on corruption charges in a scandal involving popular Mexico City mayor, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. The mayor is considered to be the most likely candidate to succeed Fox in the 2006 presidential election. When Ahumada Kurtz was arrested in Cuba, police interrogated him and handed him over to Mexico, announcing that the Mexican charges against him were largely political rather than criminal. The Fox administration was outraged, claiming that Cuba had no right to meddle in Mexico’s domestic affairs. The tense situation came to a head when President Fox accused the Cuban ambassador of holding illicit Communist party meetings. Mexico demanded that Cuba remove its ambassador from Mexico City and called home its own diplomat from Havana.

    Human Rights Is Not Exactly Mexico’s Forte
    Mexico and Cuba’s relations are strained in light of the most recent vote taken at the UN Human Rights Conventions on April 15, when Mexico’s vote tipped the scales 22-21 in favor of criticizing Cuba. Castro responded by calling Mexico and several other Latin American countries, including Chile, “a herd of hypocrites” who merely serve U.S. interests. Though Mexico’s vote embittered the Cuban president, Castro was incensed by Mexico’s decision to reject a Cuban initiative at the UN. The proposed resolution called for an investigation of prisoner treatment at the U.S.-occupied Guantanamo base located on Cuban territory.

    Mexico’s own troubled human rights record, an issue that Fox is still struggling to address, leaves little room for finger-pointing. The country’s history is marked by failures to prosecute police abuses and negligent investigations. President Fox’s attempts to fulfill his campaign promises by aggressively using the armed forces to crack down on drug-trafficking have been closely monitored by human rights activists – the strategy raises concerns in terms of potential abuses of power and a grievous lack of police accountability.

    Recently, pressure from families and human rights groups has finally forced the Fox administration to begin investigations of the unsolved sexual assaults and murders of hundreds of young women in Ciudad Juárez since 1993. Furthermore, despite earlier promises to clean up the country’s long neglected human rights caseload, the Mexican president has shown reluctance to prosecute former president Luis Echeverría Álvarez, who has been charged with genocide in connection with the massacre of at least 25 student protesters in 1971. Fox entrusted the case to a special prosecutor under the direction of Mexico’s Attorney General, Rafael Macedo de la Concha, who has a reputation of defending the military against such abuse allegations. On July 17, a federal judge threw out the genocide case. According to Mexico City-based newspaper El Universal, he did not weigh the evidence but merely decided that a 30-year statute of limitations had passed. Though Macedo intends to appeal, the Echeverría Álvarez case is being left to Mexico’s historically corrupt judicial system because President Fox refused to create an independent truth commission to investigate a long list of such abuses.

    Cuba: a Factor in Forging Mexico’s Regional Reputation
    Ironically, Fox’s abrasive actions against Cuba during the past year have done little to boost his standing with the U.S., but have certainly blurred his reputation at home and abroad. Mexican opposition parties have made cordial relations with Cuba into a pivotal political issue as they wholeheartedly adopt Castro’s criticism that Mexico has lost its respected leadership role in the region. Both the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) and the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD) argue that Mexico occupied the immensely important position of being able to act as an interlocutor between the United States and Cuba at a time when Washington has ratcheted up tension between itself and the island. The recent tightening of U.S. embargo restrictions intended to put pressure on the Castro regime went into effect June 30, despite strong disapproval, even among some members of the anti-Castro constituency in Miami. As a result of the U.S.’ increased restrictions, Cubans living in the U.S. may only visit relatives in Cuba once every three years and send only $300, rather than up to $3,000 a quarter, in remittances to the island.

    Relations Must Last Beyond July 26
    In spite of his drastic swing towards Washington since his election in 2000, Fox has always firmly opposed any U.S. intention to hasten regime change in Cuba, regardless of the slow souring of Mexican-Cuban relations. This policy stance is pivotal if Mexico wishes to resume its role as a leader within the Western Hemisphere, as Washington may soon begin to intervene more directly in the fate of a post-Castro Cuba, beyond its already stated plans to prevent the continuation of a Communist government. It would appear that Mexico can retain its independence from United States’ domination by promoting constructive relations with Cuba and putting its support behind a Latin American solution to the Cuban “problem.”

    July 26 could mark more than just a superficial attempt by Mexico and Cuba to rebuild diplomatic ties. Fox’s decision to reinstate his ambassador to Cuba must be followed by earnest work to sort out the differences that currently exist between Mexico and its longtime former Latin American friend. Cuba cannot afford to lose Mexico as an ally, but neither can Mexico afford to become known as a lapdog for the U.S.’ hemispheric agenda, particularly at a time when rabble-rouser and Senator Helms alumnus Dan Fisk is running U.S. Latin American relations. Fox would do well to nurture diplomatic relations with Cuba even as he maintains a strong and dignified stance on human rights observance and reinforces a message of Latin American unity. If he fails to do so, his dangerous flirtation with Washington may come at the expense of a further erosion of Mexico’s sovereignty, as well as its potential role as a regional leader.