May 28, 2004

In Rift With Mexico, Cuba Is The Loser

By Louis Nevaer

MERIDA, Mexico—What the United States could not do in more than 40 years, Fidel Castro has managed to achieve in a matter of a few weeks: Cuba’s rift with Mexico threatens to isolate Havana from the rest of Latin America as never before.

The diplomatic meltdown is the result of Mexico’s vote at the United Nations in Geneva criticizing Cuba’s human rights record. Castro lashed out, calling the Fox administration a “mafia at the beck and call of Washington.” Fox replied that Mexico was being true to its principled position in defense of human rights, everywhere. Mexico’s vote, he explained, was in “favor of one cause (human rights), not against a nation, which has deserved and will deserve our respect and support.”

In the weeks since, Cuba’s criticisms grew in ferocity. “Mexico has joined the policy in support of the U.S. trade embargo and participates in the aggressions of the government of the United States against Cuba,” Cuban Chancellor Felipe Pérez Roque said.

Cuba’s vitriolic attacks on Mexico’s Fox continued, to the point where both nations recalled their ambassadors, severing the most important diplomatic mission in Havana since the breakup of the Soviet Union.

The crisis in Mexico-Cuba relations stunned Latin Americans. No other nation has extended to Cuba the kindness — and political and economic support — that Mexico has during the more than four decades of the American trade embargo.

At the height of the Cold War in 1961, President John F. Kennedy sought to retaliate against Castro by breaking diplomatic relations and imposing a trade embargo the following year. When the Kennedy administration persuaded the Organization of American States (OAS) to expel Cuba from its membership, every Latin American nation dutifully followed Washington’s lead and broke off diplomatic relations with Havana — except Mexico.

Throughout the 1960s, whenever the United States tried to isolate Cuba, Mexico would go out of its way to sponsor Cuba at international forums. When Washington imposed a trade embargo, Mexico nurtured free trade with the island nation. When American administrations sought to impose hardships on the Cuban people, a succession of Mexican presidents donated oil to Havana as a form of foreign aid. Through Cuba, Mexico demonstrated independence from its powerful northern neighbor.

Then, throughout the 1970s and ’80s, Mexico persuaded other Latin American nations to quietly re-establish their relations with Cuba, pressure from Washington notwithstanding.

And though Cuba’s chief sponsor was the Soviet Union, Mexico was second in terms of foreign investment, trade and economic aid. When the Soviet Union disintegrated, Mexico — along with Spain — emerged as Cuba’s savior: Cuba’s cellular telephony was built by the Mexicans, Cuban hotels are run by the Spanish and it is Mexico that sends hundreds of thousands of dollar-bearing tourists to Cuba each year. Mexico’s private sector has $2.7 billion invested in Cuba, and Havana’s foreign debt to the Mexican government is $425 million, a sore point in Mexico.

But there has been a fundamental change in Mexico, and in Mexican foreign policy, since 2000.

The election of Vicente Fox, whose National Action Party ended the PRI’s political monopoly on the Mexican presidency, means Mexico can now speak with greater confidence and with more robust, democratic credentials.

As a consequence, Mexico is pursuing a more uniform foreign policy, one built on non-intervention and the defense of human rights. Mexico has therefore:

—Sued the United States, and won, at the World Court in the Hague to protest Washington’s refusal to comply with the requirements of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, a lapse that has sent Mexican citizens to death rows across the United States;

—Refused to vote in favor of a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq, even after the Bush administration offered a quid pro quo deal on immigration;

—Voted to criticize in international forums Cuba’s deplorable human rights records and the systematic imprisonment of dissidents.

Throughout the current crisis, Mexico maintains its position remains centered on respecting human rights. In Mexico City, Interior Minister Santiago Creel said the current crisis “is not between our peoples, but between our governments” of Cuba and Mexico.

For Cuba, Mexico has always been a lifeline to the outside world. Today, more than 70 percent of all of Cuba’s economic trade with the world goes through Mexico, from saltine crackers to cell phones, Coca-Cola to Dell PCs.

This vital trade is now threatened.

Mexican officials are going to extraordinary lengths to engage the Cubans in dialogue. Good relations with Cuba are a vital national security issue for Mexico, which fears that civil disorder after Castro dies could subject Mexico to a flood of refugees. Mexico wants diplomats on the ground in Cuba to help monitor and even influence the situation.

For now, the crisis has become a diplomatic impasse. Mexicans remain astonished that a country they have stood by so steadfastly remains so intransigent. It’s a tragic turn of events straight out of Shake-speare: “Oh, sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child.”

Louis E.V. Nevaer ( is an author and economist whose most recent book, “NAFTA’S Second Decade” (SouthWestern Educational Publishing, 2004), examines the political economy of the international development and trade.

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