Cuba-Mexico Tensions on the Rise Over Controversial Foreign Minister

Castañeda in Cuba's Crosshairs

Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda's (L) close relations with the Bush administration have rankled Cuba (Photo: AFP).
Before Mexican President Vicente Fox appointed him to head the Foreign Ministry, Jorge G. Castañeda was a top left-wing Latin American intellectual who'd written books about Che Guevara and Marxist guerrilla movements. But Mr. Castañeda's academic credentials couldn't save him in the week following the International Conference on Financing for Development, held in Monterrey, Mexico, March 18-22, as Cuban television and newspaper commentators sent him before the editorial firing squad.

"The Man Guilty for What Happened in Monterrey Is Named Jorge Castañeda," read the March 26 front-page banner headline of Granma, the daily newspaper of the ruling Communist Party. According to the government communiqué that followed, the "diabolical" Castañeda pressured Cuban President Fidel Castro to leave early from the U.N. Summit in order to please the U.S. delegation and President Bush, who didn't want to Castro to be there.

The Mexican government has traditionally remained one of Havana's closest allies, despite Washington's disapproval. But new ranch-style relations between Mexico City and its powerful northern neighbor seem to have Cuban officials cringing every time they hear Bush blurt, "Mi amigo Vicente" in his Texan twang. It has been the behavior of Mr. Castañeda, however---and not President Fox---that has truly piqued the Cubans.

Commentators on Cuba's "informative round-table discussion" program excoriated Castañeda on national television for nearly two hours the day that the communiqué appeared in Granma. Calling him "Machiavellian," and "a liar and political opportunist," the program repeatedly showed footage of Castañeda fraternizing with President Bush and Colin Powell at the summit. The "informative round-table discussions"---in which all participants agree and no one criticizes the government---are staged nightly to garner support for the Cuba government's policies and to denounce its enemies, including the Bush administration, right-wing anti-Castro exile groups in Miami, and occasionally, individual pariahs like the Mexican Foreign Minister.

Both U.S. and Mexican officials, including Castañeda, have denied pressuring Castro or the Cuban delegation in any way. In response to their denials, Cuba's Foreign Ministry released a follow-up statement to the March 26 communiqué, which bore the amusing title: "If It's True That Bush Didn't Pressure Mexico, Then Condolezza Rice Is a Liar." To substantiate Cuba's version of events, the statement cites a declaration Rice made prior to the Monterrey conference which, quoted in Granma, expresses certainty that "Castro and Bush would not cross paths in Monterrey." As further proof that the White House is trying to add insult to injury, the statement also quotes Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer telling reporters: "Everyone knows that when you have to choose between what Fidel Castro says and what anybody else says, you can believe anybody else."

Whatever Castro says, his short speech and dramatic exit were a veritable public relations coup at the Monterrey U.N. Summit. The defiant 75 year-old Cuban leader blasted modern financial markets for having turned the world economy into "a giant casino," and listed a series of disturbing statistics describing the extent of global poverty and inequality. "The existing world economic order constitutes a system of plundering and exploitation like no other in history," Castro said.

At the conclusion of his speech, Castro unexpectedly announced that he would leave the conference and return to Cuba right away due to "a special situation created by my participation in this Summit." Castro's speech and sudden departure were played over and over on Cuban television, creating a whirlwind of rumors and speculation on the island as to what happened.

Besides having snubbed the Cuban delegation at the Americans' behest, Cuba also accuses Castañeda of conspiring with the U.S. State Department to have Mexico introduce a Cuba-condemning resolution at the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva. When President Fox, Castañeda, and a Mexican delegation came to Havana on an official visit back in February, it was Castañeda who Cuba claims arranged for a meeting with a group of Cuban dissidents. Though Castro said that the meeting with dissidents "wasn't a problem," Castañeda offended his hosts for sure when he returned to Mexico and announced "Mexico's relations with the Cuban Revolution have ended, and its relations with the Cuban Republic have begun."

Three weeks later in Miami, while inaugurating a new Mexican Cultural Center in the presence of numerous anti-Castro exiles, Castañeda told the audience that "the doors of the Mexican embassy in Havana are open to all Cubans, as is Mexico." His remarks---"taken out of context," he said---were beamed at the island by U.S.-backed Radio Martí the next day and interpreted as an open invitation to occupy the embassy. After failing to gain entry, a group of young men hijacked a local bus and crashed it through the Mexican embassy gates, touching off a violent confrontation with police that resulted in hundreds of arrests. The Cuban government was furious, but blamed the incident on Radio Martí, not Castañeda.

The latest controversy involving Castañeda seems to have been the last straw though. Cuba says it has "irrefutable proof" that the Foreign Minister is lying, but has withheld its evidence so as to prevent further damaging relations with Mexico. In the meantime, the Cuban press reports that a number of Mexican lawmakers are calling for an explanation from Castañeda, and others are calling for his outright resignation. If nothing more is heard from Castañeda, Cubans officials are likely to run out of patience and come forward with their mysterious "irrefutable proof"---regardless of its consequences for Cuba-Mexico relations.