Fox Outfoxed

Cuba-Mexico Relations Hit New Low

Rift in Cuban-Mexican relations
"At the Brink of Rupture:" A man reads the headlines of Mexican newspapers in Mexico City, April 23, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

When Cuban President Fidel Castro abruptly stormed out of the March 18-22 U.N. Summit on Financing for Development in Monterrey, Mexico last March, he attributed his early departure to “a special situation created by my presence at this Summit that obligates me to immediately return to my country.” A flood of rumors and allegations that Mexican officials had somehow intervened to prevent Castro from being in the same room as U.S. President George W. Bush followed him out the door, but Mexican President Vicente Fox and Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda firmly denied pressuring the Cuban delegation to limit its Summit participation in any way.

Back in Cuba, Castro maintained he possessed “irrefutable proof” that would demonstrate otherwise. The “who’s lying” standoff simmered for weeks, but when Mexico broke with tradition and approved a U.N. resolution condemning Cuba’s Human Rights record last week, Castro lost patience and came forth with the evidence.

Calling Mexico’s Human Rights vote “the last straw,” Castro held a press conference and played a secretly taped private phone conversation with President Fox. During the course of the 20-minute conversation---held the day before Castro’s arrival at the U.N. Summit---Fox asked Castro to leave the conference before President Bush’s scheduled arrival, and to refrain from criticizing Bush or the United States during his stay in Mexico. Fox also requested that the conversation remain private. Castro agreed.

The April 22 press conference and the public disclosure of the tape made for a bizarre scene, as the Fox-Castro conversation at times sounded more like a comedy routine than a high-level diplomatic exchange.  At one point, Fox invites Castro to sit next to him at an important luncheon on Thursday---only to follow with the request that Castro return to Cuba immediately afterwards. “That way I’d be free on Friday, and that’s what I’m asking you, so that you create no complications for me on Friday,” Fox explained.

Friday was the final session of the U.N. Summit, a day Fox clearly wanted to dedicate to President Bush. Cuba had previously expressed suspicions that President Bush and the U.S. delegation didn’t want Castro to be there in the first place. In the end, the two never crossed paths. Bush was not present for Castro’s six-minute speech, in which he blasted modern financial markets for having converted the world into “a gigantic casino.” When Bush arrived Thursday afternoon, Castro was already on his way to the airport.

“Listen, Mr. President,” Castro is later heard admonishing Fox when asked not to criticize the United States or President Bush, “I’m a person who’s been in politics for about 43 years, and I know what I should do and what I should not do. You don’t need to have any doubts that I know how to tell the truth politely and with the proper elegance. You don’t need to fear because I won’t be dropping any bombs there.”

The transcript of Castro’s April 22 press conference, including the Fox-Castro phone conversation, appeared the following day in Cuba’s government-owned newspapers and on their web sites. Castro swore he would resign if the tape could be proved false, and recognized the possibility that Mexico might break off diplomatic relations with his country over his decision to release it.

“The aftermath of telling these truths could be that diplomatic relations are severed” Castro said, concluding his address. “However, the fraternal and historical bonds between the peoples of Mexico and Cuba will last forever.”

The Fox administration’s reaction---replayed on Cuban television the next day---was swift, direct, and pointed. Clearly irritated by Castro’s move, Fox spokesman Rodolfo Elizondo read a statement saying, “The conversation illegally made public by the president of Cuba speaks for itself. President Fox at no time asked his counterpart not to attend the Monterrey summit."

Elizondo went on to declare that Mexico’s diplomatic relations with Cuba will continue, “despite experiences and episodes like this,” but he delivered the Fox administration’s harshest criticism to date of Cuba’s one-party system. In conclusion, he listed a series of freedoms and rights enjoyed in Mexico but lacking in Cuba, punctuated by the phrase: “We Mexicans lament this.”

The Fox administration’s statement reflected particular frustration over Castro’s breach of presidential privacy. Castro later responded by saying, “A conversation between two heads of state is not a love letter; it's a political conversation and it has very little that is private. It is not a confessional secret.”

The tape’s release marked both a new low for Cuba-Mexico relations and the peak of rising tensions between Havana and the new Mexican administration. Throughout decades of single-party rule, Mexico remained one of Cuba’s closest allies, even after all other Latin American countries had broken diplomatic ties with the island nation. Fox seemed eager to maintain that diplomatic tradition, despite his desire for increased intimacy with Washington and the Bush administration. During Fox’s official visit to Havana in early February, Cuba-Mexico relations appeared to be as strong as ever.

But according to Castro, it was during the February visit that relations began to sour. First Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda arranged for a meeting with anti-Castro Cuban dissidents. Castro did not protest. Three weeks later, statements made by Castañeda in Miami prompted a group of exile-seekers to hijack a bus and crash it through the gates of the Mexican embassy in Havana, touching off a violent confrontation with police. Castañeda claimed US-backed Radio Martí had taken his words out of context, and Cuba seemed willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, at least publicly. Meanwhile, as Castro’s statement reveals, Cuba had grown increasingly wary of Castañeda and his perceived political ambitions.

Immediately after Castro’s sudden walkout from the U.N. Summit, Cuba launched a devastating personal attack on Castañeda, calling him “the diabolical and cynical architect” of a scheme to limit Cuba’s participation in the Summit. Cuba continued to spare President Fox from such criticism, however. But once Mexico decided to vote against Cuba at the Geneva Human Rights Commission---something Fox promised he would not do during his February visit, Castro claims---that policy changed.

The Mexican president now appears to be facing a barrage of attacks from the Mexican left as well. “The worst part of this episode is that he lied,” Mexico City Governor Andrés Manuel López Obrador told the left-leaning daily newspaper La Jornada. “Never before has a president been so subordinate to the United States,” he added. López Obrador joined a chorus of other Mexican politicians who are calling for Fox to explain his actions in person before Congress.

It is difficult to predict where Cuba-Mexico relations will go from here. Cuban television commentators continue attacking the Fox administration and Mexico’s own human rights record, while Jorge Castañeda’s anti-Castro statements have become increasingly blunt in the last few days.

Some remain optimistic, however. “Today the job is to mend, and, to some degree, recast relations between the two countries," said Mexican Ambassador to Cuba Ricardo Pascoe Pierce, at an April 24 press conference in Havana. "We are not beginning from scratch, but from a point where relations are damaged and where channels of communication must be re-established.” Castro would probably agree. “Fox is a decent man,” he said during a lengthy speech a day after releasing the tape, “but he has no experience in politics at all.”