Once-Warm Mexican-Cuban Relations Take Sharp Turn for Worse

For decades, Cuba counted on Mexico as a loyal friend, a neighbor that never questioned its socialist system and never succumbed to U.S. pressures to cut diplomatic relations with the Caribbean island at the height of the Cold War.

But a series of incidents this year has left Fidel Castro feeling betrayed by the one country in the region he once knew he could depend upon in his defiance of the United States.

First, Mexican President Vicente Fox met with political dissidents during a visit to the island in February. Then the Mexican foreign secretary was accused of inciting several young men to crash a stolen bus through Mexican embassy's gates in Havana, hoping for political asylum. And finally, Mexico voted for a U.N. Human Rights Commission resolution condemning Cuba, reversing a tradition of abstaining from such votes.

On Tuesday, Mexican Foreign Secretary Jorge Castañeda called Castro's government an "antidemocratic and human rights-violating regime" — an unthinkable statement just a few years ago.

Fed up, an enraged Castro finally exploded this week. Acknowledging he was risking 100 years of diplomatic relations, he aired a tape recording of Fox suggesting that the Cuban leader not attend a U.N. poverty conference in Mexico.

Castro attended the March conference, but left abruptly after his speech, citing a "special situation" created by his presence there.

Fox has not addressed the matter of the tape recording publicly, but Castañeda said Tuesday that the Mexican government had "absolutely nothing" to apologize for — and that Fox never asked Castro to stay away from the summit.

It was clear, though, that the decades of warmth between the two governments had ended. The topic has already generated protests and violence, and a gasoline bomb was thrown against the Cuban Embassy in Mexico City early Tuesday but failed to ignite.

Although Castro said Monday that "the fraternal and historical bonds between the peoples of Mexico and Cuba will last forever," he said that the Mexican government's human-rights vote against his country last week had left him "despicably betrayed."

That vote, Castro said, was "the last straw." He noted that the Fox administration had promised not to sponsor, promote or support any resolution against Cuba at the U.N. Human Rights Commission meeting in Geneva.

Mexico's vote after years of abstaining during the annual exercise indicated that Mexico's first opposition president is not willing to turn the same blind eye that his predecessors did to Cuba's human rights record.

Fox, a former Coca-Cola executive and rancher from Mexico's pro-business National Action Party, visited here in early February and became the first Mexican president ever to meet with Cuban dissidents on Cuban soil.

Almost all Latin American nations on the 53-member human rights commission approved the human rights measure, prompting Cuba to term them all "Judases."

Uruguay responded to Castro's comments on Tuesday by cutting ties with Cuba. Castro, speaking on state television Tuesday, called Uruguayan President Jorge Batlle a "lackey" for the United States.

Castro also defended his recording of the telephone call by saying, "a conversation between two heads of state is not a secret confession."

In a live radio interview Tuesday, Castañeda alleged that Castro released the taped conversation with Fox to divert attention from his growing diplomatic isolation.

"Internally, it does enormous damage to the antidemocratic and human rights-violating regime of Fidel Castro to know that the government of Mexico no longer supports the absence of democracy and lack of respect for human rights in Cuba," Castañeda said.

It was a dramatic change in tone for Mexico, which was the only Latin American nation that refused to cut ties with the island after the 1959 revolution that brought Castro to power.