Mexican President Felipe Calderon was sitting down with Cuba's Raul Castro on Wednesday to strengthen economic cooperation and further repair a relationship that has been strained during more than a decade of center-right rule in Mexico.

Calderon emphasized the positive upon arrival, talking about what his conservative administration and Cuba's communist-run government have in common rather than their "natural differences."

The president said he and Castro would discuss commerce and investment, regional concerns and cooperation in areas such as health, education, culture, sports and energy.

"I know this visit ... will bring benefits for both peoples," Calderon said in a brief statement at the Havana airport. He did not take questions, and his meeting with Castro was to be behind closed doors.

Mexico and Cuba are neighbors across the Gulf of Mexico, which is home to rich oil deposits as well as lucrative routes for smuggling drugs and people.

Calderon had planned to visit Cuba early in his term, which began in 2006, promising to improve strained relations. But the trip was put off until now, when Calderon has just months left in office.

Mexico and Cuba have a long, mostly friendly history. Fidel Castro launched his 1959 revolution from exile in the Mexican capital. Under the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which ruled Mexico for seven decades until Vicente Fox's historic victory for Calderon's National Action Party in 2000, the Mexican government was the only one in Latin America that defied U.S. pressure to break relations with Cuba.

But those warm ties began to strain under the last PRI president, Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000), who during a summit on the island suggested that Cuba needed to change.

In 2004, Cuba and Mexico temporarily recalled their ambassadors after Fox's administration voted for a U.S.-backed condemnation of the human rights situation on the island.

Calderon promised to rebuild the relationship, but there have been bumps in the road.

In 2009, Fidel Castro said Calderon was hiding information about the swine flu outbreak in his country to avoid spoiling a planned Mexico trip by President Barack Obama.

A year later, the former Cuban leader wrote in an essay that Calderon had actually lost Mexico's 2006 election to leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who has claimed the vote was fraudulent and is running for president again this year.

According to statistics released by the Mexican government, trade between the two nations totaled $373 million last year, up 15 percent from 2010. Most of that was Mexican exports to Cuba, such as aluminum products and animal feed. Cuba sends principally tobacco, alcohol and waste and scrap aluminum.

Calderon travels Thursday to Haiti, and then to Colombia for the Summit of the Americas.


Andrea Rodriguez on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/ARodriguezAP