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Posted February 15, 2007 by publisher in Cuban American Politics

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Mexican President Felipe Calderón just passed the hundred-day mark. Expectations weren’t high—demonstrating the forcefulness that eluded his predecessor and broadening his reach beyond a bare-bones electoral win—but he did all right. Deployment of nearly 30,000 troops against drug traffickers in six Mexican states quickly showed the president’s mettle and won him high standing in public opinion.

Soon enough, clouds gathered all the same. In mid-January, the rising cost of tortillas—the basic staple, whether hugging lobster or humbler ingredients—presented Calderón with his first domestic crisis. Ongoing still, this crisis is emblematic of the Mexican maze, which neither NAFTA (1994) nor Vicente Fox’s administration (2000-2006) did much to clear, and will be the subject of my next column. Foreign policy—specifically, relations with Cuba—stirred the always brewing pot of nationalism, which I address today.

The script is familiar. In Latin America, only Mexico defied the United States and maintained normal relations with Cuba after the revolution came to power. For many Mexican politicos, noninterference in other countries’ internal affairs was and is a sacrosanct principle. Nothing political is so pristine, however. For decades, Mexican intelligence services cooperated with the CIA on Cuban matters. And by denouncing Augusto Pinochet’s human-rights abuses, Mexico blinked the holy writ aside. The list of instances is long.

Principles aside, Cuba has been a means to burnish Mexico’s nationalist credentials. As in the United States, domestic political considerations weigh heavily on Mexican policy toward the island. Even before Fox dislodged the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) from the presidency, Cuba policy was changing. As the citizenry embraced human rights and democracy, both played a larger hand in Mexican foreign policy.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t all. When President Ernesto Zedillo started moving away from the traditional policy, Cuba entered the PRI’s internal struggles. Recalcitrant PRI followers—known as dinosaurs—resisted the efforts of those within the party who let the past be, and looked forward. Bashing Pinochet was one thing; doing the same to Fidel Castro quite another.

Even if it had been flawlessly implemented, Fox’s Cuba policy would still have been anathema to the old-school PRI and their kin, the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). The debate has always been more about Mexico than Cuba. Today’s Mexico is a far cry from what it was 25 years ago. Civil liberties, competitive elections and macroeconomic stability are now part of the landscape. Nonetheless, much is left to be done regarding citizen empowerment, economic competitiveness and social justice.

How to get from here to there is the heart of the matter. Mexico’s political class is split between those who fully embrace competition—economic and political—and those who fall back on the corporatist controls of the past. Why shouldn’t a Mexico that already has traveled down the first road craft a new foreign policy, Cuba included?

If Mexico isn’t the same, neither is Cuba. Though not yet near a democratic transition, Cuba is amid a succession that should be followed closely. For Zedillo’s and, especially, Fox’s policies to have succeeded, Havana—i.e., the Comandante—would have had to accept the new rules of engagement, which he refused to do. It really does take two to tango.

What will Raúl do?

Will Raúl Castro follow suit or break new paths in the island’s external relations? Neither Mexico nor Cuba benefits from the tensions of the past few years. Two days ago, Patricia Espinosa, Mexico’s foreign minister, announced an acercamiento—a rapprochement—toward Cuba. Without the elder Castro, Mexico and Cuba could well forge ties that leave the past behind.

Calderón is walking a foreign-policy tightrope (domestic as well, but that’s in two weeks). He is committed to giving Mexico a higher Latin American profile without diminishing the indispensable relationship with the United States. Obstacles abound: Brazil, for instance, doesn’t want Mexico in South America. Yet, there are opportunities that should not be missed such as Cuba’s. Through dialogue and diplomacy, Mexico, Brazil and others in the region could help the island land softly from its long national nightmare. Along the way, however, Castro’s victims over five decades must—one way or another—be given the recognition and respect long denied them.

Marifeli Pérez-Stable is vice president for democratic governance at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C., and a professor at Florida International University.

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