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Posted May 21, 2004 by publisher in Cuban History

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Diario de Yucat�n, Commentary

Lorenzo Meyer, Translated by Marcelo Ballve

From the very beginning of Mexico’s life as an independent nation its major decisions made with regards to Cuba have always been part of greater foreign relations concerns. These concerns mostly involve relations with third countries that have interests both in Mexico and in the Caribbean Basin.

The current Cuba-Mexico crisis is not an exception to this rule. Quite to the contrary, it confirms it. In effect, whether the Mexican government is conscious of it or not, the decision of the current administration to recall its ambassador from Havana and expel Cuba’s ambassador to Mexico is an indirect but important way of redefining Mexico’s present relationship with the world’s principal power, the United States.

Unfortunately, there is no clarity with respect to what the overall objective or the grand design of Mexico’s foreign policy is, or what role the diplomatic rupture with Cuba’s government, which earned Mexico the praise of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, may play within that design.

A quick look at the history of Mexico’s Cuba policy shows with clarity that only in rare cases has our nation’s policy toward the island been motivated by reasons that are exclusively related to Cuba. In reality, the political exchange with the largest of the Antillean islands has served Mexico as a tool to develop its relations with third countries, especially Spain in the beginning of the 19th Century and immediately afterward, relations with the region’s dominant power: the United States.

The really pertinent question that must be answered at this moment by those responsible for Mexico’s foreign policy is not the obvious one: “Why has the crisis between Mexico and Havana erupted now and what impact will it have on the relationship?” Instead the question should be: “What is the policy of Mexican President Vicente Fox toward the United States and what are the inevitable consequences of the rift that has arisen between recent Mexican governments and Cuba’s regime in relation to Washington D.C., which is Mexico’s central foreign policy relationship?

The History

In the colonial era, the commerce between Havana and the Mexican port of Veracruz was important and constant. Mexico’s independence changed the situation significantly, since suddenly Cuba became a threat to the security of the new nation.

In effect, the nearby island could serve as a launching pad for any Spanish forces seeking Mexico’s re-conquest. The great fortress in Mexico of San Juan de Ul�a, while it remained in Spanish hands, was supplied from Cuba and in 1829 the Spanish brigadier Isidro Barradas launched from there an expeditionary force that attempted to return Mexico to colonial status.

The defeat suffered by the Spanish did not end the threat that Cuba represented to Mexico’s integrity as a nation. When in 1860, and as a result of Mexico’s instability, Spain’s representative Joaqu�n Francisco Pacheco decided to punish Mexico “as an example” in order to force it to respect the rights of the Spanish community in Mexico, he proposed using Spain’s naval forces stationed in Cuba. If his threat, the bombing of Veracruz, did not materialize, it was less because of lack of will and more because of the lack of military resources in Cuba.

Mexico regarded the Cuban wars for independence with mixed feelings. On the one hand, Mexicans sympathized with the Cuban insurgents but as time passed it was believed that the defeat of the Spanish on the island would not result in more security for Mexico, but rather that the vacuum left behind by the old European colonial power would be filled by an emerging, dangerously close power: the United States.

It was precisely the fear of a U.S.-controlled Cuba that towards the end of the 19th Century provoked a campaign in the Mexican press to convince Spain to cede Cuban sovereignty to Mexico, since in that way the interests of both Madrid and Mexico City would be served.

The same reasoning explains why the government of Porfirio D�az decided in 1898 to secretly support the Spanish in Cuba so that they would acquire in Mexico the military supplies they needed for the defense of Cuba during the Spanish-American war. The Mexican help was not of much use, but D�az certainly ran a great risk when he authorized it.

In the beginning of the 20th Century, Mexican geopolitics were decidedly difficult: to the north was the great power; to the south, in Central America, the great power also was present since U.S. control of the region, in Panama and Guatemala was undeniable; and in the Caribbean, again, the great power was present, since U.S. domination of Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico also was uncontested. Finally, in the wide Pacific Ocean, in the Philippines and Hawaii, the United States was also present.

In those conditions, whatever policy could loosen the grip of the United States would play in favor of Mexican national interests.

During the first stage of Fulgencio Batista’s political activity in Cuba, in the 1930s, the Mexican government viewed the military man’s nationalist characteristics with sympathy. Batista had also been key in deposing the hated dictator Gerardo Machado, but the Mexican government lost interest when Batista, in turn, became another corrupt Caribbean dictator in the service of the United States. It’s true that there were always Cuban groups in Mexico at this time plotting the overthrow of different governments on the island. Sometimes these groups received the tolerance and support of the Mexican government and at other times they did not.

When the revolution headed by Fidel Castro triumphed in 1959 (a revolution which in its initial stages used Mexican soil to prepare itself) Mexico found in revolutionary nationalism a compelling trait, one that could possibly serve as a means to soften the U.S. hold on the region. Because of that, the successive governments of the PRI (acronym for the Institutional Revolutionary Party) from Adolfo Lopez Mateos (1958-1964) to Carlos Salinas (1988-1994), all of them fairly anticommunist and tilted to the right, did not break relations with socialist Cuba as the rest of the Latin American nations did, either by their own decision, or because of Washington D.C.‘s strong-arming, or a combination of the two factors.

In these years, Mexico played the Cuban card in the political arena only, because in economic terms the commerce of our country with the island was insignificant and when the Cold War put Mexico between a rock and a hard place, as was the case with the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the simple decision was always made to support the U.S. position, but without breaking ties with Cuba. The island’s utility to the interests of the Mexican government was twofold.

First, the policy succeeded in persuading Cuba to never support rebel movements in Mexico; plus, Mexico’s use of its relations with Havana lent credibility to Mexico’s grand foreign policy goal: Mexican revolutionary nationalism, in other words—the idea of a relative independence vis-�-vis the United States.

The Change

Mexico’s approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993 represented a fundamental change in Mexico’s development. The old nationalism lost the little vitality that it still had, but it was not substituted with a new objective that might lend unity and coherence to what has since then been a series of discrete policies toward the United States and the rest of the world that evince no unity and form no clear pattern.

In this way the economic and physical integration with the United States advanced in giant steps but without a solution being found to the problem of immigration and the flow of labor across the border. At times, Mexico has taken political decisions that seem to aim for a certain distance from Washington D.C. as was the case with Mexico’s anti war stance at the U.N. Security Council in the buildup to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

In any case, at no time has there been a clear presentation of the overall idea now guiding Mexican foreign policy decisions.

Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000), in the final days of the PRI’s rule over Mexico, decided to deepen the distance between a Mexico framed by NAFTA—a trade deal that was criticized by Fidel Castro in 1998—and a Cuba that maintained its confrontation with the United States, and was obstinately clinging to a political style that by then distinguished it from the rest of Latin America: a single-party system supervised by a caudillo with state control over the economy.

After the change of government in Mexico in 2000 President Vicente Fox and his foreign minister Jorge Casta�eda used the issue of human rights in Cuba, an issue in which the island’s government is certainly at fault, in order to contrast Cuba’s authoritarian stagnation with Mexico’s evolution away from authoritarianism and toward democracy and thus cast a flattering light on their country.

Mexico’s foreign policy under Fox has a very clear central aim and primary priority: to gain for NAFTA the element that it has been missing from the very beginning, that is, the free flow of labor, following the European model of integration. To gain for Mexico, within NAFTA, the free flow of labor across borders in addition to the free exchange of goods and capital.

In order to attain that goal, the Mexican government has decided to play the Cuban card, in other words, break with the past and shift, indirectly, into closer proximity with the United States.

With this goal in mind, President Fox, in his 2002 visit to Cuba, met with a group of Cuban dissidents, which was very displeasing to the government in Havana. Immediately afterward, the well-known incident at the Monterrey Summit of the Americas occurred, in which Mexico maneuvered to shorten Castro’s visit as much as possible as a courtesy to the U.S. president who did not want to be under the same roof as Castro.

Soon after, Mexico joined the U.S. position at the Commission on Human Rights at the United Nations, and condemned Cuba for systematic violations of human rights. From then on, the relationship has deteriorated into recriminations that reached their peak when fate (or the decision of someone still unknown) placed the businessman Carlos Ahumada in the hands of Fidel Castro. Ahumada is at the center of a political corruption scandal in Mexico that is being played out as part of the country’s internal political struggles ahead of 2006 presidential elections.

What followed is too well known to describe in detail here, but it is worth noting that the Cubans played their cards very well and intelligently. They were able to take an effective swipe at Fox’s government by expelling Ahumada, thus playing him into the hands of the Fox’s political rivals.

(Translator’s Note: Most commentators believe it would have been better for Fox’s government if Ahumada, who fled from Mexico as the scandal erupted, remained out of sight in Cuba. Cuban officials at one point showed video footage of Ahumada saying top Mexican officials promised to protect him if he produced incriminating videotapes of Fox’s political rivals. Ahumada, who is now in a Mexican jail awaiting trial for fraud, also has said he was pressured by the Cubans into making those statements)

The Mexican reaction to Cuba’s maneuvers was one that has fallen into disuse in the diplomatic world: the expulsion of Cuba’s ambassador.


There are at least two lines of argument possible for explaining Mexico’s present policy toward Cuba, and neither is very tranquilizing. The first is that the president and his Cabinet members in charge of foreign policy decided to take another step in increasing the distance between Cuba and Mexico at precisely the moment that Washington D.C. announced that it would stiffen its blockade of the island to “accelerate the end of the dictatorship” and would implement a plan that among other things proposes a strengthened adherence of other countries to the U.S. position on Cuba.

From this perspective, Mexico is consciously deciding to strengthen ties with the United States during the neighboring nation’s stage as grand global empire and is looking to help extend U.S. influence.

The other interpretation of Mexico’s decision was the one given by Santiago Creel, Mexico’s powerful secretary of government: “At this moment, the focus of our attention is the Cuban government and no one else.”

Unfortunately, this simply cannot be the case, because any Mexican action as regards the Cuban government ends up intersecting with the actions of the U.S. government. It is possible that Fox’s administration, extremely irritated with Cuba’s president, has decided to escalate its confrontation with Cuba in order to punish the Cuban leadership and, in the process, associate its internal adversaries, especially the left leaning PRD (Democratic Revolution Party) with an undemocratic Cuba, but without intending to, also reformulated Mexican policy toward the United States.

In this case, President Fox, because of his desire to end the diplomatic poker game with Castro, has fallen directly into what the former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, Wayne Smith, summarized in this way in Mexico City’s La Jornada daily newspaper on May 4: “The Mexicans are playing the U.S. game in this.”

In short, before attempting to undertake a rearrangement of its Cuba policy, a move that implicates multiple interests on the international stage, Mexico’s government should have and make public a clear “master plan,” which can’t be anything other than a definition of the kind of long-term relationship that is desired and should exist with the United States.

A Spanish-language version of this article, which was reprinted widely in Mexico, is available at HispanicEconomics.com.

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