THE OPPENHEIMER REPORT
BY ANDRES OPPENHEIMER | Miami Herald
What irony! Mexico’s center-right President Felipe Calderón, a man who made his political life fighting for democracy, may become his country’s first leader in 15 years to improve ties with Cuba’s dictatorship and to turn his back on the island’s peaceful opposition.
And judging from what Cuba’s best-known opposition leader, Oswaldo Payá, told me in a telephone interview from Havana this week, Mexico’s official shunning of Cuba’s opposition—much like Brazilian President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva’s similar attitude during a recent visit to Cuba—could hardly come at a worse time.
First, the facts: Earlier this week, a Mexican government communiqué announced that Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa will visit Havana in March for the first official meeting with her Cuban counterpart. The visit ‘‘reflects the political will that has been expressed by the two governments to establish a framework of bilateral understanding,’’ the Mexican foreign ministry said in a statement.
There is no indication in the statement that Mexico’s foreign minister will meet with Cuba’s peaceful opposition leaders, as Cuban officials regularly do when they travel to Mexico.
What’s more, Calderón—whose ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Council presided over the recent meeting that killed the U.N. monitoring of Cuba’s rights abuses—would become the first president since 1992 to keep Cuban dissidents or exiles at arm’s length.
In 1992, former President Carlos Salinas met with Cuban exile leader Carlos Montaner and the late Jorge Mas Canosa. In 1999, Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo had his foreign minister, Rosario Green, meet with Cuba’s human rights leader, Elizardo Sánchez. In 2002, Mexican President Vicente Fox met with Payá and other opposition leaders in Havana.
A BIG `SETBACK’
‘‘This would be very serious,’’ said former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda, referring to the possibility that Espinosa may shun Cuba’s peaceful opposition during her trip to Cuba. ``It would amount to a setback going back three administrations, and it would be a clear abdication of everything that [Calderón’s] National Action Party has said and done.’‘
Asked about whether Espinosa will meet with dissidents during her trip, a Mexican foreign ministry spokesman told me that ‘‘the trip’s agenda has not been drafted yet.’’ He added that officials of the two countries have ``agreed to discuss all issues on the bilateral agenda, including human rights.’‘
Payá, head of Cuba’s Christian Liberation Movement, a group that in recent years gathered about 25,000 signatures on the island calling for a referendum on fundamental freedoms, told me that visits to Cuba by foreign officials that don’t include meetings with opposition leaders ‘‘don’t contribute to peaceful change’’ on the island.
‘I know that they [Mexico] will argue that they don’t interfere in other countries’ affairs, but anyone who starts a relation with the Cuban government excluding the peaceful opposition and civil society is interfering big-time in Cuba’s affairs by identifying—and strengthening—those who wield power as if they were the only players, and excluding the majority of the people,’’ Payá said.
Asked whether Mexico, Brazil and other countries were bypassing Cuba’s opposition in an effort to get a foothold on the island and play a constructive role in an upcoming transition period, Payá said the net effect of shunning the opposition is delaying democratic changes.
‘‘By doing this [speaking only with the Cuban regime], they are contributing to hardening the regime’s stands, and to dishearten the Cuban people,’’ said Payá, whose proposed political reforms are listed on http://www.oswaldopaya.com. ``At this very moment, far from contributing to peaceful change and dialogue among Cubans, they are doing the opposite.’‘
FOR WHAT PURPOSE?
My opinion: There is nothing wrong with Mexican officials—or those of any other country, including the United States—holding talks with Cuba’s dictatorship if they are also talking with Cuba’s opposition.
And, having interviewed Calderón many times over the past 15 years, I have no doubt that his heart is with the Cuban dissidence.
But if Calderón is cozying up to Cuba’s dictatorship to get congressional support at home for his economic reforms, or to reaffirm his credentials as a Mexican nationalist, he has chosen the wrong issue.
He could find many worthier reasons to confront Washington, including the shameful anti-immigration sentiment fanned by most Republican candidates. Strengthening a decrepit dictatorship would be a big political mistake, and a betrayal of Calderón’s own political history.