Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

MEXICO: Vote Against Cuba in UN Feeds Tension

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, Apr 15 2004 (IPS) - For the third year in a row, the Mexican government voted against Cuba in the United Nations Human Rights Commission, feeding the tension between two countries that until recently enjoyed strong, friendly ties.

Relations between Mexico and Cuba, which were close for over 40 years, have chilled in the past three years, which has had an impact on business interests, trade, and even attempts at cooperation on the legal front.

In events that looked like a photocopy of what happened last year and the year before, the Mexican government of Vicente Fox said it supported what it saw as a ”constructive” resolution criticising Cuba Thursday, while some local political leaders protested what they deemed a ”pro-U.S.” vote, and authorities in Cuba lashed out against the Latin American nations that voted against Havana.

Since 2001, relations between the two countries have been marred by the tension triggered by Mexico’s votes against Cuba in the Human Rights Commission, the highest U.N. authority on human rights, which meets every year in Geneva.

In the history of the votes on resolutions condemning Cuba’s human rights record, Mexico has abstained on 10 occasions, and even voted once in favour of the island. But in the past three years, it joined the nations criticising the situation in Havana.

On Thursday, the Mexican delegation in Geneva voted along with those of 21 other countries in favour of the resolution presented by Honduras, which deplores the lengthy prison sentences handed down to 75 dissidents last year, and urges the government of Fidel Castro to accept a visit by U.N. human rights experts to assess the situation on the ground.

Thanks to the votes cast by Mexico and six other Latin American countries, the resolution was narrowly approved by 22 to 21 votes, with 10 abstentions (including Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay).

Once again, the Cuban delegation accused the United States of being behind the resolution, which was introduced by Honduras this year.

Jorge Castañeda, who served as foreign minister in the early years of the Fox administration, and who was described in the past by Cuba as Washington’s ”toady”, applauded Mexico’s decision to vote against Cuba Thursday.

Since Fox took power in late 2000, after seven decades of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Mexico has modified its traditionally close ties with Cuba’s socialist government.

Foreign Minister Ernesto Derbez, who replaced Castañeda in late 2002, has maintained his predecessor’s line in recommending that Cuba welcome U.N. human rights inspectors, just as Mexico does.

In Uruguay, where he is on an official visit, Derbez said he hoped that any ”irritation” on the part of Cuba will be ”passing.”

Added to the friction over the votes in the Human Rights Commission have been other incidents that have fuelled the tension between the two countries, such as the occupation of the Mexican Embassy in Cuba by dissidents in 2002, and meetings between Fox officials and Castro opponents.

There was also a messy incident in which Castro made public a telephone conversation with Fox, which he had taped without the Mexican president’s knowledge.

In the past, relations between the two countries were so friendly that Mexico outspokenly defended Cuba, which made it a solitary voice in the region in the 1960s when the rest of Latin America cut off ties with Havana and helped force the Caribbean nation out of the Organisation of American States (OAS).

Furthermore, it was in Mexico that Castro planned the guerrilla war and revolution that overthrew dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959.

”The recent distancing with Havana has reduced the interest in trade between Mexico and the island, an area that will continue eroding,” Cristóbal Márquez, a professor of international affairs at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, told IPS.

In mid-March, Mexico’s state-owned National Bank of Foreign Commerce (BANCOMEXT) closed its office in Cuba, leaving unresolved a dispute over a 380 million dollar debt that Havana owes Mexico.

Mexican companies doing business in Cuba have thus lost crucial advice and support, while the possibility of new Mexican loans to Cuba has been cut off.

Trade between the two nations, which held steady at around 400 million dollars in the first half of the 1990s, has dropped below 250 million dollars in the past two years.

More than 200 mainly small and medium-sized Mexican companies do business in Cuba. And despite the dip in bilateral trade, Mexico remains the country’s top trading partner in Latin America.

Márquez said another consequence of the increasingly chilled relations with Cuba would be a delay in the extradition of Mexican businessman Carlos Ahumada, who was arrested on the island early this month on the Fox administration’s request, and ”perhaps other problems in the area of judicial cooperation.”

The Argentine-born Ahumada, accused of money laundering and fraud in Mexico, allegedly made huge bribes to leftist politicians in Mexico to obtain business favours, according to videos broadcast by the local media and ongoing police investigations.

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