The Miami Herald
Mar. 07, 2002

Havana embassy incident should not cow Mexico

                      If President Fidel Castro of Cuba instigated the Feb. 27 occupation of the Mexican Embassy in Havana in
                      an effort to press the Mexican government to drop its defense of human rights and democracy on the
                      island, as many of us suspect, he may not have succeeded.

                      REACTION IN MEXICO

                      A week after 21 young Cubans hijacked a bus in Havana and crashed into the Mexican embassy gates
                      in hopes of leaving the country, growing numbers of Mexican and U.S. officials believe that the incident
                      was encouraged by the Cuban regime in part to create a major political problem at home for Mexican
                      Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda and his pro-democracy foreign policy.

                      Only hours after the incident, a small but vocal chorus of Mexican leftist opposition congressmen called
                      for Castañeda's resignation. The leftist daily La Jornada ran a front-page story -- denied by Mexican
                      officials -- that President Vicente Fox had berated Castañeda for the alleged troubles his human rights
                      advocacy was causing.

                      But there are hopeful signs that Fox and Castañeda will not be cowed into shelving their pro-democracy
                      foreign policy. Perhaps, Castañeda's initial statements that the crisis had been instigated by
                      U.S.-financed Radio Martí and radical Miami exile groups was a defensive move -- granted, somewhat
                      cynical -- to avoid picking a fight with Cuba on an issue in which Cuba had a clear advantage to affect
                      events on the ground.

                      PRO-HUMAN RIGHTS

                      In an interview, Castañeda gave the first clear indication since the Feb. 27 incident that Mexico will go
                      ahead with its pro-human rights stand. He said Fox will continue seeking both closer trade relations
                      with the island and closer ties with Cuban human rights activists.

                      ''This incident will not result in the slightest change in Mexico's policy toward Cuba,'' Castañeda said.
                      ``It will neither change our intention to continue deepening our economic relations with Cuba nor our
                      insistence in the absolute respect for human rights on the island.''

                      As for the human rights of the 21 Cubans who were arrested by the Cuban security forces hours after
                      the incident, Mexican sources say they have been interviewed by Mexican consular officials in Havana
                      and were found to be in good condition.

                      There are indications that, rhetoric aside, Mexico's two-track Cuba policy will continue.

                      Earlier this week, Castañeda publicly fired the head of Mexico's Foreign Ministry's website for failing to
                      stress Mexico's new commitment to human rights and democracy in a response to an e-mail from a
                      Miami Cuban businessman.

                      In coming days, a senior Mexican diplomat is to visit Miami to reassure Cuban exile leaders of Fox's
                      continued commitment to human rights in Cuba. And there will be new gestures toward Cuban
                      dissidents on the island, senior Mexican officials say.

                      DEBT RESCHEDULING

                      On the other hand, Mexico announced Wednesday that it has agreed to reschedule Cuba's $380 million
                      foreign debt to Mexico, which in effect will mean that Cuba will now have a $30 million line of credit to
                      buy Mexican goods.

                      By now, many Mexican and U.S. officials say they believe that Castro was a willing accomplice of the
                      Feb. 27 occupation of the Mexican Embassy. Among the indications leading to that conclusion:

                      10-MINUTE DRIVE

                      The 21 Cubans who hijacked the bus in one of Havana's best-secured neighborhoods forced all the
                      passengers to get out, and drove the vehicle unmolested for 10 minutes -- at times going against the
                      traffic on Havana's Fifth Avenue -- until they reached the embassy grounds.

                      The fact that a hijacked bus can move for 10 minutes, at times against traffic, in the middle of Havana is
                      either a phenomenal breakdown of Cuba's security apparatus or, more likely, a conscious decision to let
                      the hijackers go ahead with their plan, some Mexican and U.S. officials say.

                      In subsequent interviews by Mexican diplomats in Havana, none of the 21 hijackers said they had
                      heard Radio Martí that day. The detainees said they had heard that the Mexican Embassy would be
                      open to asylum seekers ''from rumors on the street,'' according to Mexican sources familiar with the
                      interviews.

                      Many Mexican and U.S. officials say they believe that, while most of the Cuban intruders were legitimate
                      would-be refugees, they were egged on by rumors spread by Cuba's security apparatus.

                      Granma, which usually takes three or four days to report on breaking news stories, came out the next
                      morning with full coverage of an incident that had taken place at 9:30 the night before.

                      My conclusion: Castro is aiming at Castañeda, because he does not want to burn his bridges with Fox.
                      If Mexico does what it says, and joins all other modern democracies in demanding basic freedoms in
                      Cuba, it will be a marked improvement over its longtime support for Cuba's dictatorship.