March 6, 2002

Mexico, Cuba relations intact after embassy incident

HAVANA, Cuba (AP) --Fidel Castro said last week's occupation of Mexico's
embassy by 21 young men did not harm relations between the two nations and
warned that Cubans forcing their way into foreign missions will never receive
permission to leave the communist island.

In a live television appearance late Tuesday, the Cuban leader said he didn't blame
Mexican Foreign Secretary Jorge Castaneda for the embassy occupation, which
came after Castaneda said his embassy's doors "are open" to Cuban citizens.

Cuba has blamed the U.S. government's Radio Marti of provoking the occupation by
repeatedly broadcasting a sound bite from Castaneda's comments, which were made
during a visit to Florida.

Castaneda later said his words were taken out of context by "radicals" in Miami.
Radio Marti denied starting the rumors.

"We do not say ... that Castaneda was responsible for what happened," Castro said
during the three-hour appearance. "His words were manipulated."

Castro said the incident in no way harmed Cuba's relationship with Mexico, nor
changed his view of Mexican President Vicente Fox, with whom he spoke by
telephone during the standoff.

Castro said he considered Fox "a man of honor" and insisted that he had "no
problem" with the Mexican president's brief meeting with Cuban dissidents three
weeks before during a visit here.

Reports of Castaneda's comments sparked feverish rumors in Havana, and by late
February 27, at least 100 Cubans had showed up at the embassy asking about
Mexican visas.

In the increasing chaos around the mission, a group of young men stole a bus,
ejected the driver and passengers, and then crashed the bus into the embassy gate
and rushed inside. Several other young men vaulted over the embassy walls.

After repeated unsuccessful attempts to persuade the men to leave, Mexico asked
Cuba to help expel them as long as the officers were unarmed and limited force was
used. Mexico said the men did not ask for political asylum.

Cuban television showed the first video footage of the eviction.

In what Castro said was an operation that lasted exactly four minutes and 33
seconds, the young men could be seen being hustled out of the building early Friday
by unarmed police officers wearing combat helmets. No weapons were seen and the
men did not resist.

Additional clips showed Castro greeting the police officers later Friday, hugging their
team leader and even posing with them for a group photograph.

The Cuban leader on Tuesday defended his government's handling of the eviction
and said that any other Cubans who force their way into foreign missions here will
not be granted permission to leave the island.

"We guarantee the security of the embassies," Castro said.

Relatives of some of the young men said afterward that they did not know where
they were being held and were concerned about their fate. The government has
provided no information on the men's whereabouts.

 Copyright 2002 The Associated Press.