The Dallas Morning News
March 27, 2002

Cuba wants Mexico to admit it snubbed Castro at meeting

Officials deny they sought to keep Cuban leader away from Bush

By TRACEY EATON / The Dallas Morning News

HAVANA Cuba called Mexico's foreign minister a shameless and "diabolical" liar Tuesday as diplomatic tension between the two traditional allies veered toward a
full-blown rift.

The latest tension stems from a U.N. aid summit in Mexico last week, when Cuban President Fidel Castro abruptly left the conference under cloudy circumstances.

In a highly unusual move, Cuban officials on Tuesday disclosed a detailed account of what they say led to the Cuban president's quick exit. Their version of events
includes what they say went on behind closed doors as the two countries wrangled over Mr. Castro's attendance at the summit.

For the Cubans, it comes down to this: President Bush didn't want to be in the same room as Mr. Castro and let the Mexicans know that in no uncertain terms.
Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda then carried out the Americans' demands, trying everything possible to make sure the Cuban leader either skipped the summit or
left before Mr. Bush's arrival.

Mr. Bush, Mr. Castañeda and Mexican President Vicente Fox all deny the Cuban allegations.

But Cuban officials vow that unless Mexican authorities and specifically, Mr. Castañeda drop their denials and publicly confirm Cuba's account, they will produce
evidence that shows who is lying.

"We ask for nothing more than a halt to the provocations, insults, lies and macabre plans by Mr. Castañeda against Cuba," said a blistering editorial in Tuesday's
Granma, a state-run newspaper. "If not, there will be no alternative but to divulge what we haven't wanted to divulge and make dust of his false and cynical
statements, cost whatever it costs."

The attacks on Mr. Castañeda mark a new low in relations between Cuba and Mexico, the only Latin American country that did not break diplomatic ties with the
island after the 1959 revolution.

A Fox administration source said officials will probably say little about the episode with hopes that it will blow over and be forgotten by the time most Mexicans
return from Holy Week vacations.

The Mexican Senate isn't quite ready to let go of it, though, and is demanding that Mr. Fox explain what happened. Senators also want Mr. Castañeda to appear
before them as soon as possible.

The foreign minister's "personal foibles" shouldn't be allowed to damage Mexico's long friendship with Cuba, Sen. Demetrio Sodi de la Tijera said.

Mr. Castañeda is in Geneva for a U.N. human rights conference this week, and his office had no comment on the Granma report.

Paper's allegations

The newspaper editorial cites a series of diplomatic incidents in which it says Mr. Castañeda has provoked and tried to "humiliate" Cuba. It says Mr. Castañeda:

Gave a list of political prisoners to Felipe Pérez Roque, his Cuban counterpart, then later tried to inflate the importance of the move by saying incorrectly that
Mr. Fox had given the list to Mr. Castro.

Returned to Mexico and declared that his country's relationship with the Cuban revolution had ended and that Mexico's relationship with the Cuban republic had
begun, a remark that some Castro loyalists found offensive.

Met with Cuba's sworn enemies anti-Castro exiles in Miami and said the Mexican Embassy in Havana was "open to all Cubans." Radio Martí, run by the U.S.
government, repeated the statement, leading a group of Cubans to ram a bus into the embassy gates in hopes of getting asylum.

Then came the Monterrey, Mexico, summit. Granma says that Mexican officials first asked that Mr. Castro not attend the meeting. The two sides negotiated, and
the Cuban president agreed to leave before Mr. Bush's arrival.

Mr. Castro gave a short speech, called the world economy "a huge casino" that exploits the poor, and stormed out.

After that, Granma says, Mr. Castañeda "blatantly lied about the facts ... more out of ambition and vanity than hate or ideology, which he never had or will have."

President Bush has denied that any pressure was applied. Mr. Fox also denied pressuring Mr. Castro.

"As sudden as his arrival was, so was his exit," Mr. Fox said in a television interview Monday. "He was received, I greeted him, and then I said goodbye that
simple."

Mexican Interior Minister Santiago Creel said Tuesday that Mexico had not received any "formal communication" from Cuban officials and would not respond to
published statements.

Assessing the damage

The long-term impact of the dispute is unclear.

Ricardo Alarcón, the head of the Cuban assembly, told reporters in Monterrey that he was optimistic that overall ties between the two countries will remain close.

Neither Mexico nor Cuba has any incentive to start an all-out diplomatic brawl, others say.

"The Cubans seem eager to preserve their relationship with Mexico," said Philip Peters, who was a State Department official during the George Bush and Ronald
Reagan administrations.

"I think the line is pretty clear. They are complaining about this incident and blaming Castañeda, but keeping Fox out of it," Mr. Peters said. "They're laying all this out
because they're insulted. They know very well that there are segments of Mexican public opinion, including legislators, who are hopping mad about this. So this
energizes the Mexican left.

"But long term, I don't think it will make that much of a difference in relations between the two countries. And I think it will eventually go away," said Mr. Peters, now
vice president of the Lexington Institute, a research organization in Washington.

"It's Castro showing that he perhaps alone among Latin American leaders is not afraid to take on the United States, and hurt his friends in Mexico in the process,"
said Ana María Salazar, a former U.S. Defense Department policy director. "And Mexico has made itself an easy target for the Latin American left by proudly
displaying its new, close relationship with the Bush administration."

In any case, Mr. Castañeda's tangle with the Cubans marks a remarkable shift from the 1960s and '70s, when he traveled frequently to the island and was seen as
being sympathetic to the revolution.

Staff writer Ricardo Sandoval in Mexico City contributed to this report.