Los Angeles Times
March 18, 2001

Mexican Envoy Seeks to Forge U.S.-Cuba Ties

              By MARK FINEMAN, Times Staff Writer

                   HAVANA--In the two months since Ricardo Pascoe arrived here as Mexico's ambassador to Cuba, he has met with President
              Fidel Castro nearly a dozen times, briefed visiting U.S. intelligence officials and negotiated multimillion-dollar trade deals with the
              Communist nation.
                   And received just one death threat.
                   After all, he will not only be the point man in trying to restore historically close Mexican-Cuban relations but will also serve as an
              ideological translator for the United States and Cuba in an attempt to bridge four decades of Cold War animosity.
                   The blue-eyed 50-year-old is a man fond of complexities and acquainted with conflict. He's a former Trotskyite and political
              prisoner and an architect of Mexico's modern political left, but he owes his job to Mexico's new center-right president, Vicente Fox.
              His appointment in December triggered a furious 10-hour debate within the opposition party he co-founded, the leftist Democratic
              Revolution Party.
                   Although he earned a practical doctorate from the London School of Economics, he has also received a more ethereal
              philosophy degree from New York University. And his many years in the United States and Cuba have made him fluent not only in
              the languages of both but also in their political cultures--a combination tailor-made for the challenge ahead.
                   "My feeling is that we can play a real role in creating some sort of dialogue between Washington and Havana," Pascoe said in an
              interview here last week. "It's a crucial and difficult moment. But there are also great opportunities."
                   Pascoe's optimism comes at a time when even he concedes that the prospect of Washington ending its policy of isolating
              Cuba--including a 39-year-old economic embargo of the island--appears grim, at best.
                   During his confirmation hearings, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell labeled Castro "an aging starlet who will not change in his
              lifetime." Powell added that the growing number of U.S. lawmakers who want to lift the embargo to benefit American business
              "should do nothing that encourages him or gives him the wherewithal to stay longer."
                   Conversely, the Cuban Communist Party daily Granma last week rated President Bush's performance during his first 50 days in
              office as "failed." It trumpeted economic decline, escalating violence in U.S. homes and schools and, citing last month's bombing of
              Iraq, a foreign policy seeking to make Washington "again a Cold War capital."
                   Castro, meeting Friday with a group of reporters, editors and executives of the Tribune Co., which includes the Los Angeles
              Times, described his approach to the new administration: "Watch. Wait. And see."
                   And Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque, at the same meeting, said of relations with the U.S. under the Bush administration: "I'm
              not optimistic."
                   Perez Roque spoke of "the same prefabricated faces" in Bush's key foreign policy positions and an unwillingness to take on
              Miami's small but vocal anti-Castro lobby. "They have surrendered before the battle even began," he said. "There is a risk that
              cannot be understated that relations can get worse, especially if the U.S. government isn't able to withstand the pressures that are
              being exerted by the extreme right groups in Miami."

                   Political Factors in Florida Cited
                   Analysts suggest that Bush is beholden to Cuban Americans in southern Florida because they voted for him en masse in the state
              that decided his presidency. That's also the state where his brother is governor--and up for reelection next year.
                   "All the expressions that I hear coming from Washington indicate that there is a kind of hard line on this issue," Pascoe
              acknowledged, specifically citing Bush's choice of Cuban American Otto J. Reich as his key advisor on Western Hemisphere affairs.
                   Nonetheless, the new Mexican ambassador said he hopes to engender a new dialogue with original strategic options. And he
              points to some intriguing details: personal histories, relationships and, as he puts it, the sheer "genetics" of the three countries' leaders.
                   "I've been hearing a lot about this empathy between Presidents Bush and Fox," Pascoe said, pointing to the chemistry between
              the U.S. and Mexican leaders during Bush's first foreign trip after taking office. "Some are saying it's because they're both landed
              gentlemen. Well, the curious thing about all of this is that Fidel is also a landed gentleman."
                   Pascoe, who acknowledged that he has known Castro for "a very long time," recalled the "extraordinary empathy" between
              Castro and Fox when the Cuban leader attended the Mexican presidential inauguration in December.
                   "Fidel was asking Fox: 'What are the good Spanish wines? Do they travel well? Where can I get them?' " Pascoe recalled.
                   "In other circumstances, the three of them--Fidel, Fox and Bush--because of their backgrounds, could sit down together and be
              buddies. But in these circumstances, the one person who can do this with Fidel is Fox."
                   There is a long history of Mexico playing a hidden yet historic role in subtly influencing U.S.-Cuban relations and even defusing
              crises between the two foes.
                   Most recently, during the 1994 rafter crisis that sent thousands of Cubans to the U.S.--and an untold number to their
              deaths--Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari used Mexico's "special relationship" with Havana to intervene and stem the
              flow, according to Salinas' autobiography. He later used his influence to arrange face-to-face U.S.-Cuban meetings that led to a
              bilateral immigration treaty and a continuing dialogue on the issue.
                   Yet it was Salinas whom many now blame for that relationship falling into disrepair under the six-year administration of his
              successor, Ernesto Zedillo. First, an economic time bomb exploded a month into Zedillo's term, forcing him to seek a $50-billion
              bailout package, in which the U.S. pledged $20 billion. Some analysts, including Pascoe, strongly suspect that getting Zedillo to
              distance Mexico from Cuba was "a string attached" to the U.S. bailout.
                   Then, a fleeing Salinas exiled himself in Havana, infuriating Zedillo and his top aides. The net effect: For the last several years,
              Zedillo's administration had declined to sign a protocol sanctioning and protecting trade between Mexico and Cuba, and the $400
              million in trade between the two countries in 1995 fell to $122 million last year.
                   But next month, Pascoe said, the two countries will sign that trade protocol in Havana. Already, tens of millions of dollars in deals
              have been struck between Mexico's private sector and Cuba's hybrid of state-run, quasi-capitalist companies.
                   Those deals may well have been behind the death threat he received last month: a fax that Cuban authorities later traced to the
              anti-Castro group Alpha 66 in Miami, which called it an expression of displeasure rather than a threat.
                   "We need to build a new way of looking at this issue of U.S.-Cuban relations," Pascoe said. "And Fox is convinced, as am I, that
              one very important way to do that is to build up trade."

                   U.S. Policy Affects Mexican Trade Deals
                   To do so, Pascoe knows he must tread lightly. The 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which punishes non-U.S. companies and their
              directors for doing business with Cuba, has already helped torpedo an ambitious, $200-million Mexican investment in the island's
              partly privatized telephone company. Recent pending Mexican deals for the export of 5,000 tons of beans and for a flour mill and
              even Coca-Cola bottling here, he said, either use loopholes in the act or are sponsored by Mexican companies with no ties to the
                   But the Fox administration, he stressed, isn't in it for the money. It is in Mexico's best interest, he said, to help improve relations
              between two countries that have "literally trapped Mexico in the middle" of a Cold War dispute.
                   And Pascoe, a voracious reader whose love of the complex is so great that he cites as his favorite book James Joyce's "Ulysses,"
              acknowledged that to break through 40 years of mistrust he must shatter some deep-seated U.S. notions about Cuba, communism
              and Castro.
                   Among his ammunition for the Americans: Cuba now has a hybrid economy in which about 60% of its 11 million people have
              access to dollars.
                   And Castro, Pascoe insisted, already is putting in place a transition of power to prepare Cuba for what the Communist leader has
              called "the post-Castro era."
                   "He won't step down," Pascoe said. "But there are many ways of stepping aside. He is not going to disappear until he dies,
              because he's really interested in whatever this is [that is Cuba today] continuing after he's gone. But he's building his transition. He's
              creating a situation where there will be a passing of power--a prime minister, perhaps."
                   Of Castro's brother Raul, head of the Cuban military, second secretary of the Communist Party and Castro's personally
              designated successor, Pascoe added: "The brother can ensure stability in that transition. But, from a political point of view, they're
              going to be moving in another direction.
                   "I think Fidel is going to surprise us," he added with a knowing smile, "and that surprise might even come very soon."

              Copyright 2001