- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 31, 2001

Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda yesterday clashed with U.S. policy on Cuba, saying in Washington that the new government of President Vicente Fox hopes to improve its financial, tourism and trade ties with the Caribbean island.

He said that U.S. efforts to isolate the island are counterproductive, but that Mexico will take a more active stance on human rights everywhere.

Mexico has maintained close ties with Fidel Castro's Cuba, but some have expected that the new conservative government in Mexico City would distance itself from the communist-run island.

Secretary of State Colin Powell, who met with Mr. Castaneda to prepare for a visit by President Bush to Mexico next month, said at a joint news conference that the United States would maintain sanctions on Cuba.

"Mexico is, of course, a sovereign nation free to pursue its own foreign policy and improve ties as it sees fit," Mr. Powell said in his first press encounter since he was sworn in as head of the State Department.

"We have had a chance to talk about Cuba, and the secretary [Mr. Castaneda] understands our concerns about Cuba and the fact that there are people still living under a form of government that should be, in this day and age, foreign to this hemisphere.

"So we will continue to pursue our relations with Cuba in a way that lets Mr. Castro know that we disapprove of his regime. We will keep our sanctions in place.

"We will only participate in those activities with Cuba that benefit the people directly and not the government. And we will keep in close contact with our Mexican friends so that they understand our point of view and we understand theirs," Mr. Powell said.

Mr. Castaneda remained firm on his plan to improve ties with Mexico.

"Without this being a name-calling or finger-pointing policy, this is one of the main priorities and one of the main changes that the Fox administration intends to bring about," he said.

"As President Fox has said on many occasions, we now have nothing to be ashamed about, and we're going to be very explicit and very forceful on this issue," said Mr. Castaneda, a leftist academic and former journalist recruited by the conservative Mr. Fox.

Mr. Castaneda, at a separate meeting sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the InterAmerican Dialogue, recalled that the pope visited Cuba and called for the nation to open up to the world and for the world to open up to Cuba.

Mexico's relations with Cuba deteriorated in the late 1990s, a time when the U.S. Congress passed several laws tightening its long-standing trade embargo against Cuba.

The laws are unpopular in Latin America, where Mr. Castro's repressive regime has little support but where U.S. interference and dominance in hemispheric affairs are traditionally resented.

An official of the anti-Castro Cuban-American National Foundation (CANF) said yesterday that so long as human rights are increasingly emphasized, he approves of the new Mexican policy.

"The idea that Mexico can in any way benefit economically from increased ties to Cuba is a fool's errand," said Jorge Cardenas, Washington director for CANF. "But if they act on their professed goal of increasing awareness to human rights, that would take any edge off an attempt to expand commercially with Cuba."

Mr. Castaneda said all of Latin America was pleased that Mr. Bush chose to make his first trip abroad as president to Mexico. He will visit Guanajuato, the home state of Mr. Fox, on Feb. 16.

Other issues raised in talks between Mr. Castaneda and U.S. officials included drugs, migration and energy.

Mexico considers the U.S. process of certifying that all countries cooperate in fighting drugs "counterproductive" and "an irritant," said Mr. Castaneda. The U.S. system should be replaced gradually by a multilateral process of measuring anti-drug actions, he said.

Mexico also is seeking a way to allow about 7 million Mexican citizens living in the United States both legal and illegal residents to vote in Mexican elections within two to four years.

He said Mexico wants to combat violence along the U.S.-Mexican border by some Americans targetingillegal entrants.

Mr. Fox has proposed some form of a guest-worker program or worker visas to allow Mexicans to provide labor for American businesses.

Regarding Colombia, Mr. Castaneda said his government favors peace talks between the Bogota government and rebel groups. But he would not endorse the more than $1 billion in U.S. military aid the U.S. Congress has approved for fighting narcotics.

On energy, Mr. Castaneda said the Mexican constitution bars foreign ownership of petroleum and gas production, but his government is searching for creative ways to allow foreign financing of those industries.

He also said U.S. investors may soon be allowed to invest in electric power generation plants.

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