- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 24, 2002

MEXICO CITY Mexico's latest embarrassing row with Cuba has deepened divisions between President Vicente Fox and a defiantly independent Congress.

Leftist lawmakers yesterday accused the Mexican leader of pressuring Cuban President Fidel Castro to leave a U.N. development summit last month and then lying about it.

On Monday, Mr. Castro released a tape of a private conversation confirming Mr. Fox had asked him to leave before President Bush arrived in the northern Mexican city of Monterey for the summit. Mexican officials had vigorously denied orchestrating Mr. Castro's early departure.

"This is the biggest disgrace Mexican foreign policy has suffered. The president's conduct is shameful," said Marti Batres, a leader of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party.

Mr. Fox has not addressed the matter publicly, but Foreign Secretary Jorge Castaneda said yesterday that the Mexican government had "absolutely nothing" to apologize for and that Mr. Fox never asked Mr. Castro to stay away from the summit.

Historically friendly relations between Cuba and Mexico have begun to fray in the past three months. First, Mr. Fox and Mr. Castaneda met with political dissidents during a visit to the island. Later, Mr. Castaneda was accused of inciting several young men to crash a stolen bus into the Mexican Embassy's gates in Havana in February.

And in the final blow, which provoked Mr. Castro to reveal his conversation with Mr. Fox, Mexico backed a U.N. human rights resolution Friday censuring Cuba for its human rights record.

The Cuba-related controversies have done little to help what most consider an already poor working relationship between the Mexican Congress and Mr. Fox. Congress has rejected all of the president's major initiatives since his election in July 2000.

With few days left in the current session and only two sessions preceding the 2003 elections, there is almost no chance that Mr. Fox's most important proposals fiscal reform and reforms of the electricity and oil sectors are going to be discussed further in the current Congress.

"So in a way, relations couldn't get any worse," said Benito Nacif, political analyst and congressional expert at the Center for Economic Development Research in Mexico City. "What matters is who emerges with the public's support in terms of the relationship with Cuba. This is going to be the fight."

It is not clear who will win, but the topic has already generated protests and violence. Early yesterday, a gasoline bomb was thrown at the Cuban Embassy in Mexico City, but failed to ignite. No arrests have been made.

Mexico was the only Latin American nation that refused to cut ties with the island after the 1959 revolution that brought Mr. Castro to power. Many here still identify Mexico's revolutionary history with Cuba's.

Mr. Fox, who has cultivated friendly relations with Mr. Bush, has gradually shifted Mexico's attitude more in line with U.S. policy.

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