Both Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Foreign Secretary Claudia Ruiz Massieu will travel to Cuba this weekend to attend the funeral of Fidel Castro, the leader of the Cuban Revolution who died November 25 at the age of 90.
Their presence underscores the renewed impetus given to the Mexico-Cuba relationship under the mandate of Peña Nieto.
“A friend of Mexico, promoter of a bilateral relationship based on respect dialogue and solidarity,” was how the president described the Cuban icon following his death.
In contrast to the scenes in Miami where exiled Cubans celebrated Castro’s death by dancing in the streets, the atmosphere outside the Cuban embassy in Mexico City was somber and respectful. Wreaths were laid, flowers were left, and some grievers sang “The Internationale.”
Notwithstanding his totalitarian regime’s well-catalogued human rights abuses, admiration for Castro runs deep in Mexico, fueled by generations of students weaned on the story of Cuba’s glorious revolution. The fact that Castro was one of the only Latin American figures to openly defy the United States enhanced his celebrity and esteem in this country. Apart from some Catholic bishops and former President Vicente Fox (a nemesis of Castro), few in Mexico this week bandied around the term “despot.”
A tweet by Guadalajara Mayor Enrique Alfaro, a centrist politician and former student union leader at the University of Guadalajara, illustrates this “emotional/revolutionary” bond that many Mexicans feel toward Castro: “A warrior has died and with him an era has ended. Rest in peace Commandante Fidel.”
In fact, Mexico played a key role in Castro’s military success over the U.S.-backed regime of President Fulgencio Batista.
In 1955, fleeing Cuba after being jailed for a year in Batista’s crackdown on dissenters, Castro took up residence in Mexico City, where he befriended Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Although monitored by Mexico’s secret police, he was given license to plan his revolution and he set sail for Cuba from Veracruz in November 1956 with 81 rebels aboard the yacht Granma.
Following Castro’s triumph in 1959, Mexico was the only country to oppose the decision to expel Cuba from the Organization of American States. The two nations maintained diplomatic relations throughout the Cold War and Castro always viewed Mexico as an important “buffer” between Cuba and the United States.
Relations began to sour after Mexico signed the free trade deal with the United States and Canada in 1994. Tensions came to a boil in 1998 when Mexico temporarily removed its ambassador from Havana after Castro criticized this country for being too close to its northern neighbor. President Ernesto Zedillo became miffed when Castro claimed more Mexicans knew about Mickey Mouse than their own national heroes.
The relationship hit rock bottom under the 2000-2006 presidency of Fox – perhaps the most pro-U.S. chief executive in Mexico’s history. A diplomatic incident threatened to careen out of control when Fox attempted to banish Castro from a regional development conference in Monterrey to avoid embarrassing the United States. Castro had made public a phone call between the two leaders in which Fox asked the Cuban leader “to come and have dinner and then leave.”
After two conservative presidents, in 2012 Peña Nieto sought to mend fences and begin a new chapter in Mexico-Cuba relations. He visited the island in 2014, pointedly not meeting with dissidents, as his two predecessors had done, signing a slew of bilateral agreements in various fields. Mexico forgave Cuba 70 percent of its debt, and Raul Castro paid an official visit here in 2015.
Peña Nieto will be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with many of his Latin American counterparts at this weekend’s funeral, as well as left-leaning leaders from around the world. Although many would argue that Castro’s light stopped shining toward the end of the 1990s, few would dare counter the claim that he was arguably the most influential Latin America figure of the 20th century.