The United States, Mexico, and Cuba: cooperation, competition or conflict?

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    Enrique Bravo

    Besides the North American agenda, understood as the relationship between Mexico, the U.S., and Canada, there is another trilateral agenda that is not often discussed: Mexico, the U.S., and Cuba. The recent visit of President Obama to Cuba, following the reestablishment of US-Cuba diplomatic ties, gives us an opportunity to think about what this could mean for Mexico, the relationships between all three countries.

    This triangle has had slightly different shapes over the nearly six decades that have passed since the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959. But two constants remained until the beginning of the 21st century: U.S. efforts to undermine the Castro regime and Mexico’s mostly uninterrupted support and diplomatic ties with Cuba.

    The first major change in this tendency occurred with the alternation of power in Mexico in 2000. The period of PAN governments between 2001-2012 was characterized by an antagonism between the Mexican Government and the Castro brothers. Once back in power, however, the PRI government of Enrique Peña Nieto began actively seeking an improvement in the Mexico-Cuba relationship. These efforts were rewarded with Raul Castro’s visit to Mexico in November 2015.

    The most dramatic change, however, took place between the U.S. and Cuba. The simultaneous announcements on December 17, 2014, in Havana and Washington of the intention to reestablish diplomatic relations between Cuba and the U.S. marked a radical shift in U.S. foreign policy to the island. They reestablished diplomatic ties and Embassies reopened in the Summer of 2015. This process preceded President Obama’s historic visit to Cuba last week. Of course, this change of policy will only like continue deepening if Democrats keep the presidency in the next election.

    During this process of change, one observation has certainly stood out: Mexico was largely absent from the process that led to the radical modification in US policy toward Cuba. The road to this rapprochement involved talks in Canada and mediation by the Vatican, but no meetings in Mexico City (this must have felt like a cold shoulder to Mexican diplomacy). It really seemed that Mexico was out of the equation of the new dynamics between Cuba and the US.

    With these changes in dynamics, a few questions arise: Could Mexico and the US now also cooperate on Cuba-related issues? Or will they simply compete with each other in courting the Cuban government for business opportunities? With new diplomatic ties, and an embargo that seems condemned to disappear in the coming years, could Mexico (and Latin America) join the U.S. in scrutinizing the truly authoritarian nature of the Cuban government, and denounce the lack of democracy and grave violations of human rights on the Island without feeling that it is playing the bully’s game? And finally, how would a Republican presidency alter the calculus of the Mexico-U.S.-Cuba triangle?


    Indeed, there is a hidden trilateral relationship between the U.S., Cuba and Mexico.
    Historically, Mexico and Cuba have had, in general, a strong relationship. Mexico has defended Cuba’s national sovereignty and has welcomed many of its people. Cuba is important for the Mexican people, mainly due to the shared history: Spanish colonization, language and the proximity with the U.S.
    As Enrique mentioned, the relationship between Cuba and Mexico are much better with the PRI in power. En January of 2014, Enrique Peña Nieto visited Cuba to reinstall good relations between both countries and to boost commercial initiatives with a new ProMexico’s office.
    The Mexican government has the opportunity to be more participative in the U.S. – Cuba relationship. Yes, Mexico has been totally absent in the relationship. But, I believe that Mexico is the one that has to approach the Obama administration, it has to prove that its ties with the Cuban government and its people are a necessary tool for the U.S., for them to establish a well-developed relationship. The Mexican government has to demonstrate to the White House that the matter isn’t just a binational issue, but a regional one. A trilateral or a regional front with Cuba will enhance the chances of bringing change in Cuba, and a better regional environment for the future.

    Marco Morales

    Enrique raises very interesting topics on a most timely subject. To his point, the Cuban-Mexican-American triangle has historically been an important one, but for the most part remains relegated to a small cadre of uber-specialists. His bringing it out to this broader group is a most welcome contribution.

    The way Tlatelolco (currently in La Alameda) tells the tale of this triangle, Mexico was the only country to stand up to the US in all matters Cuba-related, by virtue of its “foreign policy principles”. The epitome of this incorruptible Mexican diplomatic will rests in being the only country to refuse breaking off of diplomatic relations with Cuba, when the OAS decided all its members should do so.

    One interesting detail in this story, though, was recently raised by Leogrande and Kornbluh in their book: Mexico’s position was tacitly agreed with President Johnson, as it served US interests to have such a close interlocutor there. So, was PRI’s support of Cuba a matter of principle or convenience? Only those present would know the truth.

    Perhaps Enrique’s most poignant question pertains to whether Mexico (and Latin America) could form a common front with the US to scrutinize the Cuban government’s human rights and democracy records. By Congressional mandate and DoS procurement, the US will continue to make the case that President Obama made recently in Havana: the Cuban government needs to improve its record in those two areas. But who will second that voice?

    Mexico is an interesting case in itself. Traditionally, PRI administrations have – under the guise of a “non-intervention doctrine” – prevented outside scrutiny on human rights and democracy performance within the country in exchange for not supporting similar missions on other territories. It was only during the latest 12 years of non-PRI administrations that the government opened itself up to scrutiny and became a more active proponent of scrutinizing other countries’ human rights and democracy records. With PRI back in power, except for a few misfires, the government is back to its traditional roots.

    Furthermore, if a desire to bring scrutiny to Cuba were to come from the Mexican Congress, it would have to involve the left(s)’s outdated and inflexible defense of all “leftist” governments, authoritarian or not: Cuba, Venezuela, Argentina, Ecuador… and even the DPRK. If at all, the push would have to come from a small coalition that should (oddly enough) include the right. It seems an extreme uphill battle in Mexico, if a battle at all.

    The recent rise of leftist governments in Latin America – the so-called pink tide – during the early 2000s should have been a force of change. After all, the agenda of the modern left should have the protection of democracy and human rights at its core. Unfortunately, the Latin American left, with a few exceptions – Brazil, Uruguay, and Chile – remains staunchly opposed to take a close look at human rights and democracy records both domestically and abroad.

    Moreover, the Latin American left – with even fewer exceptions: Uruguay, and Chile – remains adamantly anti-American. So, backing a US-led “assault” on the pristine Cuban regime – even if to improve the life of Cubans – would most likely be a non-starter for most governments in the region.

    Having said all this, it seems that a regional coalition to advance human rights and democracy in Cuba would be more viable if it excludes the Latin American left and PRI. Paradoxically, perhaps the recurrent corruption scandals in Mexico, and the widespread corruption surfacing in nearly all leftist governments in Latin America may be a blessing in disguise for the Cuban people in the short run.

    It seems that this possibility – while potentially a game-changer for those living in Cuba under the Castro regime – may be subject to a number of forces yet to be defined. Nevertheless, it is perhaps one issue deserving of continuous attention in months to come.

    Jessica De Alba

    The relationship of Mexico and Cuba has always been characterized as an “indispensable” one, just for matter of “friendship” and support to this country which (dummly) dared defying the “Empire”. Frankly speaking, there is not much for Mexico to gain in this and I don’t think the relationship among the three countries is of any strategic concern if it weren’t for the oil-triangle in the Gulf, the only important matter for negotiation among the three.
    Mexican business have an interest in investing in the island, as do American companies. But this won’t lead to any kind of competition between the two North American partners. We only have to look at one figure: one day of economic exchanges between Mexico and the U.S. is not even near to Mexico-Cuba exchanges over a Year: 42 million dollar a month, versus 44 billion… This gives a clear picture about cooperation, conflict, or strategic interest. Social issues, well, I wouldn’t expect many changes either.

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