Mexican foreign minister meets with Raul Castro in latest sign of improved bilateral relations

By Andrea Rodriguez, AP
Friday, December 11, 2009

Mexican foreign minister meets with Raul Castro

HAVANA — Mexico’s foreign minister met with Cuban President Raul Castro for three hours Friday, the latest sign her country and the island have repaired recently chilly relations.

In Havana for a one-day visit, Patricia Espinosa discussed with Castro the debts his communist government has run up with Mexican companies, as well as the fight against drug smuggling and a recent agreement to repatriate Cuban migrants detained in Mexico while trying to sneak into the U.S.

Espinosa said at a news conference that she invited Castro to come to Mexico ahead of a regional summit in February. She also said Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s long-promised trip to Cuba would become a reality sometime during the first three months of 2010.

Mexico and Cuba have historically enjoyed warm ties but relations soured during the previous Mexican administration of conservative President Vicente Fox, and both countries temporarily withdrew their ambassadors in 2004.

Fox’s successor, Calderon, is also a conservative, but he took office in December 2006 saying he wanted improved relations with Cuba.

Cuba declared ties “fully normalized” in March 2008 and both sides signed a sweeping immigration agreement seven months later.

Espinosa praised that accord Friday, though she said it has only served to repatriate 265 Cubans detained in Mexican territory in the approximately 14 months since it went into effect.

Cuban immigrants have increasingly headed for Mexico in recent years — often to the coast near Cancun, then overland to the Texas border because it has become so hard to dodge the U.S. Coast Guard and reach Florida by sea.

Before the agreement, Cubans caught illegally in Mexico were usually held for a time, then given exit orders that allowed them to continue to the U.S., where nearly all Cubans can present identity documents to receive residency. The pact between Cuba and Mexico seeks to speed their deportation back to their homeland.

Espinosa also said that during her talks here, she expressed the concerns of many in the Mexican business community who have had bank accounts frozen by the Cuba. The government has been so cash-strapped during the global economic downturn that it has barred many private firms from withdrawing money from island banks.

Cuba’s government, which controls well over 90 percent of the island’s economy, is also behind on payments to hundreds of companies from Mexico, Spain and other countries.

Espinosa said Cuba “is not unaware of its debts,” saying that in some cases the communist government has worked to pay what it owes. Still, she said both countries need to work out a far more-effective repayment plan.

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