Last Tuesday, at the 61st meeting of the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva, the United States put forth a resolution on the situation of human rights in Cuba. This year’s resolution—co- sponsored by the European Union—was described as “mild,” since it only calls for the extension of the mandate of a UN expert to examine human rights in Cuba and report back to the Commission the findings of the effort. It did not, however, reportedly ask for the Cuban government to receive the expert nor did it itemize specific violations. Ever since 1990, when the first of such resolutions was presented, the Cuban government has consistently described them as a United States scheme to promote the international isolation of the island. Cuban foreign minister Felipe Perez Roque led a campaign to oppose this year’s resolution, mistakenly assuming that the United States would fail to gather enough support to pass it.
As in previous sessions, Latin American members on the Commission were divided in the Cuba vote. Last year Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay chose to abstain, arguing that the passing of the resolution was not in fact about human rights and refusing to entrust in any of their sterile efforts to condemn the Cuban government. Of the 12 Latin American states on this year’s Commission, only Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico voted in favor of the resolution, which, save for Mexico, do not make up a league of heavy hitters. With the exception of Cuba, which opposed it, the others abstained. Argentina and Brazil maintained the abstention from last year and were joined by Peru, Ecuador and the Dominican Republic. Strikingly, the division on the Cuba vote reflects a similar division as shown in the OAS race, which pits the socialist José Miguel Insulza against the conservative Ernesto Derbez.
The Cuba vote has assumed over the years a point of reference in Latin America to characterize a government’s ideology: while right-of-center governments inevitably have voted for it and left-of-center governments have traditionally abstained or voted against the anti-Havana resolutions, governments also tended to underscore the ideological orientation of such votes on Cuba to attest for their independence from Washington.
Mexico has voted for the anti-Havana resolutions for the last three years at Geneva. The Cuba vote has been a controversial matter since the inception of the Fox administration in 2000. Traditionally, Mexico has seen itself acting as a bridge between the United States and Cuba, faithfully rejecting the embargo and maintaining close, if not particularly friendly, ties with Havana. Mexico was one of the few countries in the hemisphere to oppose Cuba’s suspension as member of the OAS in 1962. The Fox government has publicly decried the pragmatic approach of past governments that chose not to condemn Cuba on the human rights issue. Since Mexico had opened its doors to international scrutiny of its internal behavior, it supported the notion that other countries should do so as well. Mexico’s international stance on human rights went from defensive to offensive—voting for the resolutions on Cuba was justified as the only policy compatible with the Fox government’s pledge to promote human rights internally and abroad. This was the explanation given by ex-foreign minister Jorge Castañeda, who was demonstrably the architect of the new policy.
The United States has applauded this stance and once again this year asked for the Mexico’s endorsement of its resolution in spite of the fact that Fox seemed positioned to reverse the Castañeda epoch by making an effort to return to Mexico’s traditional politics of constructive engagement with Cuba. U.S. ambassador Tony Garza, to probably the great embarrassment of Fox, went so far as to publish an article in the Mexican newspaper Reforma praising the Fox government on its commitment to human rights and citing it as “an example” of leadership within the Geneva Commission. Having backed the Mexican candidate to head the Organization of American States, the United States no doubt expected due reimbursement from Mexico, with Fox once again having to bite the bullet.
The coinciding of the Geneva Commission with the upcoming vote to elect the next Secretary General of the Organization of American States posed a special challenge to the Fox government, which desperately needed the revitalization of its reputation that would be brought by being awarded the OAS post to the ruling PAN party. Mexico’s human rights platform and its desire to please the United States all but guaranteed its fourth consecutive vote for the Cuba resolution. The “mildness” of this year’s document would in other circumstances have made the decision even easier by eliminating the possibility of abstention. However, the Fox administration faced bigger problems than risking appearing inconsistent on human rights or provoking the United States into withdrawing its support from the Mexican Minister of Foreign Affairs Luis Derbez’s candidacy to head the OAS. In reaction to the Mexican vote in Geneva, the Cuban government could well choose to play its own wild card that would pose a threat to Fox’s own political tranquility.
Already somewhat deteriorated, Mexican-Cuban relations have gone from bad to worse since 2000. The lowest point was hit last year when Mexico expelled the Cuban ambassador and accused the Havana of intervening in Mexico’s affairs. The move was in response to the Cuban government’s capture and deportation of Mexican-Argentine businessman Carlos Ahumada, who was implicated in an intricate political scandal in Mexico involving some of the country’s most notorious politicians and government officials. Although the ambassadors were soon reinstalled, lasting wounds have certainly not healed.
Cuba’s influence in the Caribbean is widely recognized. Chilean candidate Minister José Miguel Insulza has declared his willingness to “revise” Cuba’s expulsion from the OAS. A Cuban diplomatic offensive, adding to that of Brazil and Venezuela, would diminish Derbez’s chances by whittling away at his support in the Caribbean. However, the Fox government chose to act on “principles” (or at least as a result of U.S. pressure) and be an “example,” as celebrated by U.S. ambassador Tony Garza, in voting several days ago for the resolution on Cuba in Geneva.
Havana claims to have in its possession some 40 hours of videos containing Ahumada’s declarations. Although the Mexican government repeatedly has asked for their being handed over, the Cuban position, as voiced last October by its ambassador to Mexico, Jorge Bolaños, is that there is no hurry in Havana to do this and that the Cuban government is entitled to act according to its own interests in deciding the matter. Most analysts have concluded that the videos could prove to be extremely harmful to the Fox administration. Some have speculated that they contain proof of the federal government conspiring to remove, by various shenanigans, the leftist Mexico City Major Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador from the presidential race. Even Jorge Castañeda, former Mexican foreign affairs minister and now independent candidate for the presidency, has stated that “there is something in those videos” that could well allow Havana to blackmail the Fox government if it chose to do so.
The PRI and PAN members of the Mexican Congress have recently voted to strip Lopez Obrador of his immunity from prosecution on charges of ignoring a court ruling in the El Encino land dispute. Lopez Obrador`s supporters have denounced the decision as a political manipulation to prevent the current leader in the polls from running for the presidency next year. The affair has spurred massive criticism in Mexico and abroad, raising doubts over the quality of Mexico’s democracy and introducing questions over the effects of mounting political polarization on the country’s stability. It is in this climate that a Cuban decision to leak Ahumada’s declarations could prove to be particularly damaging to the Fox administration in its waning months in office.
Cuba has already signaled its dismay at the Mexico vote by declaring that the Mexican government betrayed an agreement by voting for the anti-Havana resolution. Official Havana statements have already denounced that Mexico changed its vote to please the United States in return for their support in the OAS race. They have also pointed out at the Mexican government’s quiet response to the deaths Mexican migrants in the border area. Cuba will further put Mexico on the spotlight by presenting a resolution on Guantánamo which will test the congruency of the Fox government’s human rights policy.
Aside from the effects that Cuba’s maneuvers will have on the Derbez candidacy, the unresolved issue of the videos will keep the Fox administration on its toes. Despite a recent entreat of the Mexican authorities there is no evidence that Havana will give up the videos as they represent a valuable foreign policy chip. As a result, it may be Cuba that has the last laugh in spite of Mexico’s damaging vote at the U.N.