Mexico's ties with Cuba warming

Canciller Meade con el General Raúl Castro (1)
Foreign Secretary Jose Antonio Meade has just returned from a two-day trip to Havana that marked a significant warming of Mexico-Cuba relations.

With the center-right National Action Party out of power after two sexenios, or six-year terms, President Enrique Pena Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party has made improving ties with Cuba a priority.

Meade’s office sent around the photo above of his meeting with Cuban jefe Raul Castro (right) and an audiotape in which Meade says that Mexican and Cuban diplomats have been working on a series of accords concerning international law, environment, investment, education exchanges and health care.

“We’ve been occupied in this for the first few months of the administration of President Pena Nieto,” Meade said. “We’re near completion on many of them.”

“By the end of the year, the legal framework will be up to date and will be the platform for a much more intense, precise relationship,” he said.

Pena Nieto is expected to visit Cuba in the first few months of 2014.

Mexico’s relations with Cuba under the previous Fox and Calderon governments were tense, even bitter. Click here and here to learn more.

In addition to meeting top Cuban dignitaries, Meade also laid a floral wreath near a statue to Cuban national hero Jose Marti in Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution.


Changes to Mexico's oil industry

This is a quite good video from The Economist on President Enrique Pena Nieto's plan to open up the energy industry to foreign investment. The piece captures some of the nuance of the proposal, though perhaps not the theatricality of the presentation on Monday and Tuesday, in which Pena Nieto constantly mentioned former President Lazaro Cardenas, who nationalized the oil industry in Mexico in 1938.

I was speaking yesterday to Juan Pardinas, the director of the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness, and the matter of how Pena Nieto invoked Cardenas repeatedly came up. Pena Nieto has said he simply wants to readopt language that Cardenas approved to article 27 of the constitution, which his government claims would allow private companies to develop the energy sector if it was deemed in the national interest.

Let me transcribe a bit of what Pardinas said:

"They have done an interesting strategy given that they used the figure of Lazaro Cardenas, which is one of the founding fathers of national identity, national sovereignty, national pride through the nationalization of oil. I found it quite paradoxical that we are looking back to a legal framework of 1940 in order to modernize the energy sector of Mexico in the 21st century.

"It doesn't appeal too much to common sense but if we see the limits of political possibility in Mexico, we have learned -- all Mexicans through our textbooks -- how Lazaro Cardenas (took) the Mexican oil from the interests of international capitalists. The government is using the legal framework that Cardenas proposed, which was much more flexible than the one we have now, and (using) it as leverage to pull the reform...

"It was the only way that they could announce it without facing a riot from certain parts of the (political) left..."

"I was telling a joke to a friend. It's like you're going to start an internet business and you ask advice from your great, great, great grandfather. You know, 'what should I do?' Now, with the competitiveness of the 21st century and you are asking someone born in the 19th century. That's how we resolve the challenges we have."


Hope and despair in Mexico

Can one have a bleak view of Mexico’s recent past yet remain profoundly hopeful about its future? The answer is a resounding yes, says Alfredo Corchado.

Corchado is a friend and colleague in Mexico, author of the new book Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter’s Journey Through a Country’s Descent into Darkness (Penguin Press, 2013).

I’ve just finished the book, and it is a remarkable soul-wrenching analysis both on the personal and political levels. Alfredo is the son of a Mexican bracero who left Durango state to work in California, taking his family with him nearly five decades ago.

He grew up with a foot both in Mexico and the United States, dragged as a youngster “kicking and screaming” to a new country, leaving behind a patria that his mother believed was cursed and that his father says was in the grip of gangsters who “know no forgiveness.” 

The book offers great, first-hand history of the PRI’s temporary demise in 2000, the political rise of opposition leader Vicente Fox (Corchado was the first reporter to interview Fox after his triumph), then the sinking of Mexico into the grip of brutal criminal gangs.

If your view of Mexico is Pollyanna-ish, this book is not for you. Corchado’s meetings with undercover U.S. agents, narco couriers, his encounters with the grieving relatives of victims of violence in Ciudad Juarez, and the repeated threats against his own life – apparently coming from Z-40 himself, the feared Zetas leader – all convey the wounds of the nation.

I haven’t enjoyed a book this much in a long time. What makes it wonderful is how Alfredo parallels the recent history of Mexico with his own compelling family tale and his search for truth about the country's dark side. Yet through that search, Alfredo conveys a deep love of country, its culture, its music, its often vulgar language, its conflicted but grand history, genuine Mexicanidad. And to that, I’m sure Alfredo would raise a glass of tequila.


Mexico helps avoid a heist

It was a mugging, but the hemisphere’s “moral conscience” survived. And Mexico played a key role.

A body that you may not have heard of – the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights – survived an attack by four countries: Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

The commission has been around for nearly half a century. It is despised by dictators, abhorred by autocrats and loathed by the Latin nations under the shadow of Venezuela’s late Hugo Chavez. Those countries mounted a dark alley assault on what one columnist calls a “human rights heavyweight.”

So foreign ministers from around the hemisphere on Friday poured into Washington to the stately headquarters of the Organization of American States, the hemisphere’s oldest body, to debate the IACHR’s future. Debate lasted nearly 12 hours and concluded with a vote of confidence in the commission.

The strong support of Mexican Foreign Secretary Jose Antonio Meade drew the attention of my colleague Andres Oppenheimer of the Miami Herald. He examines here whether Mexico’s ruling PRI – long a friend of dictatorial regimes in the hemisphere – has changed its stripes. His conclusion: No, this was one-off support.

Ecuador Chavez_NostFirst, a little background: the human rights commission is a bit of an orphan. Nations don’t even want to pay for it. European governments and entities finance nearly a third of its budget. Aspects of the commission’s charter also make some U.S. politicians uncomfortable. The charter rejects the death penalty, for instance.

So despite playing a role in setting up the legal scaffolding of the hemisphere’s human rights structure in 1969, U.S. lawmakers have never ratified the treaty.

This is the flank where Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa aims his dagger. Correa (that's him in an AP photo) has taken the lead in flaying the commission and a second OAS institution that seeks to protect freedom of expression (aiming its wrath at Correa’s own attacks on the press in his country).

Correa railed against the commission in a special preparatory meeting before the OAS in Guayaquil on March 11:


“How is it possible that the commission is financed almost entirely, exactly 96.5%, by countries that have not ratified the Convention on Human Rights of the OAS, by countries so called "Observer States," which are not part of the Inter-American System, and by organizations and international cooperation foundations of those same countries?

“In the name of human rights, they pay to control others. How long will we endure such a contradiction? We all know that since the world began, who finances imposes the conditions. Enough of such hypocrisy!”

Correa blasted the OAS for putting the headquarters of the rights commission in Washington, a nation that hasn’t ratified the overarching rights treaty, saying it should be in a nation that respects all aspects of rights (implying his own nation).

“Here, torture is not allowed, there is no death penalty, we have not invaded anyone at all, no drones and selectively killing of terrorism suspects without trials, along with ‘collateral damage’ of family, neighbors, etc.”

In his speech before the OAS Friday, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns lauded the commission as the “moral conscience” of the region, and said that during the Cold War years it “faced down military strongmen, documented forced disappearances, and catalogued the human costs” of civil wars.

He said the U.S. supports the commission’s work “even as it raises challenging issues for us – from the death penalty and the human rights of migrants and incarcerated children, to the status of detainees at Guantanamo Bay.”

Meade, the Mexican secretary, strongly urged Latin nations to pony up more money for the cash-strapped commission, ratify the overarching treaty and obey the resolutions of the commission among:

“Now is the time for states to give full support to the Commission, particularly financial, to implement these reforms.”

Whether Mexico’s PRI vote was a one-off, President Enrique Pena Nieto wants to reassert Mexican leadership in Latin America. Meade took the trouble to travel to DC for the assembly, rather than deploying a lower level diplomat, and his support comes even though Mexico is likely to feel a pinch from future commission rulings again in the future.


Pena Nieto's first summit


It's possible to read too much in photos from a summit that took place half a world away. President Enrique Pena Nieto attended a summit of Latin and European leaders over the weekend in Santiago, Chile. But I must say, I was struck with the body language seen in some of the photos. Pena Nieto seemed completely at ease with Cuban leader Raul Castro in the photo above. Someone seems to have told a good joke.

BILATERAL MEXICO ARGENTINA 1These photos are handouts from the Mexican presidency.

In contrast, both Pena Nieto and Argentine leader Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner seem very formal and slightly uncomfortable in the handout photo. It's not like they don't know each other. Pena Nieto visited Argentina last fall before taking office as part of a swing through South America. Language is not a barrier for the two.

Language might be the reason why Pena Nieto and German Chancellor Angela Merkel seem rather ho-hum in this photo. Merkel looks like she knows she's meeting one of those Latin American presidents but can't quite place him. 


A new image for the 'Seagull'

SeagullFor most Mexicans, Angelica Rivera needs no introduction. A soap opera star, she’s been in the public eye for two decades.

But her latest role is not a stellar one, certainly not like her part as “La Gaviota,” or The Seagull, in the soap opera titled Destilando Amor (Distilling Love) that was wildly successful and told of love in the town of Tequila, cradle of Mexico’s most fabled liquor.

Her new role is First Lady of Mexico and it requires her to stay in the background of President Enrique Pena Nieto.

Pena Nieto’s handlers certainly helped her reshape her image during the campaign. Gone were the sexy dresses. In their place were conservative clothes. The handlers also seem to be airbrushing her past.

Rivera, 42, had a 14-year previous relationship with a Televisa producer, Jose Alberto Castro, and the union produced three children. But no mention is made of that in the biography of the First Lady posted on the official presidential website, and only the briefest of mentions is made of her acting career.

“The First Lady has said on many occasions that her greatest challenge and biggest honor are serving both Mexico and the work of the man she most admires.”

Okay, already.

Pena Nieto’s official bio doesn’t point out that he was married for 13 years to Monica Pretelini, who died in 2007. The couple had three children (link in Spanish).

I guess you could call it a Modern Family, a widower and a divorcee remarry and pull their kids together. All six kids from the two marriages now live with the two in Los Pinos, the presidential residence.


Raising Mexico's profile abroad

Brazil Mexico_NostI’ve been based in Mexico since early 2010, and in that period President Felipe Calderon has not offered a single press conference in Mexico City that I’m aware of.

He’s occasionally taken a question or two while traveling abroad. Very few, though. And in reality, Calderon seems press shy. This hurts Mexico.

I bring this up because President-elect Enrique Pena Nieto is now on the fifth day of a trip across Latin America. He’s leaving Chile as I write this and flying to Argentina. Like him or not, Pena Nieto is raising Mexico’s profile abroad, fulfilling a campaign promise. (He's seen here while in Brazil with his wife, the television soap opera star Angelica Rivera.)

Large media are giving him extensive coverage during stops in Guatemala, Colombia and Brazil. And he’s speaking with journalists along the way. While in Brazil, the magazine Epoca published a long interview with him, and this morning El Mercurio (the national newspaper of Chile) published an interview. A press release from his people said he also met with a group of Chilean editors this morning. 

In Buenos Aires tomorrow, Pena Nieto is offering a full-fledged press conference. Let’s see if this kind of exposure to journalists will continue after he takes office Dec. 1.


Pena Nieto's weird interview with CNN

President-elect Enrique Pena Nieto gave a brief interview to CNN's Fareed Zakaria, and his stuttering performance has set tongues wagging in Mexico. Whether it was audio feedback problems or coaching by someone near him, Pena Nieto did not perform as well as he could. Mexicans who don't support Pena Nieto have set social media abuzz with claims that either Pena Nieto was reading his answers from a Teleprompter or being coached on what to say. Even if you don't understand Spanish, you can see how Pena Nieto pauses, blinks and does not appear comfortable. I'm inclined to believe he remains uncomfortable in front of international audiences, and that is the sum of it. CNN issued a statement about it. I couldn't find it in English but here's a partial Google translated version:

"There was no Teleprompter, and Mr. Pena Nieto heard the questions asked in English by Dr. Zakaria in New York through an intercom or IFB (Interrupted Feedback). We did not use any other audio source."

The responses of Mr. Pena Nieto were in Spanish and rendered into English for Dr. Zakaria and our international audience by a translator. Mr. Pena Nieto provided the answers without the help of anyone. Also, there were no preconditions for the interview, and the questions were not provided in advance to Mr. Pena Nieto." 


Will Mexico waver on crime war?

Doubts about whether Mexico will stay the course against organized crime after a change of government later this year are rampant in Washington.

Here’s a bit of interchange between Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican, and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper at a hearing yesterday before the Senate Armed Services Committee on world wide threats.

MCCAIN: Quickly, is -- in the situation in Mexico, do you believe that -- as you know 50,000 Mexicans have lost their lives as a result of drug related violence. Is your assessment that these violent criminal organizations pose a threat to the United States, including states along the border?

CLAPPER: Yes, sir they do. There -- there is always the prospect of spillover and that's one reason why we were working closely with the Mexican government and that's particularly true with respect to intelligence initiatives that we're working with them, which I can -- happy to discuss in closed session. But there is a profound threat to both countries.

MCCAIN: Have you seen any indication that the top candidates vying to succeed President Calderon will alter the way the Mexican government addresses the threat of the cartels

CLAPPER: I believe, sir that -- I can't do a one by one assessment, but I believe that the -- no matter who succeeds President Calderon, they -- they will be committed to continue this -- this campaign.

MCCAIN: Well, I suggest you look a little more carefully because I think that may not be the case, at least with one of the candidates.

Set upon by journalists after the hearing, McCain declined to say whether he was referring to Enrique Pena Nieto, the front-runner in polls. Pena Nieto belongs to the Institutional Revolutionary Party which ruled Mexico for decades and has a history of accommodation with organized criminal groups.

“Do you think I am so stupid to give names?” McCain told the reporters.


Calderon speaks to the NY Times

Apparently after months of delays, caused by a busy schedule that included escorting travel journalist Peter Greenberg around Mexico, President Felipe Calderon sat down last week with journalists from the New York Times.

That there were long delays in arranging the interview is known because Times newsman Damien Cave so tweeted on Sept. 20:

Despite months of requests, President Calderon has decided not to speak with us. Travel shows, yes. New York Times, no.


Pres. Calderon, though he talks often about the U.S., has generally refused to sit 4 tough questions from correspondents in his own country.

And finally,

I should clarify. We still have a request in to Calderon. A long standing request, not yet accepted. But they could still say yes. Right?

In the end, Calderon acceded. The interview took place and was played on the less than illustrious page 6A of the Gray Lady.

What I found interesting is not so much the interview, which probably contains more quotes from others about Calderon than what he had to say himself. Rather, it’s that Los Pinos found it necessary to send out a clarification tonight on several points, including the suggestion that members of the PRI might want to reach an accommodation with narcos rather than continue the kind of battle that Calderon has waged.

Los Pinos found a need to expand on this paragraph in the story:

One change Mr. Calderón has pressed for would give the president wide latitude to declare a state of emergency and suspend constitutional guarantees, provoking criticism that the plan would worsen abuses by the military. 

Los Pinos said Calderon has not considered such a move.

There’s really little surprise that Calderon would take so long to speak one-on-one to a U.S. newspaper with a bureau in Mexico (it’s the first such interview since I arrived in March 2010). Calderon has many audiences that he must address, ranging from those in his own party, Mexicans in general, the political opposition, U.S. politicians, and fellow Latin leaders. I don’t think the general U.S. public would be high on that list. And as Damien Cave suggests, Calderon can get tough questions that need follow-up clarifications.



This blog is written by Tim Johnson, the Mexico bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers.

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