Last February, Mexico's former president, Felipe Calderon, posted 22 tweets about Yoani Sanchez, the Cuban dissident blogger. Each tweet was more enthusiastic than the last. “Brave activist for freedom,” Calderon called her.

Ten months earlier, Calderon had been in Havana, on an official trip, dining and smiling with Raul Castro. There was no mention of Yoani or any dissidents and, of course, no visit with them. On the recommendation of the Cuban government, the “activist for freedom” was ignored.

Enrique Pena Nieto, Mexico's current president, should have set a different example during his recent official visit to Havana. He has, after all, styled himself as a bold reformer, as he boasted last week in Davos, showing off a plan that would allow private investment in Mexico's energy sector for the first time in half a century.

Yet Pena Nieto had little to say about Yoani, or Guillermo Farinas, or “Las Damas de Blanco” (the Ladies in White), all dissidents persecuted by the Castro regime. That would have been incompatible with one of the main objectives of Pena Nieto's visit: to have an encounter with Fidel Castro. In what has become a tradition for Latin American and Asian leaders, they go to Havana, wait for a couple of days and suddenly are spirited to some undisclosed location for a moment with the semi-retired old dictator who has mostly given up his green fatigues for Adidas sport suits. On Wednesday afternoon, Pena Nieto pointedly told the news media that he would meet that night with Fidel. “The moral and political leader of Cuba,” he called him — whatever that means.


Advertisement

After that, he would see Raul.

The picture released afterward by the Cuban government — Pena Nieto talking, Fidel listening — didn't come cheap. Last year, Pena Nieto's administration erased $340 million of Cuba's debt to Mexico, or about 70 percent of the total amount. That's more than the value of trade between the two countries, which reached $297 million over the first nine months of last year; $274 million of that represented Mexico's surplus. The bilateral relationship is otherwise limited. From the Mexican side, at least, the main issue may be the influx of Cubans who use Mexico as a way station to the United States.

Pena Nieto's government sold the visit as a “restoration” effort, obliquely referring to the crisis unleashed by the administration of Vicente Fox more than a decade ago. First, Fox met with dissidents in his February 2002 visit to Havana. Then, during a United Nations summit later that year in Monterrey, he asked Fidel to “have lunch and go back to Cuba” to avoid the typical Castro “bano de pueblo” (literally, bathing in the people) in Mexico's streets that would have overshadowed the event. And finally, for the first time, Mexico voted for a resolution criticizing Cuba in the United Nations Human Rights Commission. Fidel then released a tape of a private telephone conversation with Fox and the relationship became ice cold, close to breaking.

Enrique Pena Nieto was not yet born when Fidel Castro came to power. He was 1 year old when Che Guevara was killed. He started his political life when the Cuban dream was already becoming a nightmare. But Pena Nieto was raised in the land of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or PRI, where the doctrine of “nonintervention” was religion. And a true “priista” may change the constitution to allow investment in oil, but he would not allow for Mexican intervention in another country's “internal affairs.” Actually, Pena Nieto just showed us that the priista who changes the rules for oil may never change the rules for relations with Cuba.

Yet it isn't clear what Mexico gains by ignoring the reality that Cuba has no elections, no political parties, no free press or freedom of expression, and that dissidents are harassed and jailed. Certainly, Mexico stands to gain little economic benefit.

Pena Nieto's choice also raises interesting questions about the character of a government willing to ignore such human-rights violations in a neighboring country. Isn't such a government more likely to excuse its own human-rights problems, such as the tens of thousands of murders and disappearances during the last decade of drug war?

A couple of days before Pena Nieto's visit, Yoani Sanchez wrote this on her blog:

“The first signs of one more stage set being erected comes via our cellphones. Calls are lost into nothingness, text messages don't reach their destinations, nervous busy signals respond to attempts to communicate with an activist. Then comes the second phase, the physical. The corners of certain streets teem with supposed couples who don't talk, men in checked shirts nervously touching their concealed earphones, neighbors set to guard the doors of those from whom, yesterday, they asked to borrow a little salt. The whole society is full of whispers, watchful and fear-filled eyes, a huge dose of fear. The city is tense, trembling, on alert.”

For three days, Yoani and the other dissidents were “unavailable,” erased. Pena Nieto did not even look their way. But he got his photo with the old bearded man who has never held an election.

Carlos Puig is a columnist for the Mexican newspaper Milenio and the anchor of the television show En 15.