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Castro, Fox Continue Quarrel; But More Subdued - 2002-04-24

The quarrel between Mexico and Cuba that began earlier this week has calmed somewhat, but the polemic has done damage to the leaders of both nations.

In a more than three-hour appearance on Cuba's state-controlled television Tuesday, President Fidel Castro toned down his criticism of his Mexican counterpart. He said he thinks Mexican President Vicente Fox is a decent man who blundered partly from lack of experience and partly from bad advice.

He said Mr. Fox relies on advisors, who Mr. Castro called "Chicago Boys" technocrats who have been trained in the United States. He said the one most responsible for the bad advice given to the Mexican president is Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda and that nobody knows why he remains in his job.

The controversy began Monday when Mr. Castro played an 18-minute recording of a telephone conversation he had had with President Fox on the eve of the United Nations Poverty summit in Monterrey, Mexico last month. In it, President Fox prods the Cuban communist leader to keep his visit to the summit short and asks him not to do anything that would offend President Bush. Although there is nothing in the recording to back Mr. Castro's charge that he was pressured to leave Monterrey early, it did contradict Mr. Fox's assertion that he had done nothing to influence the Cuban leader on that issue.

Leftist politicians in Mexico have supported Mr. Castro's claim that President Fox lied. Rosario Robles, president of the Party of the Democratic Revolution, is calling for an explanation.

She says the president should explain to the Mexican people why he lied to them about the conversation with Mr. Castro.

Meanwhile, the controversial foreign minister Mr. Castaneda denies that there ever was a lie. He says the tape makes clear that President Fox tried to dissuade Mr. Castro from prolonging his stay and complicating matters in Monterrey, but that no pressure was applied.

Leaders of Mr. Fox's party the pro-business National Action Party, or PAN are also speaking out in his favor. The PAN governor of the state of Aguascalientes, Felipe Gonzalez, says the real issue here is that Mr. Castro recorded and then made public a private conversation with another head of state. Governor Gonzalez says no one should be surprised, however, since Fidel Castro has always been treacherous.

He also addressed Mr. Castro's contention that President Fox blundered because he is inexperienced. Governor Gonzalez says he would not want a president with the more than 40 years of experience Mr. Castro has had in repressing political dissent and keeping his country in misery.

Some independent political commentators have also stepped up to defend President Fox, at least in part, these past days. Political analyst Sergio Sarmiento, speaking on Mexico's TV Azteca, said this whole incident was really an attempt by Fidel Castro to stop Mexico from voting against Cuba at the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva last week.

He said it is clear to him that Mr. Castro had threatened President Fox with release of the taped conversation in order to pressure the Mexican leader not to support the measure directed against Cuba in Geneva. Mr. Sarmiento said President Fox had done the brave thing and the right thing in voting in Geneva according to the criteria established by the Mexican government and not allowing himself to be blackmailed by the Cuban communist leader.

The clash between President Fox and President Castro has done damage to both men, but analysts agree that Mr. Castro has the most to lose. Mexico is the Cuban leader's oldest friend in the hemisphere and the source of a good part of the oil Cuba uses. For Mexico, Cuba is of little importance, being the destination for only about one percent of Mexico's total annual exports.

An opinion poll published in Mexico's Reforma newspaper on Wednesday revealed the political damage Mr. Fox has suffered. Asked if the president had lied when he said no one had asked Mr. Castro to leave the Monterrey summit early, 73 percent of respondents answered "yes." But 69 percent also said they believed Mr. Castro had betrayed President Fox by making the recording public.

In regard to which country is more important to Mexico, the poll respondents left no doubt. Asked about the long conflict between the United States and Cuba, 64 percent of Mexicans favored the United States and only 12 percent said Mexican policy should favor Cuba.