In an August 25 talk at the Center, Campa Butrón discussed this unique relationship, concentrating on three historical episodes: 1) the 1994 Cuban rafters crisis; 2) a major Mexico-Cuba diplomatic row in 2002; and, 3) the 2008 Mexico-Cuba immigration agreement.

In the rafters crisis, Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari negotiated between U.S. President Bill Clinton and Cuban President Fidel Castro to get Cuba to block the large-scale exit of emigrants into the Florida Straits. This allayed fears of a refugee crisis in Florida and helped repair the image of the Clinton administration in the Cuban exile community, Campa said.

In the 2002 case, however, Mexico’s perceived closeness to the United States became a liability, as an attempt by Mexican President Vicente Fox to sideline Castro at a major hemispheric conference backfired, Campa said. Sparking that controversy, Fox had signaled to Castro that his participation at the Summit of the Americas was unwelcome beyond a ceremonial role. “You eat and you leave,” Fox was quoted as saying in the press. The spat unsettled the historically warm relations between Mexico City and Havana that dated to the time of the Cuban Revolution. It also severely damaged Fox in the court of public opinion since many Mexicans viewed the controversy as proof that the administration was doing the bidding of an anti-Castro United States.

In the 2008 example, tougher U.S. border enforcement in the Florida Straits and the expansion of human trafficking organizations in the region had made Mexico a popular staging ground for irregular Cuban migration to the United States. This placed Mexico in the position of having to negotiate a repatriation agreement with Cuba to return migrants back to the island. Though negotiations were initially colored by the past diplomatic tension, Cuba and Mexico ultimately arrived at an accord, which resulted in a sharp decline in irregular migration to Mexico and, subsequently, to the United States, Campa said. The immigration negotiations, he added, were facilitated by advances in other areas of the Mexico-Cuba relationship. These included developments that enabled Mexico to avoid passing judgment on Cuba’s human rights record at the United Nations and that favorably restructured Cuba’s financial debt to Mexico.

In conclusion, Campa noted that Mexico should see Cuba as its “third border” and pay higher-profile attention to its relationship with the island. Mexico should also be aware of how its bilateral relationship with one country affects its bilateral relationship with the other.

Drafted by Robert Donnelly, Program Associate, Mexico Institute
Andrew Selee, Director, Mexico Institute.