Cuba loses support of South American amigos

By Alistair Bell

Mexico City - Mexico pulled its ambassador from Havana on Sunday and accused Cuba of interfering in its internal affairs as bitterness over Mexico's close relations with the United States came to a head.

The dispute began with Mexico's support in April for a censure of Cuba at a United Nations rights body. Peru, which also criticised the Communist island's rights record, withdrew its envoy on Sunday after harsh criticism from President Fidel Castro at a May Day speech in Havana on Saturday.

"Mexico does not and will not tolerate under any circumstance any foreign government trying to affect our decisions on foreign or domestic policy," Foreign Minister Luis Ernesto Derbez told a news conference.

Mexico asked Cuba to pull its envoy out of Mexico City within 48 hours, he said. A spokesperson for the Cuban government said Havana had no immediate comment on the Mexican decision.

Mexico was a traditional ally of the Communist-run island for decades but relations have fallen to an all time low under President Vicente Fox, who has swung Mexico closer to Washington since taking power in 2000.

Castro harshly criticised Mexico in his May Day speech for voting against Cuba, saying Mexico's prestige in the world had "turned into ashes".

He also lashed out at Lima, saying Peru was an example of the "wretchedness and dependency" left by neo-liberal economic policies. He slammed unpopular President Alejandro Toledo as a man who "does not and cannot direct anything". Toledo is struggling with an approval rating of just eight percent.

A foreign ministry statement in Lima said Peru rejected Castro's "offensive" comments and was downgrading its diplomatic representation to a business attache. It is the second time Toledo's government has pulled out its envoy.

Mexico's Interior Minister Santiago Creel also said two members of the Cuban Communist Party's central committee had been "carrying out activities incompatible with their status" in Mexico.

That term is often used by governments to denote spying but Creel added that the pair had dabbled in "affairs which should be dealt with by diplomatic channels in the relevant institutions," suggesting they had become involved in Mexican politics.

The pair spent several days in Mexico in April and entered the country on diplomatic passports, he said.

He said Mexico had declared Orlando Silva, a diplomat at the Cuban Embassy, "persona non grata," meaning he had to leave the country immediately. Mexico did not say when its ambassador would return to Cuba.

Mexico in the past week said it would protest officially to Havana over comments the Cuban foreign ministry made about a corruption scandal that has dented the presidential ambitions of Mexico City's leftist mayor.

The Fox government was angered by Cuban suggestions that it was using the scandal to undermine the popular mayor, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

Relations with Cuba have strained several times since conservative Fox, a former Coca-Cola executive, ended 71 years of one-party rule in Mexico at elections four years ago. The previously ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, was on good terms with Cuba.

Castro gave Fox a red face in 2002 when he released a taped telephone conversation in which the Mexican president urged him to leave a regional summit in northern Mexico early so as to avoid friction with American President George Bush, also attending the meeting.

Fox had denied pressuring Castro to leave the event.

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