What I’m reading: La conexión México – La Habana – Washington

Homero Campa, La conexión México – La Habana – Washington: Una controvertida relación trilateral, Editorial Planeta Mexicana, 2014

On December 15, 2014, I presented a paper in Havana at a “series of conversations” on U.S.-Cuban relations. That paper looked at the role of Panama, host of the April 2015 Summit of the Americas, as a potential facilitator of U.S.-Cuban dialogue. If I had subbed in Canada or the Vatican for Panama, I would have looked much smarter two days later when, to our surprise, Presidents Obama and Castro announced a prisoner exchange and move to re-establish relations.

Homero Campa, whose interesting book on the role of Mexico as a sometimes interlocutor between the U.S. and Cuba came out in 2014, might feel similarly unlucky. As it turned out, despite their historic role between the United States and Cuba, Mexican diplomats had no hand in last year’s secret negotiations, which led to today’s big announcement of the opening on embassies in Havana and Washington. Read differently, Campa’s book is a bit more prescient than my paper (though trust me, I can suggest a more prescient reading of my paper, if you’d like!). Mexico’s lack of involvement—and by all accounts, Mexicans were surprised by the announcements—fits with the larger pattern of its declining role as a broker between the United States and Cuba.

“Comes y te vas.” No word whether Fox served Fidel “the whole enchilada” for lunch before asking him to leave.

The Proceso journalist chooses three episodes and examines the role of the three countries’ leaders in each of them. In the first, Mexican president Carlos Salinas played some role as an intermediary between Castro and Clinton in the midst of a migration crisis. The second case is essentially a Mexico-Cuban issue, in which a clumsy Vicente Fox asked Fidel Castro to hastily depart an UN summit to avoid a potential run-in with George W. Bush. (One of the book’s pleasures is reading the cringe-inducing transcript of the Fox-Castro phone conversation known as “comes y te vas,” or “eat and run.”) “Comes y te vas.” No word of whether Fox offered Fidel “the whole enchilada” before asking him to leave. The third returns to migration, as more Cubans took a Mexican route to the United States. Neither the United States nor Cuba initially seemed particularly interested in helping the Mexicans deal with a situation not of their own making.

The episodes are generally familiar to regular observers, and are interesting on their own. However, if these three cases had been more explicitly placed into the historical context of Mexico’s role (I am looking forward to more of Renata Keller’s awesome work and new book on this subject), the decline of the relationship would be more obvious. Mexico’s influence under Salinas was marginal, but he was involved. In the latter two cases, Mexican leaders are marginalized from one important transnational issue while creating a diplomatic fuss largely by being undiplomatic in the other. Given that trajectory, it is not too surprising that neither Cuba nor the United States turned to Mexico to host their 2014 conversations.

Campa’s book offers interesting anecdotes from these episodes. It is not an academic book and it is not a history. It does not have the scope, detail, or documentation of Bill LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh’s magisterial Back Channel to Cuba, for example. While taking that into account, I would have liked to read a bit more about why these particular episodes matter. What do they tell us about the larger, trilateral relationship—both its past and its possible future? To his credit, Campa briefly highlights in the introduction some important changes in the international system, in Mexico, and in Cuba that altered the traditional dynamic of the relationship. But what was that dynamic, and why did it matter? (I follow this closely, so I wasn’t lost, but it would seem even more important to a casual reader.)

The cases differ greatly in length and detail; there is a great deal of information about the Salinas case, including a lengthy dissection of whether Gabriel Garcia Márquez really did deliver a secret message from Castro to Bill Clinton at a dinner party. Each case is shorter than the previous one, and the final case largely relies on Wikileaks. Oddly, the book has no conclusion, which was a missed opportunity to contextualize the cases, learn from trends or comparisons, and to assess whether there is, today, anything special about the Mexico, Havana, Washington connection. Now, with embassies and ambassadors on the way between Havana and Washington, Mexico’s role will not be one of secret intermediary. However, as a pipeline for investment and as a diplomatic partner, the three-way relationship is still worth considering.

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