A Fox, a Snake, a Goat and Fidel

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I was in Miami's Little Havana last week, living la vida cubana, when a curious press release from Cuba's permanent mission to the UN was passed along to my office here in New York. Funny how things happen.

Funny document, too. You may have seen something in the news back around April 22, when Castro held a press conference at which he railed bitterly against Mexico's President Vicente Fox and released a secretly taped telephone conversation between them. It has caused an uproar in Mexico, where Fox has spent the weeks since contending with the embarrassing fallout.

Nobody seems to have reprinted the full text of Castro's April 22 press release, and with good reason: it's 15 pages of epic Fidel rambling?roughly 8000 words of completely mad rant that reads very much like a Saturday Night Live skit.

Mexico had always maintained cordial relations with Castro until Fox, the conservative businessman, was elected in 2000 and quickly became friendly with Castro's nemesis George W. Bush. Fox and his foreign minister Jorge Castaneda have been putting distance between their country and Cuba ever since. A few days before Castro's press conference, Mexico reversed its traditional stand and voted with other nations on a resolution by Geneva's Human Rights Commission to send observers to Cuba. Castro was still raving about this in a bitter May Day speech last week. In the press release, he identifies Castaneda, a former leftist gone neocon, as the primary snake in the grass who "had hatched the recent conspiracy against Cuba in Geneva" and "had dragged President Vicente Fox in his shameless adventure." (The press release also blames something it calls "the Checkian government.")

Meanwhile, there was the International Conference on Financing for Development, a UN summit, convened in the Mexican city of Monterrey March 18-22. The UN invited Castro, and he clearly wanted to go. Fox was just as clearly hoping he wouldn't, since Bush had threatened not to attend if Fidel did. For weeks, Fidel kept Fox twisting, not saying officially whether or not he'd participate. In an effort to achieve some clarity, Fox and Castaneda visited Cuba in February. In Castro's version:

"We were perfectly aware that one of the purposes was to request that we did not participate in the conference. They did not dare. The first hour, practically the first minutes, of the meeting that began at 11:14 am, sufficed. I started by reminding them of the invitation extended to our country by the United Nations to take part in that Summit and went on to analyze in depth the perfidious and hypocritical maneuvers against Cuba in Geneva."

Nevertheless, Fidel says, the rest of the day went well. "We visited old Havana... Later, and according to the itinerary, we had a dinner that developed in a friendly atmosphere. The visit left us with a positive impression. We had many hours of respectful and seemingly sincere exchanges.

"However, that nice impression would not last long."

What Fidel means is that soon after the Havana trip, Castaneda was warmly addressing an audience of Cuban exiles in Miami, assuring them, as The Boston Globe reported, "that Mexico's doors were open to all Cubans, prompting dozens of asylum-seekers to drive a truck through the gates of the Mexican Embassy in Havana."

Now in full pout, Castro waited until March 19 to write Fox confirming that he would be attending the conference. This is where things get really funny. Again, in Fidel's version:

"At the time our ambassador delivered the letter to the President's personal secretary, he was told that Fox would be leaving for Monterrey shortly. After our representative had completed that mission, he went to the offices of the Home Minister whom he informed of the same in order to make the necessary arrangements. We would be arriving in Monterrey 24 hours later.

"Around 11:00 p.m. that night, Cuba time, a telephone call from Mexico was received in my office. They said that President Fox wanted to talk to me as soon as possible. As I was not there, they were asked to retry a little later. At 11:28 they were calling back again. At that moment I was meeting with several comrades in a room not far from my office. I instinctively felt something was wrong.

"It was strange, I thought, because the President goes to bed early! The tone reeked of an emergency. I had no further doubts. I left the room and headed for my office. I asked to be put through with President Fox. An unusual dialogue would follow whose transcription I offer, just as it was registered."

And he does:

Fidel.- Yes, Mr. President. How are you?

Fox.- How are you, Fidel?

Fidel.- Well, very well, thank you. And, how are you?

Fox.- What a pleasure! Listen, Fidel, I'm calling you on this surprise I had a couple of hours ago, when I learned that you intend to visit with us in Mexico. First of all, I'd like to make this a private conversation between you and I. Do you agree?

Fidel.- Yes, I do. [He was taping the conversation as he said this.] I hope you have received my letter, haven't you? I sent it

Fox.- Yes, I did, a couple of hours ago, that's why I'm calling you now.

Fidel.- Oh! Good. I had been told that you go to bed early, so we sent the letter early.

Fox.- Yes, I go to bed early, but this has kept me awake.

Fidel.- Don't you say it!

Fox.- No, really, the fact is I got it... It's 10:00 p.m. here, I got it at 8:00 p.m., and we were just here having dinner with Khofi Annan.

Fidel.- Oh!

Fox.- But, look Fidel, I'm talking to you first as a friend.

Fidel.- Yes, you are talking to me first as a friend. I hope you will not tell me not to go.

Fox.- (He laughs) Well, let's see. Let me explain it and let's see what you think.

Fidel.- I'm listening, but I'm telling you before you speak...

Fox.- Yes, as a friend, the truth is that this surprise, at the last minute, creates many problems for me.

Fidel.- Why is that?

Fox.- Security problems, attention problems.

Fidel.- Well, never mind that, Mr. President. It seems that you don't know me.

Fox.- You are not concerned about that.

Fidel.- No, I assure you; and I'm not taking 800 men with me like Mr. Bush.

Fox.- But, friends do not simply let you know at the last minute that they are coming.

Fidel.- Yes, but I'm taking risks like no other, and you know that well.

Fox.- Well, but you can trust a friend and you could have told me before that you intended to come. That would have been better for both. But, look, I realize that it is your absolute right. However, perhaps, if it were possible for you to help me, as a friend.

Fidel.- Yes. Tell me what can I do for you, except that.

Fox.- Well, "what can you do for me, except that?"

Fidel.- Yes. How? What should I do? I'm willing to take any risks, I don't mind the risks.

Fox.- Let me see

Fidel.- But you understand that it would cause a world scandal, I mean, if I'm now told not to go.

Fox.- But, what's the need to make a world scandal if I'm talking to you as a friend?

Fidel.- Listen, it's because you're the President of the country and if you're the host and you prevent me from going there, I'd have no choice but to publish my speech tomorrow.

Fox.- Yes, yes, you're right. It's your right, absolutely, to do so. But, let me make you an offer... I don't know when it is you intend to come because you have not said that, but my offer would be that you come on Thursday.

Fidel.- Let's see, tell me exactly, I'm willing to compromise on this. Let's see, what day is today? Tuesday. At what time do you want me there on Thursday?

Fox.- Because you...I mean, Cuba has its turn to speak at the Plenary on Thursday.

Fidel.- Yes, yes. The exact time there, there it is...it should be Thursday...

Fox.- About 1:00 p.m.

Fidel.- No, on Thursday I should take part in a roundtable and I should present my speech in the morning.

Fox.- Because your speech would be in the morning, close to 1:00 p.m.

Fidel.- More or less. I'll help you in everything, I won't give you any trouble, and I won't even attend dinners, not even the meeting... Well, we'd need to talk about that meeting...

Fox.- There you go, let me finish.

Fidel.- Yes.

Fox.- You could come on Thursday, take part in the session and present your speech, as Cuba's reserved turn would be around 1:00 p.m. After that there would be a lunch offered by the state governor to the visiting Heads of State. I'm even offering you, inviting you, to attend that lunch, even to sit by me, and that after this event?you have already made your speech?that you go back, thus

Fidel.- Back to Cuba.

Fox.- Well, no, perhaps you could find

Fidel.- Where to? A hotel? Tell me.

Fox.- Back to Cuba, or wherever you chose to go.

Fidel.- Right.

Fox.- That way I'd be free on Friday?and that's my request to you?so that you create no complications to me on Friday [when Bush arrived]...

Fidel agrees, and they proceed to discuss hotels and schedules in numbing detail, like they're planning a vacation in Cancun. Then:

Fidel.- Tell me, what else can I do for you?

Fox.- Well, basically, not to attack the United States or President Bush, but rather to limit ourselves to...

Fidel.- Listen, Mr. President, I'm a person who's been in politics for about 43 years, and I know what I should do and what I should not do. You don't need to have any doubts that I know how to tell the truth politely and with the proper elegance. You don't need to fear because I won't be dropping any bombs there...

Issues of international diplomacy settled, they return to a weightier subject: lunch.

Fox.- ...Listen, Fidel. Anyway, there is still that invitation for you to accompany me to that lunch; that would be about 1:00 or 1:30 p.m., then, after lunch you could leave.

Fidel.- Provided you do not offer me turkey with chili sauce and lots of food because I don't like to travel by plane on a full stomach

Fox.- No, we have goat, which is very tasty.

Fidel.- You are offering goat?

Fox.- Yes, sir, excellent.

Fidel.- Good, very good.

Fox.- Then, can we say we agree on that?

Fidel.- Yes, we agree on that, and we are friends; friends and gentlemen.

Fidel went, presumably ate the goat, and left before Bush arrived. Everything appeared copacetic, until that Human Rights Commission vote a month later. Castro held his press conference and released the tape, accusing Fox of bum-rushing him off the stage to curry favor with the U.S. president. Fox has apologized to the Mexican people for appearing to be such a Bush bootlicker; Castaneda is fighting opposition party calls for his resignation; and Fidel, to judge from that speech last week, continues to pout.

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