Castro rounds on 'friendly' Mexico with secret tape branding Fox a liar

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The Independent US

In an extraordinary public spat, Fidel Castro has turned on one of his few political friends, President Vicente Fox of Mexico, ridiculing him and branding him a liar. He may even cut diplomatic relations with Mexico, Cuba's staunchest ally in the region after Venezuela.

President Castro broke protocol on Monday when he summoned foreign correspondents to listen to a private phone chat between the two presidents, which Havana had covertly taped last month. A government spokesman in Mexico called the disclosure, which was widely broadcast in both countries, "unacceptable".

Mr Castro rolled his eyes as Mr Fox's distinctive baritone voice suggests on the tape that the Cuban leader's last-minute decision to attend the United Nations development summit in Monterrey on 21 March raised security concerns.

Mr Fox instructs him to leave the meeting early, before he can cross paths with President George Bush, and thus avoid any "complication". But President Castro cuts Mr Fox short when the Mexican leader tells him to refrain from verbal attacks on America or Mr Bush during his six-minute official address. The call ends with an agreement to behave like "amigos and gentlemen".

On the day, President Castro stormed off in a huff soon after a vitriolic anti-globalisation speech. Despite his veiled hints, Mr Bush and Mr Fox denied pressuring Mr Castro to hasten his departure, and their people repeatedly called his charges unfounded. But when Mexico – which would normally abstain from overt criticism of Cuba – approved a United Nations resolution last week that questioned Havana's human rights record with political prisoners, President Castro was furious.

Three days later he released the secret tape, aimed at embarrassing the Mexicans for toadying to American foreign policy. In Mexico City, leftists have marched against the Fox administration's "servile" stance to Washington's policies, anathema in the capital where Mr Castro recruited Ernesto Che Guevara during his 1955 exile. In Havana in February, President Fox briefly met a group of political dissidents at the end of a state visit.

The fallout is white-hot, and the Mexican Foreign Secretary, Jorge Castañeda, is increasingly in Cuba's sights. Mr Castro announced that Mexico offered cheap oil to Cuba as a placatory gesture during a recent attempt at a coup in Caracas; a junta of businessmen and military officers tried to oust his protégé, President Hugo Chavez, and cancel petrol exports to Havana.

The outspoken Mr Castañeda, denounced by the Communist daily, Granma, as "diabolical" and "grotesque", was also blamed when 20 exile-seeking Cubans invaded the Mexican embassy in Havana by driving a hijacked bus through the fence after hearing the Mexican Foreign Minister's remarks broadcast by a Miami-based radio station.