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Consul Admits His Removal Was Necessary

Fresno: Mexican president needed to send a message on mishandling of gifts, he says.

April 09, 2001|JOHN JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FRESNO — Enrique Romero Cuevas is a strong supporter of Mexican President Vicente Fox--even though Fox just cashiered him.

"He is a different kind of president than we have ever seen before," said the 53-year-old diplomat, who served for the last two years as consul in this Central Valley farm metropolis of 400,000 and 28 years in various posts under Mexico's former government.

The charismatic Fox, whose December inauguration ended 70 years of single-party rule, removed Romero Cuevas last week after the consulate mishandled gifts sent to the new president by poor people in the Central Valley.

The office of the secretary of external relations in Mexico City said a priority for the Fox government is ensuring the "best state of relations" with immigrant communities abroad. That surprised and pleased immigrants used to being ignored by their native capital.

"It got us excited," said Filemon Lopez, who helped organize a protest march outside the consulate after a bag of gifts and letters turned up in the trash. "We're very happy that there was a change. If he had stayed, we wouldn't have trusted him."

Even the soon-to-be-ex-consul agrees with the president's action.

"I feel sad, of course," said Romero Cuevas, a dignified, precise man with a glasses and a graying beard. In an interview in his spacious office, during which his voice often trembled with emotion, he said it is time for him to go.

"It is for the best interests of good relations between the Mexican government and the immigrant community living here," he said.

Romero Cuevas had served in such occasional hot spots as Cuba, Chile, Nicaragua and Guatemala. Yet it was in placid Fresno, a town constantly battling its reputation as a place where nothing happens, that Romero Cuevas stumbled into the "absolute worst" incident of his career.

It started well. When Fox visited the United States several weeks ago, he made a point of stopping in Fresno, where generations of Mexicans have harvested billions of dollars in crops.

"The visit was wonderful," said Romero Cuevas. About 2,000 people attended, more than the consul expected.

Romero Cuevas said Fox thanked him and called the event a success. The consul was impressed and encouraged by the new Mexican leader. "We have for the first time in our lives" someone committed to changing things in Mexico City, he said.

Many of the people who attended brought gifts for the president, including letters, books and figurines. They were collected and placed in a bag to be sent to Mexico City by diplomatic pouch.

Lopez, a deejay for a bilingual radio station and an activist with the Benito Juarez Civic Assn., said the gifts were brought by poor people "at much sacrifice."

A cleaning crew threw out the bag by mistake, Romero Cuevas said. When it turned up missing, he reviewed security tapes and discovered what happened. But meanwhile, the bag had been found in the trash and turned over to local Spanish-language media.

"From that, everything else happened," Romero Cuevas said ruefully.

Lopez said the people who had come so far and at such cost were deeply insulted that their gifts were thrown away. Though the bag was retrieved and sent to Fox, Romero Cuevas said, the incident ignited outrage.

"It was like they were being taken as a joke," Lopez said of those who sent the gifts. And they weren't convinced that it was a mistake.

In the bag, Lopez said, was a petition in support of the Zapatista rebels who have waged guerrilla actions against the Mexican army in recent years and with whom Fox's administration is negotiating.

As word of the bag's brief disappearance spread, nine local organizations met and protested. The Fox administration's response showed that the president meant what he said when he promised the consulate would be more attuned to Mexicans in the Central Valley.

"He backed up his words," Lopez said.

Sarah Reyes, a Democratic assemblywoman from Fresno, trusts Romero Cuevas' assurances that the incident was an accident. "I truly believe it was a mistake," she said.

But she said she understands why Romero Cuevas is being removed. "The message the president is trying to send is that it doesn't matter where gifts come from, a head of state or a poor person. They all matter. Unfortunately, Enrique had to be the person to lose his job,"

Romero Cuevas had almost the same reaction.

"I understand the anger of many of my fellow countrymen," he said. "I am sure I have no guilt, but I have responsibility as head of the office. In order to send a message to our community, I have to be moved."

He said he doesn't know how soon that will happen, or where he will end up, or how much this incident will damage his career. He is married and has two sons, 16 and 21.

The transfer is "hard for my family," he said. But they have moved many times before.

"They are looking forward," he said.

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