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End of a Love Affair

April 25, 2002

Earlier this week, when Fidel Castro played a recording of his private conversation with Mexican President Vicente Fox and then called Fox a liar on national television, it was like the overwrought season finale of a particularly weird and long-running soap opera.

For 100 years Cuba and Mexico were Latin America's most enduring allies. The bond only grew stronger when Castro seized power 43 years ago and found a soul mate in Mexico's PRI, a political party that defined itself as the descendant of Latin America's oldest revolutionary movement. Castro's latest TV tantrum came three days after Mexico joined several other Latin American members of the United Nations' Human Rights Commission and criticized Cuba's rights record. But Castro's grudge against Mexico's president dates to July 2000, when voters threw the PRI out of office after 71 years of rule, beginning a true transition to democracy.

The so-called revolution, which had devolved into corruption and venality, died then. Suddenly labor unions were no longer forced to belong to the "party of the revolution." With Fox as president, Mexico opened its doors to public scrutiny. His government allowed independent agencies to monitor human rights. Castro no doubt shuddered. Then, characteristically, he lashed out.

The fatigues-clad dictator is messianic, always bent on absolutes. "Patria o muerte" is his motto, fatherland or death. When the Soviet Union started planting missiles on his island and America threatened to attack, Castro's message to Premier Nikita Khrushchev was: Go ahead and push the button. He was ready to consign the world to mushroom clouds if the U.S. wouldn't back down.

He hasn't changed. By picking a fight with Mexico, he is trying to persuade Cubans that their own revolution lives on. He hopes to force a vow of faith to himself and the revolution. He wants it known that political change, Mexican style, is not an option for Cuba.

But while Cuba hasn't changed, Mexico has, and Mexicans are reacting in interesting ways to Castro's latest histrionics. Polls show, for instance, that most Mexicans are angry with Castro for betraying Fox's confidence. More significantly, for the first time people who once viewed Castro with great sympathy, as the charismatic leader who stood up to the gringos, now call him a dictator.

That role, of course, has given Castro the longevity of a soap opera star. Still, it's only a matter of time before Cubans tire of his antics, realize that the revolution is over and declare, eforeViva la democracia!

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