Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Bush Administration Had Cuban Officials Evicted From Mexico City Hotel

I recently returned from Mexico City where, while seated in a festive cantina watching the World Baseball Classic, I was treated to a chorus of boos and cries of “estupido” and “malo” as a newsbreak featuring video of George W. Bush flashed on the television. It was hardly a big surprise. Pick a saloon or coffee shop outside of Utah or a handful of other scarlet-red American states and you’re likely to get the same reaction to Bush’s face on a TV screen.

What did surprise me was what I heard from one of my new friends in Mexico when I asked if the reaction was based mainly on the Iraq war, Bush’s general arrogance in dealing with other nations or something specific with Mexico.

In addition to the Mexican people being acutely aware that bands of armed militiamen are roaming U.S. states bordering their country, I was informed of a shocking event that took place last month in Mexico City that, my research shows, flew very much under the radar of the big mainstream media and the blogging world.

It seems that in early February, the U.S. Department of Treasury ordered an American-owned hotel in Mexico’s capital city to evict 16 Cuban officials holding meetings on the property because of the 45-year-old American embargo on providing goods and services to the people of Cuba. Bush Administration officials said that the hotel would have been in violation of the U.S. trade embargo of Cuba had it allowed the Cubans to remain, while Mexican officials said the U.S. infringed on their sovereignty and violated Mexican law.

The move enraged Mexican citizens, which resulted in loud protests in front of the Sheraton Maria Isabel hotel, which is owned by Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide.

An official with the Treasury Department confirmed that the Bush administration did indeed pressure the hotel to comply with the U.S. embargo against business with Cuba or Cubans. The meeting was moved to a Mexican-owned hotel the following day after the Cuban eviction on February 3.

On March 1, Mexico City officials, upset with the U.S. interference, ordered the closing of the hotel which is, ironically enough, located directly across from the landmark, Angel of Independence monument at one of the city's most prominent intersections. While the official reason for closing the Sheraton was unclear, the official who signed the closing notice, Virginia Jaramillo, the chief of the city's Cuauhtémoc district, had promised to move against the hotel after the Cuban delegation was asked to leave four weeks before.

It is also unclear whether city officials had consulted the federal government of Mexico’s President Vincente Fox before ordering the closing.

“Due to the infringement of local law, the Sheraton's activities have been suspended,'' said the notices on the hotel. “We are sorry for the inconvenience that has been caused. Thank you for your understanding.'' Large red signs reading “closed” in Spanish were on the hotel's doors.

Starwood Hotels & Resorts and U.S. Embassy officials had no comment on the action against the Cubans, who were attending a meeting with American oil-company executives about investment opportunities in Cuba's petroleum industry.

"I think that there was evident contempt for Mexican law on the part of the Hotel Maria Isabel Sheraton ... and it is going to be punished for discrimination, consumer fraud and, moreover, for applying laws that do not apply in Mexico," Foreign Relations Secretary Luis Ernesto Derbez said in early March.

It is unclear how long the hotel remained closed – or if it even fully closed at all – but local authorities confirmed that Mexico City has levied a $15,000 fine against the property.

But whether or not Mexico City officials ever totally succeeded in shutting down the hotel is really not the point.

Here is the point: Are we not hated enough in the world right now without our government pulling outrageous acts of anti-diplomacy like this? In this particular case, did the Bush administration even consider whether this was an action worth pursuing given strained diplomatic relations with Mexico over the highly-flammable issue of border security?

There are many theories on why we still observe an almost ancient grudge that seems to only hurt the Cuban people – certainly it doesn't impact Fidel Castro himself – but my guess is that it’s simply been a longstanding effort by federal politicians to pander to a very-vocal group of anti-Castro Cuban Americans in Florida, the biggest electoral prize of the coveted swing states.

I will say that I could not possibly have received more friendly, hospitable treatment than I did during my one-week stay in Mexico City. But the reception inevitably warmed further when I revealed that I was not part of a dwindling percentage of Americans who still believe in the twisted direction our country has turned since 2000.

As I sipped an ice-cold Victoria beer and continued talking to people around me watching the baseball game, I persisted in seeking reactions from locals on situations like the disgusting U.S. action at the Maria Isabel Sheraton.

“We think most Americans are kind people and we like to welcome you to our country,” said a cantina patron who asked that I not use her name. “But your government is a menace and we are watching your elections this year very hopefully.”