Cuban President Visits Mexico, Receives Highest Honor for Foreigners

Feb 13, 2023
10:52 AM

Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel, right, and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador speak after signing bilateral agreements at Revolution Palace in Havana, Cuba, May 8, 2022. Díaz-Canel was awarded Mexico’s highest medal during his visit to the southern Mexican city of Campeche on February 11, 2023. (Yamil Lage/Pool Photo via AP, File)

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel acknowledged that the island faces “tremendously difficult challenges” as he arrived in Mexico on Saturday.

The Cuban leader blamed the problems on the “blows of nature” and U.S. economic sanctions.

“I once again thank our brother nation for its solidarity with the Cuban people, who have faced tremendously difficult challenges in the last few years and months, due to a combination of the blows of nature and the effects of the toughened blockade,” Díaz-Canel said at a welcoming ceremony in the Gulf coast city of Campeche.

Díaz-Canel mentioned plans to export crushed stone ballast to Mexico for a train project, and said the two countries “will analyze new goals in areas of common interest.” He also mentioned the Cuban doctors that have been sent to Mexico and said he would visit some of them during his visit.

In 2021, Cuba’s autocratic government faced historic protests amid a severe economic crisis, shortages, and blackouts. According to nongovernmental groups, about 1,300 people were arrested following the protests. About 700 sentences have been handed down related to the protests, with some ranging up to 30 years in prison for sedition.

And in 2022, a deadly fire destroyed at least half of a large oil storage facility in western Cuba and further weakened the island’s already fragile electricity system. Mexico sent firefighting assistance during that blaze.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador called Díaz-Canel a “distinguished and admired guest” while awarding him the Order of the Aztec Eagle, Mexico’s highest honor for foreigners, later Saturday at a ceremony in the Mayan ruin site of Edzna.

The award, decided mainly by Mexico’s president, has previously been given to leaders ranging from Fidel Castro to the Shah of Iran.

“The U.S. government should lift, as soon as possible, the unjust and inhuman blockade of the Cuban people,” López Obrador said. “It’s time for a new coexistence among all the countries of Latin America.”

López Obrador has praised Cuba for sending doctors to Mexico, some of whom serve in dangerous or remote areas. But those doctors, and the salaries they are paid, have raised controversy in Mexico. Some said the jobs should go to Mexican doctors, while others suspected that much of their salaries would go to the Cuban government.

As president, López Obrador has opposed U.S. economic sanctions against Cuba, and on Saturday he said U.S. policy “is completely worn out, anachronistic, it has no future or point, and it no longer benefits anyone.”

López Obrador has gone out of his way to buy as much as he can from Cuba. But his purchase of everything from Cuban crushed stone ballast to the Abdala coronavirus vaccine has raised eyebrows.

Mexico bought nine million doses of the Cuban-made Abdala vaccine in September 2022, with the doses arriving at year’s end, when Mexico’s vaccination efforts had already tailed off.

López Obrador’s administration is using the Cuban vaccine as a booster, even though it was designed for coronavirus variants circulating in 2020 or 2021, not current variants. Few Mexicans have shown up to get the Cuban booster shots.

In the rush to build his pet project, a tourist train that will run in a rough loop around the Yucatán peninsula, López Obrador has said he will import boatloads of crushed stone ballast from Cuba at great cost.

The ballast is needed to stabilize the ties of the train tracks. Local stone in the Yucatán is not the right kind, and much has been shipped to Yucatán ports from Mexico’s own Gulf coast.

López Obrador has long been a fan of Cuba, and frequently plays Cuban “nueva trova” music at his daily news briefings.