Mexico welcomes Cuban president amid difficult times

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

The Cuban leader attributed the problems to “nature’s blows” and US economic sanctions.

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

Díaz-Canel mentioned plans to export gravel ballast to Mexico for a train project and said the two countries “will analyze new targets in areas of common interest”. He also mentioned the Cuban doctors who were 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 non-governmental groups, around 1,300 people were arrested after the protests. Some 700 sentences were handed down in connection with the protests, some reaching 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 electrical system. Mexico sent firefighting assistance during the fire.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador called Díaz-Canel an “illustrious and admired guest” and hopes to award the Cuban leader with the “Order of the Aztec Eagle”, Mexico’s highest medal, later on Saturday.

The prize – the country’s highest honor for foreigners and decided primarily by the president – has previously been awarded to leaders ranging from Fidel Castro to the Shah of Iran.

López Obrador praised Cuba for sending doctors to Mexico, some of whom work in remote or dangerous areas. But these doctors and the salaries they receive have sparked 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 striven to buy as much of Cuba as he can. But his purchase of everything from Cuban crushed rock ballast to Abdala’s coronavirus vaccine has raised eyebrows.

Mexico purchased 9 million doses of the Cuban-made Abdala vaccine in September 2022, with doses arriving later in the year when Mexico’s vaccination efforts had already slowed.

The López Obrador administration is using the Cuban vaccine as a booster, although it was designed for coronavirus variants circulating in 2020 or 2021, not current variants. Few Mexicans showed up for the Cuban booster shots.

In the rush to build his pet project, a tourist train that will make a difficult loop around the Yucatan peninsula, López Obrador has said he will import ballast shipments of gravel from Cuba at a high cost.

Ballast is needed to stabilize the loops of the train tracks. The local stone in Yucatan is not the right kind, and much has been shipped to Yucatan ports from the Gulf of Mexico coast itself.

López Obrador has been a longtime fan of Cuba and often plays “nueva trova” Cuban music in his daily news briefings.

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