Helms proclaim new spirit of cooperation with Mexico

Wednesday, April 18th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MEXICO CITY (AP) _ Mexico and the United States are establishing a ``new spirit of cooperation'' but officials in both countries acknowledge a wide gap on the issue of human rights in Cuba.

Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., who is leading a delegation from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on a historic three-day visit to Mexico City, has pushed countries to condemn Cuba before the U.N. Human Rights Commission.

But Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda, who met with Helms and the four other members of his delegation Tuesday, told the senator that Mexico would continue its policy of abstaining from the vote, which is scheduled for Wednesday in Geneva.

Castaneda's spokeswoman, Liliana Ferrer, said Castaneda _ who has criticized Cuba for human rights abuses in the past _ told the senators that the U.N. resolutions were ``unilateral, selective and politicized.''

However, Sen. Joseph Biden, a Democrat from Delaware, said Mexico had pledged to recognize human rights abuses in Cuba, although it wasn't clear how it would do that.

``I don't think you'll see a change in vote,'' he said. ``I think we'll see a change in explanation.''

Mexico's new President Vicente Fox has promised to take a more active role against human rights abuses within and outside Mexico's borders, putting him in an awkward position regarding Cuba. The Mexican government historically has been Cuba's closest friend in Latin America.

Despite their differences on the U.N. vote, Helms said discussions between the senators and Mexican officials have ``set us on the path toward a new era of cooperation on matters such as immigration, drugs, trade and the promotion of human rights in Cuba.''

Helms said he traveled to Mexico to ``try and establish a new spirit of cooperation between our two countries, and to have an honest and open dialogue.''

On Wednesday, the delegation planned to hold an unprecedented meeting with Mexico's Senate foreign relations committee.

Helms' comments marked a dramatic change in tone for one of the U.S. politicians most often criticized in Mexico. Since arriving Monday, he has posed happily with Mexican officials and promised to keep in close contact with Fox's government.

Helms even praised Castaneda, a former communist and one of the senator's past foes, saying he was ``impressed'' with his leadership. In November, Helms aide Roger Noriega had expressed disappointment with Castaneda's appointment.

Washington has responded favorably to the election of Fox, who took office Dec. 1.

Helms promised to do everything he could to help Fox succeed, saying the new president had brought the people of Mexico an ``honest government.''

Wednesday's meeting with Mexican senators comes as the U.S. Congress debates bills on immigration and drug trafficking. Fox has pushed U.S. officials to issue more work visas for Mexicans.

Helms' committee passed a bill earlier this month that would eliminate something called the certification law. Under the law, U.S. presidents certify that foreign countries' are combating drug trafficking or impose sanctions on them.

Mexico, and most other nations, have denounced the certification program as insulting and hypocritical coming from the world's largest drug-consuming nation.