MEXICO CITY -- Through the decades, Mexico and revolutionary Cuba enjoyed close ties. It was in Mexico in the 1950s that a young Fidel Castro, along with Ernesto "Che" Guevara, plotted the uprising that would eventually take them to power. Mexico remained a bastion of support for Cuba for years.
But after the 2000 election of the first of Mexico's two consecutive presidents from the conservative National Action Party, things began to sour.
On Wednesday, in a long-delayed effort to improve relations between the two governments, Mexican President Felipe Calderon made his first official trip to Havana, where he was to meet with President Raul Castro and a host of other Cuban officials.
The visit is largely symbolic. Calderon has not quite eight months left in office. But it marks an important boost for the Castro government at a time when the island is undergoing extensive economic change.
It also comes on the eve of the regular Summit of the Americas, where Cuba's attendance has once again been barred, this time almost solely by U.S. veto.
Calderon arrived in Cuba in the early afternoon and said he planned to "intensify" the relationship between the two countries and "take it to its best level."
"For us, Cuba and Mexico are in a renewed phase of their bilateral relationship," he said during a brief airport ceremony.
Earlier, Calderon's government had said the trip was aimed at "strengthening historic ties of brotherhood between the two peoples" as well as "to construct a new agenda with Cuba" that would further commerce and investment as Havana embarks on economic change, including the introduction of private enterprise.
It was unclear whether Calderon would see Castro's ailing older brother, Fidel.
In the 2000 election, Mexican voters for the first time turned out the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party for Vicente Fox of the National Action Party. With Fox at the helm and deep on a mission to move his country closer to then-President George W. Bush, Mexico's relationship with Havana suffered one contretemps after another.
In 2002, Mexico supported a United Nations resolution condemning Cuba's human rights record, something it had never done before. That same year, Fox visited Cuba, but for the last time.
Later in 2002, Fox told Fidel Castro that he could attend the opening of a summit in Mexico, have a meal, but then should leave before Bush arrived. The incident became known in Mexico as the "you eat, you go" slap at Castro.
The low point probably came in 2004, when Mexico briefly withdrew its ambassador to Cuba and expelled Havana's envoy.
Although Mexico remains one of Washington's staunchest allies in Latin America, Calderon in 2008 finally began to mend ties with Cuba. He met with Raul Castro, who by then had taken the reins from Fidel, at a regional gathering in Brazil. But his often-stated intention to visit the island nation had never been realized until now.
Calderon leaves Cuba on Thursday for a brief stay in Haiti and meetings with President Michel Martelly, whose beleaguered government is still trying to name a prime minister nearly a year into its term. The latest nominee for the post was approved by the Haitian Senate on Tuesday, clearing a major hurdle.
This weekend, Calderon joins most of the hemisphere's other heads of state, including President Obama, for the sixth Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia. Some of the participants have said they will push for a major reexamination of the drug war promoted by Washington and being waged to deadly results in Mexico and Central America. U.S. officials would prefer to focus on other issues such as energy, the environment and trade.
Over objections from several of the region's heads of state, the Obama administration was adamant in refusing to allow Cuba to attend. Cuba has always been barred because of its lack of democracy, but some of the region's countries believe it is time to reassess that position.
-- Tracy Wilkinson
Photo: Mexican President Felipe Calderon and his wife, Margarita Zavala, are welcomed at Havana's airport by Cuban Deputy Foreign Minister Rogelio Sierra on Wednesday. Credit: Javier Galeano / Associated Press