MEXICO CITY (AP) — Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel acknowledged on Saturday that the island faces “extremely difficult challenges” as he arrives for a visit to Mexico.
The Cuban leader blamed the problems on “coups of nature” and US economic sanctions.
“I thank our brother nation once again for its solidarity with the Cuban people, who have faced extremely difficult challenges in recent years and months, due to a combination of the blows of nature and the effects of the reinforced blockade,” Díaz-Canel said during 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 objectives 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 power outages. According to non-governmental groups, around 1,300 people have been arrested following the protests. Around 700 sentences have been handed down in connection with the protests, including some of 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 power system. Mexico sent firefighters to this fire.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador called Díaz-Canel a “distinguished and admired guest” and is expected to award the Cuban leader the “Order of the Aztec Eagle”, Mexico’s highest medal, later Saturday.
The award – 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 serve in dangerous or remote areas. But these doctors, and the salaries paid to them, have caused controversy in Mexico. Some said the jobs should go to Mexican doctors, while others suspected much of their salaries would go to the Cuban government.
As president, López Obrador did everything possible to buy as much as he could from Cuba. But his purchase of everything from Cuban crushed stone ballast to the Abdala coronavirus vaccine has raised eyebrows.
Mexico purchased 9 million doses of the Cuban-made Abdala vaccine in September 2022, with doses arriving at the end of the year when Mexico’s vaccination efforts had already slowed.
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 showed up to receive the Cuban booster shots.
In a rush to build his pet project, a tourist train that will circle the Yucatan Peninsula, López Obrador said he would import shipments of crushed rock ballast from Cuba at great expense.
Ballast is needed to stabilize railway sleepers. Local Yucatan stone is the wrong type and much of it was shipped to Yucatan ports from the Gulf Coast.
López Obrador has been a long-time Cuba fan and frequently plays “nueva trova” Cuban music during his daily press briefings.