Castro visits Mexico as ties improve

Mérida (Mexico) (AFP) - Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto will host Cuban counterpart Raul Castro on Friday as the two governments cement a diplomatic renewal following unusually chilly relations.

Castro's first state visit to Mexico since he took office in 2006 will take place in the eastern colonial city of Merida, where the two leaders will discuss a range of issues and sign a series of agreements.

"We are very happy that this is his first (state) visit to our country amid these renewed, revitalized relations," said Foreign Minister Claudia Ruiz Massieu.

The Cuban leader had been scheduled to arrive on Thursday, but he changed his arrival to the day of the meeting, a Mexican foreign ministry official told AFP.

Pena Nieto and Castro will hold private talks at the Yucatan state government palace in Merida to discuss investment, education and tourism issues, Mexican officials said.

The two leaders are also expected to discuss a recent surge of Cuban migrants entering Mexico in their bid to reach the United States.

The visit comes after Cuba and the United States restored diplomatic relations, a move that has raised the prospect of investment opportunities on the communist island.

- Past tensions -

Pena Nieto has sought to improve ties with Cuba since he took office in December 2012.

Tensions emerged after Vicente Fox of the conservative National Action Party (PAN) won the presidency in 2000 following 71 years of uninterrupted rule by Pena Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

Under the PRI, Mexico and Cuba enjoyed special ties. The Castro brothers lived in exile in Mexico in the 1950s and sailed to Cuba from the eastern state of Veracruz to launch their guerrilla revolution.

Mexico was the only Latin American country to resist US pressure to break relations with communist Cuba during the Cold War.

But relations turned sour under Fox's 2000-2006 presidency, which voted to condemn Cuba at the UN Human Rights Council.

When he visited Cuba in 2002, Fox met with dissidents at the Mexican Embassy.

At a UN poverty summit in the northern Mexican city of Monterrey that year, Fox urged Fidel Castro to leave early to avoid an awkward encounter with then-US president George W. Bush. Castro released a recording of a phone conversation in which Fox tells him "eat and leave."

In 2004, Fox recalled his ambassador to Havana and expelled Cuba's envoy to Mexico City.

- debt forgiven -

Tensions eased a bit under Fox's successor, Felipe Calderon, who met with Raul Castro in 2008, but relations were never as good as under the PRI.

Fidel Castro's last trip to Mexico was in 2002. Raul went to the resort of Cancun in 2010 for a Latin American summit.

In 2013, Pena Nieto's government forgave 70 percent of Cuba's $487 million debt to Mexico and gave the island 10 years to repay the rest.

Pena Nieto visited Cuba in January 2014 for a summit of Latin American and Caribbean nations and Mexico has several investment projects at the Mariel megaport.

"It's very good that relations between Mexico and Cuba are normalizing, but it's not as important as in the past for either country," said Rodrigo Salazar, political expert at the Latin American Social Sciences Faculty.