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THE WORLD FROM...Mexico City

Latin Americans loosen ties to Cuba but grumble about the US embargo trampling on their own sovereignty

`LA Ley Torricelli" is being vilified throughout Latin America.

Mexico's foreign relations secretary blasts the new US law, which tightens the embargo on Cuba, as an affront to Mexican sovereignty. Legislators in Uruguay and Venezuela vociferously reject it as meddling in their commercial affairs. Even Argentine President Carlos Saul Menem - described by leftists here as normally "genuflecting" before US policies - has joined the critical chorus after a recent chat with Mexico's president.

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The hoopla is over the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992, which President Bush signed Oct. 23. Sponsored by Rep. Robert Torricelli (D) of New Jersey, the law bars foreign subsidiaries of United States firms from trading with Cuba and prohibits ships trading with the island nation from docking in US ports for six months.

The European Community and Canada are also among those miffed that Washington would attempt to regulate trade originating on their soil. But in the debt-ridden lands of Latin America, the new law particularly galls because it reinforces the traditional image of the US as interloper and puts jobs and foreign investment at risk.

In Mexico's case, the issue appears tangled with the unratified North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Mexico has always been a trading partner and international amigo of Cuba. But is Mexico really willing to expend diplomatic capital opposing the new US law, given the proximity of the NAFTA brass ring?

A clue to the depth of Mexico's ire may be the unprecedented recognition given to two top anti-Castro exiles. In a major break in Mexican policy, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari met privately in August with Jorge Mas Canosa, president of the Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation - the leading proponent of putting the economic squeeze on Cuba. Then, in mid-September, President Salinas quietly met with Carlos Alberto Montaner, chief of another anti-Castro group based in Spain.

Various explanations for the meetings have been posited.

According to New York-based Cuba specialist Pamela Falk, the Cuban exile community was concerned that Mexico would aid Cuba by buying Cuban sugar and citrus for domestic consumption. Then Mexico would sell its own sugar and citrus to the US under the reduced tarriffs provided by NAFTA.

Mr. Mas Canosa was preparing an anti-NAFTA ad campaign when summoned to Mexico by Salinas. In a Wall Street Journal column, Ms. Falk claims that in return for Mas Canosa's dropping the ad campaign, Salinas agreed to freeze Cuban trade at current levels and deny Cuba credits, debt renegotiations, and access to subsidized oil.

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Perhaps, then, the June 1991 prophecy of US Ambassador to Mexico John Negroponte is coming to fruition: "From a foreign policy perspective, an FTA [free trade agreement] would institutionalize acceptance of a North American orientation to Mexico's foreign relations," he wrote in a leaked cable to Washington.

Salinas denies any deal was struck with Mas Canosa.

Maybe, as Salinas indicates, the meetings are a case of simple pragmatism. Castro's days may be numbered. Mexican officials have talked with representatives of US presidential frontrunner Bill Clinton - why not the Cuban opposition?

"Mexico was keeping itself isolated from the dialogue [Ibero-American nations] were already having with the Cuban community, both inside and outside the island," Salinas said in justifying the shift.

In any case, the influence of the Cuban exile community is now being felt well beyond Dade County, Florida.

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