Carlos Fuentes

On May 1, Cuba's Fidel Castro alienated most of the last few allies he has left. After being condemned at the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva last month, the irascible dictator blasted the European Union as "a mafia" and even the Mexicans as "hypocrites." The outburst produced a backlash of its own: Mexico (as well as Peru) recalled its ambassador, further isolating the Caribbean island and prompting fresh speculation about Castro's future. Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes suffered his own break with Castro four decades ago, though he disagreed with the U.N. censure. He spoke of the Cuban leader's deepening isolation last week with NEWSWEEK's Scott Johnson. Excerpts:

Johnson: You've spoken out against Castro for decades.

Fuentes: Since 1966, when Pablo Neruda and I went to a PEN Writers Conference in New York. Arthur Miller had obtained visas for writers and intellectuals from the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc. Neruda and I celebrated this as a triumph. Immediately the Cuban union of writers published a ferocious letter denouncing Neruda and myself as enemies of socialism, signed by a long list of Cuban writers. It was absolutely dirty, because later we found out that they had not been consulted. In Cuba, there was a kind of tropical Stalinism in the realm of culture and literature. So I never went back to the island.

Now even Cuba's old allies are deserting it.

Well, it has a sinister record of human rights. But Cuba is not alone. What's happened at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq is one of the grossest violations of human rights under the Geneva Conventions that we have record of. It is simply monstrous. I grant you that Cuba is a nondemocratic dictatorship, while the United States is a democracy--albeit at peril under the Bush administration and its circle of ideologues. But you cannot have such different yardsticks.

Do you support the United Nations' condemnation in Geneva?

No. I would have abstained, unless you're going to point your finger at all countries that have such a record. Again, the United States is among them.

Mexico is a democracy, and it also stands accused of human-rights violations.

So we're censuring Cuba for being a dictatorship? The United States condoned dictatorships in Latin America for much of the 20th century. We're talking about human-rights violations. They are gross in Cuba, but there are also gross violations in Mexico. And in the United States.

Yet Mexico allowed a UNHRC team to come and investigate. Why shouldn't Cuba do the same?

If Cuba doesn't do it, then you condemn the Cuban government. The Human Rights Commission should not blame countries, wholesale. It should try human-rights violations case by case. It's not a question of blaming Cuba or the U.S. or Sudan, but saying there is this or that particular case. Then nobody gets away with anything.

Then who's to blame for imprisoning journalists in Cuba?

The Cuban government, of course. But as I say, I'm against wholesale condemnation of a country, because you get nowhere. You just inflame national sentiments and don't deal with the problem in itself.

Most Mexicans want to maintain the status quo with Cuba.

That's not a position in favor of Fidel Castro, however. We Mexicans considered the embargo, as well as the breaking of relations, to violate international law. This is different from solidarity with the Cuban revolution. Also, there is in Mexico a memory of the harassment of the Cuban revolution and of American intervention.

Yet one of the main reasons for expelling the Cuban diplomats was interference in Mexico's domestic affairs.

Well, in that case then you would also have to kick out quite a lot of Americans.

Why is Mexico only now becoming more openly critical?

Internal Mexican politics. President Vicente Fox has decided that the fight for the presidential succession should start three years in advance. Maybe he and his allies are fighting for position and found it convenient to have credentials as an enemy of Cuba. All of Latin America, with the possible exception of Venezuela, has turned against this self-perpetuating dictatorship in Cuba. Things are changing rapidly. Fidel Castro is playing the last act of his role as the heroic, solitary revolutionary leader. He's going to be overtaken by death, as all of us are.

And his brother, Raul?

He'll be gone in a jiffy.