A storm is raging in Mexico over extraterritorial rights claimed by the United States.

On Feb. 3, 16 Cuban oil industry officials were thrown out of the Sheraton Maria Isabel Hotel in downtown Mexico City, the management even refusing to refund their money. They were told that they could not even buy a cup of coffee at the hotel restaurant, or use the passageways, simply because they were Cubans. They had come to Mexico City to meet with U.S. oil industry representatives interested in exploring purchases of Cuban crude from reserves recently discovered off that country’s northern coast. U.S. law prevents such deals, but the oilmen are making preliminary contacts in case this should change.

The Maria Isabel belongs to the U.S.-based Starwood Corp. The Helms-Burton law forbids U.S. companies, including their overseas branches, from trading with Cuba (there are some exceptions covering cash sales of food and medicine). Pressured by the Bush administration, the home office in Phoenix not only instructed the Maria Isabel to throw the Cubans out, but also to grab their room deposits and hand them over to the U.S. government.

Interpreting this law this way, no business in Mexico or anywhere owned or part owned by a U.S. entity, or which sold products wholly or partly produced in the United States, could do business with any Cuban citizen.

Under NAFTA, there is a huge increase in the businesses and products found in Mexico that are U.S.-owned or produced. Mexico could be more and more subject to the U.S. Helms-Burton law, which is opposed by the vast majority of the Mexican people. Eventually, Cubans traveling in Mexico would not be able to eat tortillas, because lately they are often made from U.S. maize, which has flooded Mexico under NAFTA.

Branches of U.S. companies in other countries besides Mexico have been told they cannot make deals with Cubans. And even foreign companies which manufacture products that contain U.S.-made components are told they must obey not only the Helms-Burton law, but other orders from the U.S. government. Currently, the U.S. is trying to stop Spain from selling fighter jets to Venezuela on the grounds that the jets contain some U.S.-made components. U.S. imperialism and neoliberal, free trade policies are two sides of the same coin.

However, Mexican law specifically forbids any company doing business in Mexico from obeying the Helms-Burton law, which the Maria Isabel did by giving the Cubans the boot. The question now is whether within Mexican national territory, U.S. or Mexican law is applicable. Or put another way: Is Mexico still a sovereign, independent country, or not?

Before, Mexico made at least some show of enforcing such laws, in the name of national dignity. However, the current government of President Vicente Fox of the right-wing National Action Party has been excessively eager to please the Bush administration, especially in relation to Cuba. Mexico’s relations with the socialist island having been repeatedly jeopardized in an evident attempt by Fox to curry favor with Bush, partly in hopes of doing an immigration deal.

This has gotten Fox nowhere, and for his pains he has been slimed in a bizarre campaign of vituperation in the right-wing U.S. media which accuse him, the most right-wing, pro-Washington Mexican president since 1911, of being a radical anti-American revolutionary who wants to invade the United States and “reconquer” the U.S. Southwest.

While representatives of all three major political parties in Mexico (the former ruling Revolutionary Institutional Party, or PRI, the left-center Revolutionary Democratic Party, or PRD, and Fox’s own PAN) denounced the incident, the initial response from the government has been that it is “a problem between the two parties involved.” In other words, “We disapprove of what the hotel did, but we’re not going to do anything about it.” But as the political temperature over the incident rose, this changed slightly. The Mexican Movement in Solidarity with Cuba organized demonstrations demanding the hotel obey the law and the government enforce it.

Fox’s foreign minister, Luis Ernesto Derbez, changed course to some extent, announcing that the government will investigate possible violations of the law and might go so far as to close the hotel. But at this writing, he has doggedly refused to send a note of protest to the U.S. government. The United States, meanwhile, insists that U.S.-linked companies in Mexico have to obey U.S. law and not Mexican law when the two collide. Last week the government of the Mexico City borough where the hotel is located carried out an intensive inspection, and announced that they were contemplating closing the hotel for multiple code violations in addition to the charge of illegal discrimination against the Cuban guests.

Progressive people in the United States need to raise our voices about this also, demanding an end to the U.S. blockade of Cuba, an end to imperialist assaults against the national sovereignty of Mexico, Cuba, Venezuela and every other country, and an end to the neoliberal, free trade policies under cover of which such assaults have become a routine matter worldwide.