By Jeff Franks
HAVANA (Reuters) - Mexican President Felipe Calderon will visit Cuba on Wednesday for a quick trip to patch up bruised relations with the communist island and discuss possible business ventures, including oil deals.
With just seven months remaining in his six-year term, it will be Calderon's first trip to Cuba after he angrily canceled a planned 2009 visit when the Cuban government suspended flights between the countries at the height of the swine flu scare.
He is scheduled to meet Cuban President Raul Castro and, according to press reports, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the leader of Cuba's Roman Catholic Church. It is not known if he will see former Cuban ruler Fidel Castro, who retired in 2008 but still meets with visiting leaders.
Calderon will arrive at midday on Wednesday and leave Thursday morning on his way to Haiti and then attend the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia.
Cuba and Mexico enjoyed friendly relations until the administration of Vicente Fox, who in 2000 broke the center-left Institutional Revolutionary Party's 71-year grip on power in Mexico by winning the presidency.
In 2002, his government angered Fidel Castro by supporting a United Nations resolution condemning Cuba's human rights record.
That same year Fox, like Calderon a member of the conservative National Action Party, had a falling out with Fidel Castro. The Cuban leader recorded Fox telling him in a phone call he was invited to have lunch at a Mexico-hosted summit, but had to leave before then U.S. President George W. Bush arrived.
The taped conversation was made public, which provoked a firestorm of criticism of Fox in Mexico, where Castro is widely respected for having stood up to the United States for half a century.
THUMBING NOSE AT UNITED STATES
The two countries briefly closed their embassies in 2004, but maintained official diplomatic relations.
For Mexico, sustaining Cuban ties is a measure of independence from the United States, which has been at odds with Cuba since the 1959 revolution that brought the Castro brothers to power.
Cuba's nose-thumbing at American pressure resonates with Mexicans, said Arturo Levy-Lopez, a Cuba expert at the University of Denver.
"Cuba is a symbolic issue. The Cuban revolution as a historic event, and opposition to American hegemony in Latin America possesses important political capital in Mexico," he said.
Calderon wants to shore up relations with Cuba before Mexico's presidential election in July to help out the PAN candidate, who is trailing in the polls, Levy-Lopez said.
Under Mexican law, he cannot seek another term in office.
"By traveling to Cuba, Calderon, who is a man of his party, affirms the credibility of the PAN against accusations of subordination to the U.S. government," said Levy-Lopez.
Calderon's office said in a statement the visit would serve to strengthen "fraternity" between the two countries and create a "new agenda" to take advantage of the business opportunities opened up by economic changes made by Cuba's government.
According to Mexican news reports, these could include work on oil projects in the Gulf of Mexico.
Daily newspaper La Jornada said Mexico may be considering leasing exploration blocks in Cuba's part of the gulf, which abuts that of Mexico and the United States.
A consortium led by Spanish oil company Repsol YPF is drilling the first of a possible series of wells in Cuba's offshore, which the island says may hold 20 billion barrels of oil.
Mexican officials downplayed the possibility of any dramatic oil agreements coming from the visit, but said there might be an accord on "technical cooperation."
Calderon, whose country has been wracked by drug violence during his administration, is not believed to plan any meetings with government opponents in Cuba. Nor is he likely to talk publicly about human rights.
Mexican media said the government might restructure Cuba's $413 million debt or strike a deal to lower it in exchange for more Mexican investment in Cuba. Trade between the two countries totaled about $450 million in 2010, Mexican sources said.
(Additional reporting by Rosa Tania Valdes in Havana; Editing by David Adams and Christopher Wilson)