By Jeff Franks
HAVANA (Reuters) - Mexican President Felipe Calderon met with his Cuban counterpart, Raul Castro, on Wednesday as the two sought to restore friendly relations and explore new trade opportunities after rocky times between their two countries.
Calderon's office said the two men agreed on "the importance of the bilateral relationship, based on mutual respect, the observance of the norms of international law and the close friendships of the Cuban and Mexican peoples."
They affirmed that undisclosed agreements reached during Calderon's visit "open new opportunities for the development" of their relations, the communiqué said. It did not describe the atmosphere or length of the meeting.
Such mutual assurances of the desire for better relations were unnecessary for years between Cuba and Mexico, but their long friendship went sour after Mexico elected Vicente Fox of the conservative National Action Party, or PAN, president in 2000 and have pretty much stayed that way.
He was the first leader not from the center-left Institutional Revolutionary Party in seven decades and took a less sympathetic line toward the communist island that did not sit well with then-Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
Fox criticized Fidel Castro over Cuba's human rights, then told him he had to leave a Mexican-hosted summit before then-U.S. President George W. Bush arrived.
Fidel Castro, now 85, taped the 2002 conversation and made it public, which created an embarrassing controversy for Fox.
Other problems followed and they continued under Calderon, who in 2009 angrily cancelled a scheduled visit to Cuba when the Cuban government suspended flights between the two countries at the height of the swine flu scare.
Calderon said on Wednesday upon his arrival in Havana that "in spite of our natural and different points of view about various issues," an effort would be made during the visit to "take our bilateral relation to its best level."
The Mexican leader, making his first official trip to Cuba just seven months before his six-year term ends, also came seeking ways for Mexican businesses to take advantage of economic changes underway in Cuba, his office said.
"We want to expand trade and investment between Mexico and Cuba," he said in his arrival remarks, including "bilateral cooperation in energy."
President Raul Castro, who succeeded older brother Fidel Castro in 2008, has undertaken reforms of Cuba's struggling Soviet-style economy to encourage private sector development and reduce the role of the government.
According to Mexican press reports, the two governments were to discuss Cuba's debt of more than $400 million to Mexico, the possibility of joint oil ventures in the Gulf of Mexico and openings for Mexican companies.
Trade between the two countries totaled $373 million in 2011, the Mexican government said.
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 also may be looking to help his party, the PAN, in Mexico's July presidential election by shoring up relations that Mexicans widely support because of Cuba's ability to thumb its nose at the United States for half a century.
The United States has imposed a trade embargo against the island 90 miles south of Florida for 50 years in an unsuccessful attempt to topple the communist government.
Calderon will leave Cuba on Thursday morning for Haiti, then attend the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia.
It was not known if he would visit Fidel Castro, who still occasionally meets with visiting dignitaries.
(Additional reporting by Rosa Tania Valdes and Marc Frank; Editing by Eric Beech)