Mexico can close U.S.-owned hotel that expelled Cubans

A U.S.-owned hotel appears to have violated Mexican law by expelling Cuban representatives attending an oil meeting here and could face fines of nearly half a million dollars or even be shut down, officials said.

Foreign Relations Secretary Luis Ernesto Derbez said he personally favors the highest possible fine against Mexico City's Hotel Maria Isabel Sheraton for applying foreign laws on Mexican soil.

Mexico also is weighing a diplomatic complaint against the United States. Derbez said in a radio interview that a Mexican diplomat is currently in Washington and "he will bring back information so that we can decide if it will be necessary or not to present a complaint with the U.S. government."

Brookly McLaughlin, a spokesman for the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, confirmed Tuesday that the department had told U.S.-owned Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc., owners of the Mexico City Sheraton, to expel the Cuban delegation.

"The hotel in Mexico City is a U.S. subsidiary, and therefore prohibited from providing a service to Cuba or Cuban nationals," McLaughlin said, referring to the Helms-Burton law, which tightened U.S. trade sanctions first imposed against Cuba in 1961. "The hotel acted in accordance with U.S. sanctions," he said.

The issue could become the latest in a round of diplomatic spats that have marred U.S.-Mexican relations in recent weeks, including disputes over border incidents, immigration and U.S. Ambassador Tony Garza's public comments on violence in Mexico.

Derbez said there was "sufficient evidence" that the hotel violated Mexican laws by expelling the Cuban representatives, and said that he "personally would be inclined" to charge the highest fine possible, equivalent to about US$463,000 ( Ђ 386,000).

Derbez's office announced it had formally started a complaint process against the hotel, and that the company would have 15 days to respond.

The hotel also may face fraud and discrimination charges for allegedly accepting the Cubans' money but denying them service, Derbez said. Those could result in separate fines, reports the AP.

I.L.