Mexican President Jose Lopez Portillo increasingly sees himself as the go-between for Washington and Havana -- and in many ways he is ideally suited for the job.
He genuinely likes both Ronald Reagan and Fidel Castro.
Moreover, he sincerely believes that the United States and Cuba ought to be talking -- and associates say he thinks Mr. Reagan and Dr. Castro would enjoy each other and be able to find at least some ways of accommodation, if not genuine friendship.
But Mr. Lopez Portillo is also a political realist, knowing well the great distance that separates the two countries and their leaders.
Mr. Lopez Portillo's meeting with Dr. castro Aug. 7 to 8 on Cozumel, a Mexican island in the Caribbean, was in part designed to apprise Dr. Castro of his recent session with President Reagan at Camp David. No formal communique was issued after the Conzumel session. But Mexican officials said that Mr. Lopez Portillo and Dr. Castro discussed US policy in Latin America in general, and especially in Central America, where both Mexico and Cuba have sharp differences with US attitudes.
But the meeting also gave Mr. Lopez Portillo an opportunity to fill in the Cuban leader on preparations for the North-South economic summit scheduled for October on the neighboring Mexican island of Cancun -- a session at which Dr. Castro will not be present.
President Reagan has said all along he would not attend if President Castro were present, and recent efforts at the United Nations to invite the Cubans were unsuccessful.
At the same time, Cuban officials are most skittish about President Reagan, very unsure of just where he stands on many Western issues and most particularly on Cuba. They would like to meet with him, and with other US officials, but they do not know what to expect.
Thus in a way President Lopez Portillo is their conduit of information. He is also, for the United States, an excellent source on Cuba. Jorge Castaneda, his foreign minister, is particularly close to his Cuban counterpart, and he, like the Mexican President, has been trying to find areas of common ground between Washington and Havana.
The Lopez Portillo-castro session at Cozumel gave the Mexican leader an opporrtunity to renew his personal friendship with Dr. Castro. It is understood that in the course of the two-day conversations he sought ways to bring Washington and Havana together.
Whether he had much success remains to be seen. Dr. Castro's attacks on the US in the course of a recent major speech were unsettling to the Mexicans since they seem to slam the door on renewed contacts between the US and Cuba. Moreover, President Reagan and his administration seem very reluctant to deal directly with Cuba.
The Mexican effort to try to bring Washington and Havana together, and Mexico's continuing relationship with Cuba, are in some measure the result of a longstanding Mexican sympathy with the Cuban revolution begun by Dr. Castro 23 years ago.
During the 1960s, Mexico was the only Latin American nation maintaining relations with the Castro government. Although many of the other governments began to reestablish ties with Cuba in the 1970s, there has been in the last two years a trend away from relations with Cuba, many countries feeling that Cuba has tried to export its revolution to their shores.
Both Colombia and Costa Rica have suspended relations with Cuba in recent months, and Venezuelan-Cuban relations are extremely chilly. Thus Mexican finds itself more and more -- as it was back in the 1960s -- without much support for ties with Cuba.
Although Washington-Havana relations are pretty chilly also, the two countries maintain interests sections in third-country embassies in each other's capitals, and it is likely that this will remain the single most effective link between the two countries for some time to come.