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Mexico City orders closure of hotel that expelled Cuban officials

MEXICO CITY—City officials ordered the closure of a major U.S.-owned hotel Tuesday in Mexico City, four weeks after it became the center of a diplomatic flap when U.S. Treasury Department officials ordered it to expel a delegation of Cuban officials.

Signs posted at the Maria Isabel-Sheraton, which is across from the iconic Monument to Independence at one of the city's most prominent intersections, made no mention of the dispute, instead accusing the 755-room luxury hotel of violating unspecified city codes.

But the official who signed the closure notice, Virginia Jaramillo, the chief of the city's Cuahtemoc district, had promised to move against the hotel after the 16-member Cuban delegation was asked to leave Feb. 2.

U.S. Treasury Department officials said the hotel would have been in violation of the U.S. trade embargo of Cuba had it allowed the Cubans to remain, but Mexican officials said the U.S. order infringed on Mexican sovereignty and violated Mexican law.

It was unknown whether city officials had consulted Mexico's federal government before ordering the closure.

"Due to the infringement of local law, the Sheraton's activities have been suspended," the notice said in eight languages. "We are sorry for the inconvenience that has caused. Thank you for your understanding."

Large red signs reading "closed" in Spanish were on the hotel's doors.

The Sheraton's marketing director, Dolores Castillo, said the hotel was still open despite the closure notice. "The hotel is operating at 100 percent," she said.

Hotel representatives were meeting with local officials in an attempt to avoid expelling tourists, and people were being allowed to enter the hotel.

Guests who were leaving for the most part declined to talk to reporters. One woman who said she was a member of the hotel's health club said managers had told her to call Wednesday to find out if the hotel would be open.

Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc., which owns the hotel, and U.S. Embassy officials had no comment.

The hotel is one of the city's best known. Adjacent to the U.S. Embassy, it has long been a symbol of American presence here.

That may have heightened Mexican resentment at the news that the Bush administration had pressured the hotel to expel the Cuban officials, who were attending a meeting with American oil-company executives about investment opportunities in Cuba's petroleum industry.

Mexican officials denounced the expulsion, and Foreign Minister Luis Ernesto Derbez complained to the State Department.

They didn't advocate closing the hotel, however. Jaramillo, who's the top administrative official of the district that the hotel is in, first suggested that step in early February, when she said inspections prompted by the expulsion had found violations of city building codes.

Sunday, former Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, campaigning for president in the city's main square, made an issue of U.S. policy toward Cuba. Without mentioning the Sheraton controversy, he promised that Mexico would return to its tradition of a "non-interventionist" policy, a slap at President Vicente Fox, who has sided with the United States by condemning the lack of civil liberties in Cuba.

The head of a Mexican travel and hotel association, Jorge Hernandez, worried Tuesday that the flap could hurt tourism, one of the country's leading industries. When he was asked whether he thought the closure notice was in reprisal for the expulsion of the Cubans, he said, "The whole world interprets it that way."

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MEXICO-HOTEL

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