“AMLO is trying to carve out an autonomous space for foreign policy that signals to the United States especially that Mexico will not be subserviently going along with the United States but also tries to make claims as to what democratic legitimacy looks like in Latin America.” — Christy Thornton, Johns Hopkins University
MEXICO CITY — The night before Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó declared himself interim president, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence personally called him up and pledged the support of the U.S. government should he try to seize power.
Sure enough, on January 23, before a large opposition demonstration, Guaidó declared himself interim president of the South American country and set in motion a coup plot that had been in the works for weeks. The United States had once again waded into dangerous water with its latest effort to engage in regime change in Venezuela.
However, it was not just the United States involved in the conspiracy to oust the democratically elected government of Nicolas Maduro. Shortly after Guaidó’s declaration, in what suggested a certain degree of coordination, a series of countries immediately came out with statements publicly backing him.
One after another right-wing government in the region — including Colombia, Chile, and Brazil — affirmed their support for Guaidó. The wave of support in the hours after Guaidó’s proclamation suggested the coup plot had momentum.
Then, in a break in what had appeared to be a unified front, a spokesman for the Mexican government of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said that it would not recognize Juan Guaidó and would maintain diplomatic relations with the government of Nicolas Maduro.
With Mexico’s declaration, the façade that had been sold to the public — that this was a legitimate transition and not a coup — collapsed. Numerous other countries, including Russia and China, also came out against Guaidó’s unconstitutional attempt to seize power, interrupting Washington’s plans to install a U.S.-friendly regime in Venezuela.
AMLO, as the Mexican president is known, was met with heavy criticism from the punditry, many of whom claimed that he was out of step with Mexico’s allies in the region and that his government would be treated as a pariah as a result. Lopez Obrador’s leftist administration is already somewhat isolated, with votes throughout the region in recent years resulting in the election of right-wing and U.S.-friendly governments.
AMLO’s election in 2018 bucked that trend, but Mexico is still only one of only a handful of countries in Latin America with an independent foreign policy that remains willing to go against the wishes of Washington. However, AMLO presides over Latin America’s second-largest economy and is traditionally seen as a diplomatic heavyweight, making his government’s positions difficult to ignore.
A principled foreign policy stance
Lopez Obrador defended his decision to continue recognizing Maduro as the legitimate president of Venezuela by pointing to the Mexican constitution, which calls on the country to pursue a non-interventionist stance in its foreign affairs.
According to Christy Thornton — assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University, whose research involves the history and sociology of Mexico and Latin America — AMLO’s position represented “a principled stance in foreign policy” and “important bulwark.”
Rather than represent a departure in Mexican foreign policy, as some commentators claimed, Thornton argued that Lopez Obrador’s non-interventionist position marked a return to Mexico’s traditional stance in foreign affairs, one that traces its roots to the Mexican Revolution of the early 20th century.
This non-interventionist stance eventually came to be known as the Estrada Doctrine — after Genaro Estrada, secretary of foreign affairs during the presidency of Pascual Ortiz Rubio — which made respect for sovereignty the core tenant of Mexico’s foreign policy for decades before a series of neoliberal governments began to align their foreign policy with that of Washington.
The government of Lopez Obrador has worked to avoid provoking a direct confrontation with the Trump government, despite a number of simmering issues and the ideological differences between the two leaders.
However, in the case of Venezuela, Lopez Obrador refused to toe Washington’s line. Thornton told MintPress:
AMLO is trying to carve out an autonomous space for foreign policy that signals to the United States especially that Mexico will not be subserviently going along with the United States but also tries to make claims as to what democratic legitimacy looks like in Latin America.”
Rather than sideline Mexico, AMLO’s position has raised his country’s profile, as Maduro has accepted Mexico’s proposal for dialogue between his government and the opposition.
More than a hint of “First they came for . . .”
With a hostile neighbor to the north that has shown itself willing to pursue regime change, the Mexican president is also seeking to ensure that the principles of non-intervention and respect for sovereignty are maintained when it comes to his own government.
“There is a long historical record of Mexico using its interventions in the international sphere to signal not only its standing in the region but also to signal something to its domestic political constituencies,” said Thornton. By refusing to abandon Maduro, AMLO also made clear both to Mexico and the international community that his government would not tolerate interference in Mexico’s internal affairs.
At a demonstration in support of Maduro in front of the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, speakers not only rejected Washington’s efforts to oust the president of Venezuela but also praised AMLO’s stance.
“This is just one more link in the chain of U.S. interventions and history has shown that when people do not prevent aggression against other people this becomes a domino effect,” Jesus Escamilla, who addressed the rally, told MintPress.
For Escamilla the defense of Venezuela is also the defense of Mexico.
“What is at stake here is the right of a country to decide its own destiny for itself, that is what we want for Mexico, nothing more,” said Escamilla.
A coup plot stalled but not defeated
Despite setbacks, the United States and its right-wing allies have not abandoned their quest to oust the Maduro government in Venezuela.
U.S. officials announced yet another series of harsh sanctions, many of which target Venezuela’s oil industry, the country’s number one source of income. These sanctions are likely to further punish Venezuela’s already battered economy, leading to further suffering of the population.
The Trump administration has also brought in notorious figures with dark pasts, such as Elliot Abrams as special envoy to Venezuela. Abrams was Washington’s point-man in Central America when the U.S. was involved in propping up brutal regimes there, providing diplomatic cover for the death squads that operated with the U.S.’ consent; he even pled guilty for lying to Congress in connection to the Iran-Contra scandal.
At the Organization of American States (OAS)— currently led by Luis Almagro, a vicious opponent of Maduro — the U.S. was unable to gin up enough votes to get the body to recognize Guaidó as president of Venezuela.
According to Thornton, the United States “uses these multilateral institutions when they help its case and it ignores them when they are blocking the action that the United States wants to take.”
Instead, international pressure on the Maduro government will come from the Lima Group, an ad-hoc body that has no legal standing in international law, created by right-wing governments in the region after repeated failures to get the OAS to formally support their regime-change agenda.
The government of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador inherited its place in the Lima Group after the handover of power in December and pushed its non-interventionist position there as well, refusing to sign onto anti-Maduro declarations issued by the body.
“The pushback that Mexico has done against the Lima Group … is an important demonstration that each country has its own voice and vote at these multilateral institutions,” Thornton told MintPress.
Thornton argued that the Mexican government is taking a risk by betting on a diplomatic resolution to the Venezuelan crisis, but one that will strengthen multilateral institutions in the region if successful:
Mexico calling for this to be slowed down, for it to be negotiated diplomatically, is a really important move and it’s something the AMLO administration is taking that chance to demonstrate its faith in democracy and the international system. There is a danger that, as this situation further deteriorates, Mexico’s decision not to go along with the Lima Group and the United States in not recognizing Guaidó will come to be seen as a real outlier in the region.”
U.S. officials, including President Donald Trump himself, have insisted that a military option remains on the table. Indeed, National Security Advisor John Bolton was recently seen with notes that suggested the U.S. was considering placing 5,000 troops across the border in Colombia.
Foreign military intervention would represent a significant setback in international relations in Latin America; would mark a return to a dark era where coups and invasions were common; and would set a dangerous precedent that would threaten every government in the region that refuses to bow to Washington, including Mexico.
As in Venezuela, however, that kind of interference would be met with stout resistance inside Mexico. As Jesus Escamilla told Mint Press:
In Mexico there is a people with historical memory, through its history it has received various interventions and the people of Mexico have always responded correctly, in a patriotic manner, and it would not be the exception if the U.S. or any other country tried to intervene in the internal affairs of Mexico.”
Top Photo | Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador speaks during the presentation of his new economic program for the northern border zone, in Tijuana, Mexico, Jan. 6, 2019. Daniel Ochoa de Olza | AP
José Luis Granados Ceja is a writer and photojournalist based in Mexico City. He has previously written for outlets such as teleSUR and the Two Row Times and has also worked in radio as a host and producer. He specializes in contemporary political analysis and the role of media in influencing the public. He is particularly interested in covering the work of social movements and labor unions throughout Latin America.