Mexico and Venezuela: A Unique Relationship
Although the issue remains hotly contested in international relations at large, support for the new Guaido government in Venezuela is generally agreed upon by states across the Americas (with the exception of Cuba, who has been heavily involved in Caracas for many years). That said, a major regional player is not as enthusiastically on board compared to their neighbors. Here, Mexico has trotted out a particularly interesting and technically neutral stance defined by a desire to avoid further conflict escalation in Venezuela. It is the only country to adopt such a position in the Americas and thus the bilateral relationship dynamics between Mexico and Venezuela is a topic worth exploring.
Officially, Mexico’s stance on Venezuela does not recognize the power of the opposition government in Caracas headed by Juan Guaido. I characterize this as a “neutral” position because at the same time Mexico City is actively involved in the Lima Group of Latin American countries dedicated to peaceably resolving the political and social crisis in Venezuela. At the same time, Mexico receives a smaller amount of Venezuelan refugees than many of its fellow Latin American countries, making it less influenced by this particular migratory crisis.
So what is behind Mexico’s unique strategy here? Perhaps the easiest explanation is that, as former US House Speaker Tip O’Neill once quipped, “all politics is local.” In this case, Mexican foreign policy is determined primarily via domestic concerns. This has impacts in multiple areas:
Since the advent of competitive multiparty elections in Mexico starting in 2000, changes in presidential leadership - and particularly changes in political party across administrations - have corresponded with changes in foreign policy outlook. In a possible reflection of global democratic norms over the past few years, the last Mexican presidential election brought in a new leader - Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) - who is decidedly more populist, more protectionist, and more isolationist than his predecessor.
Mexican politics is forever influenced by its large, northern neighbor: the United States. Currently, the Trump administration is pressuring Mexico City on multiple fronts, from immigration crackdowns to a withdrawal of support for struggling Central American countries bordering Mexico to taking a stance on Venezuela. Trump has made it abundantly clear that the United States is strongly supporting the Guaido government and expects regime change in Caracas to be imminent. Given this situation, Mexico faces the challenge of asserting itself as a sovereign nation without sudden and crippling economic cuts imposed by their powerful neighbor. For this reason, it is no surprise that AMLO is utilizing a historical foreign policy doctrine - the Estrada doctrine - to refuse to recognize new governments in a way that maintains a neutrality that does not attract Washington’s ire.
The other factor driving this bilateral situation is ideological. Simply put, AMLO’s government and party is decidedly left-wing, consistent with those supposedly running Venezuela today. In fact, it is believed that many in AMLO’s Morena party are Chavistas (followers of the late Hugo Chavez) who support generous domestic programs funded by natural resources revenues.
This would not be the first time AMLO and his allies had such an impact on Venezuela, either. During his first presidential campaign in 2006, AMLO nearly won the election and finished several tenths of a percentage point behind the eventual winner, Felipe Calderon. The election faced accusations of irregularities, inherently forcing Calderon to establish his legitimate rule over Mexico. Curiously, foreign policy became an area of policy change compared to his predecessor, who was of the same party. Here, the Calderon administration worked tirelessly to reestablish relations with Venezuela and Cuba (whose influence in Venezuela has been well documented throughout the scope of the Venezuela political/social crisis). To me, this suggests that there is perhaps some influence from the AMLO camp regarding left-wing friendly foreign policy.
A Desire for Peace: A Future Mediator?
This position begs the question: does Mexico find itself in a spot where it can mediate a solution to the Venezuela crisis? My view is that perhaps this can happen but its motivations are much more local in scope. As mentioned above, Mexico faces pressures from both its northern and southern borders, with the violence in Central America much closer to home than the breakdown in Venezuela. In this way, its “neutrality” on the Venezuela question is much more an expression of domestic political realities than a full-fledged desire to take the lead in pan-American relations (as perhaps explains the role of Uruguay in arbitrating the Venezuela crisis).
That said, it is interesting to note that AMLO’s policies are well aligned with left-wing leaders around the world, many of whom (China, Russia, Cuba) have interests that counter those of their neighbor, the United States. With the US debating methods and instances of undue interference in its spheres of political power by these challengers, the bilateral and multinational relationships between these countries and Mexico is a subject worth exploring further.