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La Semana: Sunday, May 15
The week in Mexico's foreign policy
Welcome to the Sunday edition of The Mexpatriate. In tonight’s newsletter:
López Obrador’s Foreign Policy: Bold or Balderdash?
Stay tuned for another edition mid-week (Entre Semana) that will explore maternal health in Mexico.
Please send me your comments, feedback and questions, and feel free to forward this to anyone who may be interested. Instead of providing sources at the bottom of the email, this time I have decided to insert links directly in the body text. I hope this makes accessing the referenced articles easier for readers.
López Obrador’s Foreign Policy: Bold or Balderdash?
President López Obrador left Mexico for the first international tour of his presidency from May 5-8 to visit Honduras, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and Cuba. His only other ventures outside the country since taking office have been to the United States in 2020 and 2021. The tangible outcomes of this tour of Central America and the Caribbean have been eclipsed by a symbolic one: AMLO’s announcement on May 10 that he will not attend the 9th Summit of the Americas to be held in Los Angeles in June if invitations are not extended to the governments of Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba.
“I do not want this policy to continue in the Americas. I want to demonstrate, through actions, the values of independence and sovereignty, and to show support for universal brotherhood…we can only resolve our differences by listening, not by excluding,” stated the president.
“Asked about López Obrador and potentially other leaders suggesting they will be no-shows, a White House official said: ‘President Biden hopes all the hemisphere’s democratically elected leaders will join him in honoring a collective responsibility to forge a more inclusive and prosperous future. The decision to participate in the summit is, of course, the decision of each invited country.” AMLO has stated that Mexico will send the Secretary of Foreign Relations, Marcelo Ebrard, in his place if the three pariah countries are not added to the guest list.
The Summit of the Americas was first convened in 1994 in Miami, and has been meeting about every three years since, hosted by countries throughout the Americas. The most recent summit was held in Lima, Peru in 2018 and was also accompanied by diplomatic fluster: then-president Donald Trump skipped the event, sending Vice President Pence in his place, and Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro was uninvited, though Nicaragua’s president Daniel Ortega was in attendance, as was a representative from Cuba.
López Obrador—“the wizard of symbolism”—has found an opportunity to make a bold gesture in the name of autonomy and egalitarianism, even while maintaining domestic policies that comply with U.S. immigration demands. The three countries excluded from the summit were also some of the top sources of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2021-22. Venezuela has seen the exodus of approximately 20% of its population as the economic and humanitarian crisis in the country continues to worsen. After pressure from the U.S., Mexico severely tightened visa requirements for Venezuelan migrants in January of this year and the numbers have since dropped precipitously.
López Obrador’s sexenio has explicitly not been an outward-facing one. He is known for declaring that “the best foreign policy is good domestic policy”, which encapsulates his political platform prioritizing Mexican issues ahead of global ones, and putting sovereignty above all else. He reserves his harshest criticisms for perceived violations of national sovereignty rather than violations of the rule of law or human rights. But what does sovereignty mean in the 21st century geopolitical lexicon?
The self-determination of nations has been the overarching theme in the political history of the 18th to 20th centuries, most acutely experienced in former colonial territories. And of course, it remains a critical lynch-pin in the global political order, which we see robustly challenged today in the context of the Russia-Ukraine war. Breaches of territorial sovereignty are the easiest to condemn, if some of the most challenging to peacefully resolve, but what about other forms of sovereignty? The concept goes beyond borders drawn on maps and extends into the economic and political spheres. To López Obrador, the dire situation faced by Cubans and Venezuelans is the result of U.S. sanctions—a form of punitive interference—not the fault of their governments. One of the oft-repeated warnings from MORENA about the failed energy reform bill was that if it did not pass, Mexico’s sovereignty would be under threat from private foreign interests. And yet, the most pressing issues Mexico faces—as do most nations today—are transnational and cannot be addressed in isolation, such as migration, organized crime and environmental sustainability.
“Today, in the public sphere, it appears that the Mexican government is trying to return to an isolationist vision of sovereignty. Preferring to be a mere spectator rather than an actor on the world stage, under the condition that no other nation or organization point out deficiencies in compliance with international obligations,” notes Jesús Alonso Olamendi, a human rights lawyer.
One drawback of putting national policy in the spotlight is that others turn to look at it. On Mar. 10, the European Parliament adopted a resolution “on the situation of journalists and human rights defenders in Mexico”. The document outlined the recent history of violence against the press in Mexico—“the most dangerous country for journalists outside an official war zone”—and also against human rights defenders, and concludes with a series of calls to action on the part of the Mexican government: “…take concrete, prompt and effective measures to strengthen national, state and local institutions and to implement a set of urgent, comprehensive and coherent strategies for prevention, protection, reparations and accountability.”
The response issued by the Mexican government provoked a Twitter-storm. López Obrador took credit for the purple language of the letter, with input from Secretary of Foreign Relations Marcelo Ebrard, that accused the European Parliament of “meddling” and described their members as “sheep” reverting to colonial habits. Analysts pointed out that while Mexico had a history of semi-isolationism throughout the 20th century, after the 1994 landmark NAFTA enactment, the country has signed numerous bilateral and multilateral treaties with other governments, including with the European Union. As part of some of these international agreements, there is an effort (on paper at least), to require of signatories that they avoid systematic human rights violations. The government’s recent indignant response to the United Nation’s Committee on Enforced Disappearances report echoes this sentiment of defensiveness in the face of criticism from the exterior.
Much diplomatic posturing on the international stage is little more than lofty rhetoric, disguising behind-the-scenes concessions or arm-twisting. Perhaps the measure of a truly bold approach to Mexico’s foreign policy would be how the government engages with the superpower next door, and thus far, López Obrador’s words have been louder than his actions.