Oppenheimer: Surprise! Mexico is leading a pro-democracy drive


The most surprising — and hopeful — recent development in Latin America’s diplomatic scene is Mexico’s decision to champion the regional offensive to restore democratic rule in Venezuela. I could hardly believe it when I first heard about it.

Mexico’s new pro-democracy activism is a major departure from President Enrique Pena Nieto’s ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party’s (PRI) tradition of tolerance with leftist dictatorships.

If it’s more than a Pena Nieto strategy to court the Trump administration’s favor in anticipation of upcoming U.S.-Mexico free trade negotiations, it could have a big impact on the collective defense for democracy in the region.

“Mexico, followed by Canada, has been the leader of the new regional effort at the Organization of American States to bring back democracy to Venezuela,” says Jose Miguel Vivanco, head of the Americas’ division of the Human Rights Watch advocacy group. “That has a huge political weight in the region, because it is helping sway governments such as those of Brazil, Chile and Uruguay in the right direction.”

For much of its history since its creation in 1929, and especially when it ruled uninterruptedly for 71 years for much of the 20th century, Mexico’s PRI was an authoritarian party. Its foreign policy was characterized by a refusal to condemn totalitarian countries under the pretext of defending the principle of non-intervention. In reality, that principle was an excuse to keep other countries from looking into Mexico’s political and human rights abuses.

Since the 1959 Cuban Revolution, Mexico’s PRI governments have been a key source of support for Cuba. There were occasional exceptions, such as when former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo ordered his foreign secretary to meet with dissidents in Cuba in 1999, but they were just that — exceptions.

Mexico strayed further away from Cuba when opposition candidate Vicente Fox became Mexico’s first non-PRI president in more than seven decades in 2000. Fox’s foreign secretary, Jorge Castaneda, was an outspoken critic of Cuba’s totalitarian regime, and steered Mexico’s foreign policy toward pro-democracy stands in the region.

But after Pena Nieto won the 2012 elections and the PRI returned to power, Mexico reverted to the PRI’s traditional foreign policy.

Just last year, Pena Nieto made a speech with nothing but praise for the late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro during his funeral in Cuba, describing Castro as “an example of dignity,” and proclaiming Mexico’s “unconditional friendship” with Cuba. Two years earlier, Pena Nieto had waived 70 percent of Cuba’s debt to Mexico, amounting to $341 million.

But now, the Pena Nieto government is leading regional efforts at the OAS to press Venezuela to restore democratic rule.

Mexico’s foreign secretary, Luis Videgaray, announced late last month that Mexico would take an active role in diplomatic efforts to press Venezuela to hold free elections. Days later, Mexico drafted an unusually strong March 28 OAS resolution that called for the “full restoration of democratic values in Venezuela.”

Mexico’s ambassador to the OAS, Luis Alfonso de Alba, told the OAS Permanent Council that day that it’s “indispensable” that Venezuela “free all political prisoners; assure the respect for government branches, including the rights of the National Assembly; agree on an electoral calendar that includes regional elections that have been postponed; and attend to the needs for access to food and medicine by the entire population.”

The rumor in diplomatic circles is that Mexico’s new pro-democracy attitude is either a Pena Nieto effort to curry favor with Trump ahead of the North American Free Trade (NAFTA) talks, or part of a deal reached between Videgaray during his recent talks with Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster in Washington, D.C.

My opinion: Either way, it doesn’t matter. If the ultimate result is a Mexican decision to shelve its support for dictatorships, and to embrace the principle of non-indifference to the violation of regional agreements for the defense of democracy, it’s a welcome development.

It would be great if Pena Nieto would now apply his new democratic fervor to Cuba, reversing his pitiful statements in Havana last year, and if he stays his new course on Venezuela. He would be doing a great service to Mexico, and to the Americas.

Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald.



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