Mexico takes lead to rein in Venezuela – and sends message to voters at home

Mexico has led regional efforts to bring mounting crises under President Nicolás Maduro to a close. But some of its motives stem from its own domestic issues, including an upcoming presidential race. 

Israel Leal/ AP
Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto speaks during the opening of the 2017 General Assembly of the Organization of American States in Cancun, Mexico, on Monday, June 19, 2017.

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro announced this week that if his government’s “Bolivarian Revolution” were ever threatened, his supporters would turn to weapons.

“What we failed to achieve with votes, we would do with weapons,” he said at a rally drumming up support for his plan to rewrite the Constitution.

The statement was a further blow to Venezuela’s struggling democracy. But it also spotlighted the inability of regional neighbors to agree on a resolution condemning the Andean nation’s humanitarian emergency and human rights abuses. 

For several years, neighboring countries and international actors, even the pope, have tried to help stem Venezuela’s mounting crises. Most recently, Mexico has taken the reins, standing at the forefront of the Organization of American States (OAS) to call for a resolution.

“Mexico will not stop using all diplomatic channels, including the OAS, in order to have a constructive impact on achieving a peaceful solution to the restoration of democracy” in Venezuela, Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray said at the University of Miami last month. “We have a country that, in fact, is no longer a functional democracy.”

It’s a somewhat unusual position for Mexico to take on. Geographically closer countries like Brazil, Colombia, and Panama arguably have more at stake, with tens of thousands of Venezuelans fleeing across the border. For decades, the United States – often controversially – has been at the helm when it comes to managing regional unrest. And there’s an irony in Mexico calling out rights abuses elsewhere when its own human rights record is under scrutiny.

Mexico has its reasons, analysts say. They range from the desire to lower the rising levels of government-backed violence in this overwhelmingly democratic region to a hope to position itself as a stronger regional leader, at a moment when many Latin American countries are tied up in their own political and economic crises.

But there’s an added, more local, benefit: Mexico’s 2018 presidential race.

Perennial populist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who lost the 2006 presidential election by a hair and set up his own parallel government in protest, is considered a top contender. By highlighting Venezuela’s woes, and linking them to its leftist leadership, the ruling party in Mexico can send a message that it understands and knows how to fix “leftist errors,” analysts say. 

“Mexican government officials have been … forewarning of a López Obrador presidency,” says Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, senior fellow of the Mexico Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “They have been blunt enough to say he would be Mexico’s Maduro; that this would be a Venezuela-like scenario unfolding.”

Anti-establishment threat

It’s not the first time Venezuela has been pulled into Mexico’s national politics. In 2005, when running for president and leading in the polls, López Obrador was compared to Venezuela’s then-President Hugo Chávez. “I see authoritarianism in them both,” said opponent Roberto Madrazo, candidate for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). (Both lost to Felipe Calderón, of the center-right National Action Party (PAN). 

Back then, López Obrador was accused of taking campaign funding from Chávez. More recently, he has been lampooned by public figures for not explicitly condemning the situation in Venezuela.

“It was definitely a scare tactic … a strategy [the two main political parties] used to instill fear in the electorate,” Mr. Peshard-Sverdrup says of the 2006 election. “López Obrador kind of played into that, with his [populist] discourse,” and by drawing attention to social benefits programming he implemented while mayor of Mexico City, such as stipends for single mothers, senior citizens, and people with disabilities.

But times have changed. Not only is López Obrador a different candidate, but the political environment has changed.

“He’s AMLO 2.0,” says Peshard-Sverdrup, using López Obrador’s nickname. “This is the AMLO that has tempered [himself], moderated his discourse, pacted with business elite by creating an advisory counsel, who’s been traveling to the US,” he says.

And the Mexican electorate, like many voters around the world, are showing anti-establishment preferences. There’s a sense that Mexicans are growing disenchanted with the country’s main parties, including the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), PAN, and the ruling PRI.

The PRI, which was in power from 1929 until 2000, won the 2012 election on a promise that it had reinvented itself for modern Mexico. But it has been hit with multiple, high-profile corruption allegations over the past five years. It’s still reeling from a botched investigation into the disappearance of 43 teaching students in 2014, and the high-profile reforms passed early on in the administration, in areas like education and telecommunications, have largely fallen out of view. And a greater pall was cast by this month’s allegations that the government paid a private company for spyware that they used to illegally track the communications of individuals exposing corruption within the government or fighting for citizen rights. 

International criticism 

Mexico is not unique in using Venezuela as a local warning about the risks of voting for the left.

More “governments and more people [are] repudiating everything that’s happening in Venezuela,”says Dmitris Pantoulas, a political analyst and Venezuela expert. But many politicians in “countries where the left has a chance at winning elections” are attacking Venezuela “for internal reasons of the left versus the right,” he adds.

He points to Spain: During last year’s general elections, news stories and campaign messaging emphasized alleged links between Venezuela’s leadership and Spain’s new, leftist Podemos party. Similar stories have been published about López Obrador, with headlines like, “ ‘Messiah’ or ‘Mexican Hugo Chávez’: Andrés Manuel López Obrador closer than ever to the presidency.”

Regardless of the reasons for calling out Venezuela’s government, however, many say it’s the right thing to do.

“There is a genuine desire to see the Venezuelan crisis end, and to see a more favorable outcome for the Venezuelan people,” says Andrés Rozental, Mexico’s former deputy foreign minister and the founding president of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations. “Every country has some issues regarding human rights, but that doesn’t disqualify them from looking at what’s going on around them.”

“It may be the opposite,” he says. Mexico “having a position on issues in the region or in the world strengthens, I think, the position of those who believe that things need to change in Mexico.”

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