Mexico’s New Neutrality in the Venezuela Crisis
Mexico’s New Neutrality in the Venezuela Crisis
In Venezuela, a High-stakes Gambit
In Venezuela, a High-stakes Gambit
Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador gestures during a news conference at National Palace in Mexico City, Mexico December 26, 2018. REUTERS/Daniel Becerril
Q&A / Latin America & Caribbean

Mexico’s New Neutrality in the Venezuela Crisis

Bucking the U.S. and several large and influential Latin American states, Mexico has not recognised Juan Guaidó’s claim on Venezuela’s presidency, and has instead argued for negotiations to end the country’s crisis. As Crisis Group’s Senior Mexico Analyst Falko Ernst explains, this position is rooted in a new Mexican foreign policy doctrine.

What is Mexico’s position on the fast-developing events in Venezuela? 

Mexico has declined to recognise Juan Guaidó as interim president of Venezuela, and has adopted a neutral position as regards his battle for power with incumbent President Nicolás Maduro. This stance is unique among the major powers in the Americas.

Other regional heavyweights, including Argentina, Brazil, Canada and Colombia, have followed the U.S. lead in accepting Guaidó’s claim to the post on the basis that the sitting president, Maduro, won re-election last year fraudulently. These countries have echoed Guaidó’s demands – and his blunt language – in calling on the “usurper” Maduro to step down in deference to a transitional government led by Guaidó while Venezuela prepares for free and fair elections. By contrast, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who assumed the Mexican presidency on 1 December 2018 following a landslide election victory last July, and his foreign secretary, Marcelo Ebrard, have made clear that they will “not participate in the de-recognition of the government of a nation with which [Mexico] maintains diplomatic relations”. López Obrador and Maduro are acquainted with one another: the Venezuelan was in Mexico City to meet his counterpart on the day of his inauguration.

Regarding how to resolve the Venezuelan crisis, Mexico has staked out a middle ground between the other major American powers’ insistence that Maduro leave and Russia’s and China’s position, backed by Bolivia, Cuba and Nicaragua, that he should stay. Mexico has also stopped short of the position adopted by several European nations, including France, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands and the UK, which together issued an ultimatum demanding that Maduro call elections within eight days or else they will recognise Guaidó as interim president. Instead, Mexico has signed a joint statement with Uruguay calling for a negotiated exit from the current standoff so as to avoid “an escalation of violence that could make matters worse”. Both countries have also called for an international conference of countries and multilateral organisations that adopt a neutral position regarding Venezuela, to be held on 7 February in Montevideo. For now it remains uncertain which other countries or UN and international bodies will take part, while the Brazilian foreign minister and many domestic and foreign supporters of Guaidó have already lambasted the initiative. It remains to be seen whether these two countries will get the opportunity to act as mediators in a crisis that has generated stark international divisions and could lead to much greater turmoil in Venezuela, either through messy regime change or through Maduro’s entrenchment in power.

What are the main strands of Mexican public opinion regarding Venezuela? How is public opinion shifting as the crisis unfolds?

Mexican public opinion is fractured roughly in three.

At one end of the ideological spectrum is a camp that regards the Maduro government as a bastion of resistance to undue U.S. interference in Latin America and that sees Mexico’s continued recognition of Maduro as essential to that cause.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, a larger camp composed of President López Obrador’s opponents reads Mexico’s posture toward Venezuela as yet another sign of his ideological affinities with Latin America’s authoritarian left. This camp includes critics who tend to portray the president as an irresponsible populist of the same ilk as the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, and fear he will speed the country toward economic disaster, while overrunning its institutions with partisan loyalists. These depictions formed the backbone of a political campaign, waged in large part on social media, that sought to stymie López Obrador’s bid for the presidency. A similar effort now aims to discredit him in office. Images, prominent on social media, of long queues at gas stations provoked by panic buying as a result of petrol shortages, which were provoked by the new administration’s crackdown on oil theft, have helped feed the perception of an economy headed in the wrong direction. Attacks of this nature are a common part of efforts to discredit the democratic left across Latin America, and have been deployed in elections in Argentina, Brazil and Colombia among others since 2015.

López Obrador would like to cultivate greater autonomy in domestic and foreign policy vis-à-vis the U.S. while remaining a good neighbour to everyone.

In between the two poles lies a sizeable but less strident third camp, including many leading analysts, which welcomes the López Obrador administration’s cautious response, contrasting it favourably to the previous Mexican government’s vocal opposition to Maduro. This camp is home to those who hope that Mexico might emerge as an advocate for nuanced diplomacy between antagonistic parties in the region, and a counter to forces that threaten to pull the region into conflict.

Two months into López Obrador’s presidency, how is Mexico’s new foreign policy taking shape? What are the main continuities and changes from the past?

Mexico’s response to the Venezuelan crisis is by no means improvised. It is the first real test of a foreign policy credo that Ebrard outlined on 9 January. Based on the Estrada doctrine formulated in 1930 by Mexico’s then foreign minister, this doctrine preaches strict non-intervention in other states’ affairs and respect for sovereignty paired with non-violent conflict resolution. For 70 years this doctrine helped keep Mexico on the sidelines of contentious regional disputes, and thus helped insulate the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party from attracting the attention and meddling of outsiders. Even after 2000, when an opposition party candidate won the presidency for the first time since the party’s rise to power in 1930, the Estrada doctrine was generally preserved for more than a decade – with the notable exception of Mexico’s tougher line on human rights abuses in Cuba – and the country remained largely passive on the international stage. The traditional character of Mexican diplomacy nevertheless changed two years ago under former President Enrique Peña Nieto, when his government joined calls for political change in Venezuela, partly as a result of a perceived need to placate the new Trump administration and soften its hostility to trade with and migration from Mexico. 

Despite steering back toward the Estrada doctrine, López Obrador’s government has given it a tweak by insisting that Mexico’s foreign policy should include a “profound commitment to human rights”. But this addition comes with caveats. The president and his team have indicated they will throw no stones so long as Mexico sits in a glass house: in other words, they will not complain about human rights abuses elsewhere until Mexico’s own human rights record, tarnished by enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions by state forces during the “war on drugs”, improves. How this defence of human rights will be weighed up against non-interventionism remains to be seen in practice. This also means that it is hard to predict how the new administration’s foreign policy will deviate from its predecessors’.

How are U.S.-Mexican relations evolving under López Obrador?

López Obrador would like to cultivate greater autonomy in domestic and foreign policy vis-à-vis the U.S. while remaining a good neighbour to everyone. These twin aims are already somewhat in tension when it comes to the U.S. Ebrard and his team are trying hard to soothe Mexico’s northern neighbour, and have attempted to secure U.S. backing for a laudable economic development initiative that would address some of the root causes behind migration through Mexico and into the U.S. They have also curried favour with Washington by continuing to act as a buffer state, absorbing or deporting Central American refugees and migrants and housing those seeking asylum in the U.S. This risks backlash from the Mexican president’s supporters on the left, although López Obrador has said he wants no “beef” with anyone, including Donald Trump.

But this goal is not perfectly aligned with the objectives of a White House that continues to push Mexico to cooperate on its own terms in curtailing migration from Central America, and shows little of the same interest in tackling the economic causes and insecurity that drive emigration. Moreover, none of López Obrador’s above initiatives will keep the U.S. president from pressing hard on his core campaign promise to “build that wall” in one form or another – a plan that the Mexican president has so far avoided condemning, calling it an “internal matter” for the U.S.  However, Trump’s aggressive rhetoric toward Mexico and the humanitarian needs provoked by U.S. policy on asylum claimants staying south of its border while cases are processed are likely to translate into pressing domestic issues for the Mexican government. With Trump in office, relations will inevitably remain volatile, and frictions over issues closer to home than Venezuela will no doubt pose the starkest tests of the López Obrador administration’s new foreign policy.

Juan Guaido, President of Venezuela's National Assembly, reacts during a rally against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government. Venezuela January 23, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

In Venezuela, a High-stakes Gambit

The Venezuelan National Assembly’s chairman, Juan Guaidó, has declared himself interim president, with the support of several foreign governments. Unless the Venezuelan military backs his move, it is unlikely to topple incumbent President Nicolás Maduro and could unleash greater repression and even outside military intervention.

What is happening in Venezuela?

On 23 January, amid a mass opposition demonstration that brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets of the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, opposition politician Juan Guaidó, chairman of the National Assembly – now the institution with the most democratic legitimacy in the country, given it was elected in Venezuela’s last free and fair elections in 2015 – announced that he was assuming the presidency of the republic, in defiance of President Nicolás Maduro, who was sworn in for a second term only two weeks earlier. Following several days marked by public assemblies, wildcat protests and a small military uprising against Maduro, opposition parties in the Assembly backed Guaidó’s move. He was immediately recognised as president by the U.S., Canada and a dozen other western hemisphere nations, including Brazil and Colombia, leaving Venezuela with two men claiming to be president.

Who is Juan Guaidó and why has he proclaimed himself president?

Juan Guaidó is a 35-year-old member of parliament from the opposition Voluntad Popular party. He was elected chairman of the National Assembly on 5 January, in accordance with an opposition agreement to rotate this position among the different political parties. His name and face were unfamiliar to most Venezuelans because he was a relatively low-ranking member of Voluntad Popular. This party’s leader, Leopoldo López, is under house arrest; number two Carlos Vecchio was forced into exile; and number three Freddy Guevara, fearing arrest, recently sought asylum at the Chilean embassy, leaving the party in the hands of more junior politicians unknown to the public. But this has proven an asset to the opposition, whose jaded supporters welcomed a fresh face and flocked to public meetings in support of his plan for a transitional government. A variety of governments across the Americas view elections on 20 May 2018 that saw Maduro win a second term in office as fundamentally flawed, and support the opposition’s claim that he is now usurping the presidency. Guaidó has asserted the right to assume an interim presidency, under Article 233 of the Constitution, which determines that if the National Assembly rules the president is failing to meet his or her basic duties or has vacated the post, the chair of the Assembly is entitled to assume power temporarily and declare elections within 30 days.

What is the likely impact on the Venezuelan crisis?

The calculation of the opposition and its foreign allies appears to be that by claiming the interim presidency, demonstrating massive popular support across the country and among all sectors of society – including from former government loyalists enraged by hyper-inflation and food scarcity – and obtaining powerful international backing, Guaidó will force a split in either the Maduro government or, perhaps more critically, the armed forces. If elements of the military with sufficient firepower were to break with Maduro, they could force him from power or oblige him to negotiate his departure from office. In theory, this development would enable Guaidó to take the reins of government and call fresh general elections.

If Maduro retains the armed forces’ support, he will almost certainly seek to stay in power and violently crush those who are challenging him.

While it is still early, thus far no senior military official or leader of military units has announced support for Guaidó’s interim government. Indeed, the high command pledged its continuing loyalty to Maduro. For now at least, the split the opposition hoped for has not materialised. If Maduro retains the armed forces’ support, he will almost certainly seek to stay in power and violently crush those who are challenging him.

The question is whether the opposition or its foreign backers have a back-up plan. If not – and there is no overt sign that they do – and if their current plan does not succeed soon, their position could become extremely precarious, as they will be vulnerable to a Maduro crackdown. At that point, the ball will return to Guaidó’s foreign backers’ court. They could then face the uncomfortable dilemma of doing little and appearing impotent, or courting disaster by intervening militarily.

What role do foreign governments play?

President Trump has said he will hold Maduro “directly responsible for any threats it may pose to the safety of the Venezuelan people”. Soon after Washington recognised Guaidó as president, Maduro broke diplomatic relations with the U.S. and ordered its diplomats to leave within 72 hours. Washington has refused to pull them out, saying it would only recognise the actions of the new government.

The European Union and some other Latin American governments are still calling for a negotiated solution leading to free elections.

The standoff raises the prospect of several dangerous scenarios. Supporters of Maduro or the security forces could organise a siege of the U.S. embassy in Caracas. Maduro could also call Washington’s bluff, and crack down on his detractors anyway, assuming that threatened actions will be limited to more sanctions, perhaps including an oil embargo, and that he can withstand the pressure. Though President Trump over the past year has occasionally hinted that a foreign military intervention could oust Maduro, there are no signs such an intervention is imminent. That could change depending on the way U.S. diplomats are treated or should the sitting government decide to arrest or persecute the presumptive president or dissolve the National Assembly.

Other governments in the hemisphere that have recognised Guaidó are likely to follow the U.S. lead in applying more sanctions. But the international community is far from united. Russia, China, Turkey, Iran and several Latin American nations, including Bolivia, Cuba and Nicaragua, have given their backing to Maduro. For their part, the European Union and some other Latin American governments, notably Mexico and Uruguay, are still calling for a negotiated solution leading to free elections, even as the EU in particular has been vocal in its support for the Assembly’s campaign to restore democracy in Venezuela.

This latter course still seems the least dangerous path out of the crisis. But success will depend in part on firm international support to create conditions for meaningful talks. The EU has proposed establishing a Contact Group, aimed at bringing together opponents and allies of Maduro. Such a group, which should be broad and include countries viewed as neutral, would represent an important step in this direction. Whether Maduro is toppled or not, reaching a workable political settlement between his supporters and those of Guaidó will be crucial to achieving a peaceful and sustainable transition. This is all the more important in light of the presence of numerous state and non-state armed factions on Venezuelan soil and the urgent need to stabilise the collapsing economy.