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Mexico Can be a Counterweight to US Foreign Policy in Latin America

Photo by Emiglex | CC BY 2.0

The candidate of the radical left Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador, known in Mexico as ‘AMLO’ is set to win the presidential elections on July 1st, consistently over 20 points ahead of his nearest conservative rival. White House foreign policy analysts are frantically worried that he would reverse “one of the most important bilateral relationships in the world”[1]. What worries them most is AMLO’s plans to reverse the privatisation of Mexico’s oil and build refineries. Though more importantly for the wider region, his foreign ministers friendliness to Venezuela and the rest of the Latin American left that could derail Trump’s policy of isolating Maduro and Castro in the region. Losing the second biggest economy in Latin America as a US ally could help shift the right wing advance in the region and put momentum behind the radical left once again.

Mexico had a long tradition of progressive foreign policy. In the 1930s it stood alone with the USSR in sending arms to the republicans in the Spanish civil war, meanwhile the European democracies left Spain at the mercy of Hitler and Mussolini. After the Cuban revolution Mexico defied US attempts to isolate the revolution within the Americas. Though the formerly left nationalist PRI, (party of government for most of the 20th century and which AMLO was a member of), shifted its alliances and in 1988 a section of the party’s left, disillusioned with the growing conservatism of the PRI broke away to form the Democratic  Revolutionary Party. AMLO became its organiser in the Tabasco region.

The growing popularity of AMLO’s anti-imperialist rhetoric arguably has its roots in The extraordinary lengths that the current President Peña Nieto (of the PRI) has gone to to submit to US foreign policy. In 2014 he privatised the huge state oil company PEMEX, opening it to US investors. By 2016 this had caused a crisis in production as a lack of state investment turned Mexico from a leading exporter into a net importer of US oil[2]. Then as the problems in the oil sector ran, Peña Nieto began an international relations strategy that would humiliate Mexico on the world stage. He invited Donald Trump to visit during the US presidential campaign in the hope that a charm offensive would cool off his anti-Mexican rhetoric. The visit was uneventful other than showing the extent to which Nieto was prepared to appease Trump despite months blatant racism. Through the aftermath would be characterized by US outlet Politico as a ‘colossal failure’[3]for Mexico. Upon returning to the US, Trump chose then to announce that Mexico ‘will pay for the wall’. This enraged Mexicans who for a long time had come to embrace NAFTA and free trade with the US. Despite Nieto’s failure, he continued a policy of appeasement, his foreign minister Luis Videgaray is an old friend of Jared Kushner has followed a policy of appeasement at all costs. A former Mexican diplomat was quoted in the New Yorker saying “Peña Nieto has been extremely accommodating…There’s nothing Trump has even hinted at that he won’t immediately comply with”[4]

Contrast that submissive approach to AMLO’s, author of the ‘Oye, Trump!’ (“Listen up, Trump!”).  His opening speech of the campaign pledged firmly “no threat, no wall, no bullying attitude from any foreign government, will ever stop us from being happy in our own fatherland”. Every speech he hasn’t been afraid to denounce the US and mock the other neoliberal candidates for reducing themselves before the bully in the North. His plans to move Mexico’s immigration office from the South to the North will cause a headache for Trump’s anti-immigrant policy as the US has long relied on Mexico to detain Central American migrants, in appalling conditions[5], to stop them reaching the US. On oil AMLO campaigned against privatisation and his proposed energy minister announced that “July 1 . .. will end the looting of Mexico,”[6]. AMLO’s plans include building state led oil refineries[7], a huge move since Mexico is currently dependent on buying back their own crude oil exports as refined from the US. It would weaken the neo-colonial trade relationship that the US has with the rest of the region.

The response from the US media to the irresistible rise of AMLO has been amusing. Some have compared him to Trump[8]on the basis of an ill defined ‘populism’. Though more interesting was an article by former Bush advisor in Foreign Policy that reflects the establishment fear about AMLOs foreign policy[9]. AMLO himself has (wisely) stuck to talking domestic issues, but his proposed Foreign minister is what worries the White House. He has chosen Héctor Vasconcelos for the role. One of Mexico’s most distinguished intellectuals and scholar of international relations, his father is José Vasconcelos, known as the ‘cultural caudillo’ of the Mexican Revolution, architect of attempts to forge a left nationalist Mexican identity. Vasconcelos Jr. has refused to join the rest of the region in condemning Venezuela and Cuba and implied support. This is a brave stance considering the total media onslaught against Maduro in every single Latin American country from its various Media barons. Also, the way Venezuela is used in fierce MCcarthyite smears against anyone vaguely on the left around the world but especially in Latin America. This could have huge repercussions for the Latin American left. So far Venezuela has had to fight on through US led diplomatic isolation. They have just about fought off attacks from the ‘Lima Group’ and in the OAS where the right wing governments of the region have joined to turn the screws on them as they did to Cuba in the 20th Century. Venezuela’s only dependable ally has been Evo Morales’ Bolivia, whilst a good friend, Bolivia has little power in the region. Whereas, if Latin America’s second largest economy were to break the State Departments orders to isolate Maduro, it could help resuscitate the country and give Venezuela a fighting chance to emerge out of the relentless attacks from the US and its neighbours.

An AMLO victory, and Vasconcelos’ progressive foreign policy could also put momentum behind the Latin American left once again. After the defeat of the left in Argentina and Brazil, foreign policy analysts have been prematurely celebrating the end of the ‘pink tide’. This is far from true, one one only has to look at Bolivia, South America fastest growing economy to see that the conservative turn in the region has still a way to go. However, An AMLO victory on July 1st would send shock waves through the region. It would re-energise the left which is arguably going through a process of reconfiguration. In Brazil, the mass resistance to Lula arrest shows that where the left lost power, the bureaucratic elements that had built up through years in power are giving way to its base which is refounding organisations like the PT into social movements once again. If AMLO wins, with his popular insurgent campaign, it’ll further encourage those sections of the Latin American left to continue reconstituting themselves and push on with successful insurgent electoral campaigns and social movements of their own. AMLO can present a possible future for the region.

The importance of this election shouldn’t be underestimated. AMLOs ambitious plans for the oil sector, together with Vasconcelos’ progressive international relations doctrine could shift the balance of power in the region and be a major foreign policy defeat for Trump. The White House will be rightfully panicking about losing such a key ally right on its border.

Notes. 

[1]http://foreignpolicy.com/2018/06/19/get-ready-for-a-mexican-left-turn-on-foreign-policy/

[2]https://www.telesurtv.net/english/news/After-Privatizing-Oil-Mexico-Becomes-Net-Importer-of-US-Fuel–20161223-0007.html

[3]https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/09/trump-mexico-visit-pena-nieto-failure-214211

[4]https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/06/25/a-new-revolution-in-mexico

[5]http://www.msf.org/en/article/mexico-unsafe-country-thousands-refugees-fleeing-violence-central-america

[6]https://www.ft.com/content/16aeb5aa-5ece-11e8-ad91-e01af256df68

[7]https://www.theoilandgasyear.com/news/mexico-to-get-new-refineries-under-amlo/

[8]https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/mexicos-could-be-president-is-a-lot-like-trump-that-doesnt-mean-theyd-get-along/2018/06/17/19b8f82c-6816-11e8-bea7-c8eb28bc52b1_story.html

[9]http://foreignpolicy.com/2018/06/19/get-ready-for-a-mexican-left-turn-on-foreign-policy/

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