When Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador was elected president of Mexico with a clear mandate to break from the country’s status quo, his victory was met with widespread handwringing from many Venezuela analysts. Noting that AMLO has vowed to return Mexico to a policy of “non-intervention, self-determination, and peaceful resolution of disputes,” these analysts (see The Economist’s Bello column, Andres Oppenheimer, and Efecto Cocuyo for a good sampling) have expressed concern that his election might mean that Mexico will cease to work for a democratic solution to Venezuela’s crisis. However, while AMLO is almost certain to veer from his predecessor’s approach to Venezuela, his return to a bedrock principle of Mexico’s foreign policy does not necessarily mean that Mexico cannot still play a productive role on Venezuela.
Lopez Obrador’s proposal is not based on new ideas. His promise to “return” Mexico to a policy of non-intervention is, in fact, an embrace of the “Estrada Doctrine,” which has two main tenets: non-intervention into other countries’ affairs and respect for countries’ right to self-determination regardless of their form of government. This doctrine was a guiding principle of Mexican foreign policy for roughly seventy years—from the 1930-1932 service of its namesake Genaro Estrada as Mexican Secretary of Foreign Affairs to the early 2000s. Critics of this doctrine, most notably Jorge Castañeda, have pointed to an inherent tension between non-intervention and support for self-determination, and suggested that the Estrada Doctrine has been used to gloss over human rights abuses in Cuba and elsewhere.
But the Estrada Doctrine should not be confused with a policy of isolationism. Indeed, during the Cold War years of PRI rule in which the doctrine was in full force, Mexico’s diplomatic corps developed a strong reputation as a neutral but vocal advocate for global order through international organizations and diplomacy. In these years, Mexico carefully pushed a policy of engaging with Cuba in international organizations as a more productive alternative to the U.S-backed embargo. Mexico also became a leader in the global nuclear nonproliferation movement, ultimately serving as the architect of the 1967 Tlatelolco Treaty, which cemented Latin America and the Caribbean as a nuclear weapons free zone.
Additionally, the Estrada Doctrine may be incompatible with strong denunciations of other countries’ internal conflicts or abuses, but it has not been invoked historically as an excuse for Mexico to sit idly by and ignore them. Indeed Mexico played an important diplomatic role as a champion of peace on numerous occasions during the application of the Estrada Doctrine.
Mexico did not respond, for instance, to the wars in Central America in the 1970s and 1980s with indifference. The Mexican government played a vital role in creating, alongside the Colombian, Venezuelan, and Panamanian governments, the Contadora Group in 1983. This initiative served as an important contact group that, through years of concerted diplomatic engagement, ultimately brought an end to armed conflicts in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala.
Similarly, in 1992 the Mexican government decided to broker peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC, ELN, and EPL guerrilla groups, hosting a dialogue in Tlaxcala. While the negotiations fell through after the EPL kidnapped and killed a former government minister, this experience helped inform future peace processes in Colombia—including the talks that led to a historic peace accord in 2016.
Of course, Mexico’s past diplomatic efforts are not a guarantee that AMLO will invoke the Estrada Doctrine in a way that is conducive to a meaningful solution to the crisis in Venezuela. There is potential for him to alter Mexico’s participation in the international pressure campaign on Venezuela. The Lopez Obrador administration could pull out of the Lima Group in the coming weeks, or at least refuses to sign onto statements that are more confrontational with the Maduro government.
But AMLO’s promise to return to this principle may also mean that Mexico could work for such a solution to the situation in Venezuela in a more independent manner. Already there are signs that AMLO is seeking to distance himself from the current Mexican government’s approach, and from the United States. In remarks this week to Mexican press, Lopez Obrador’s presumptive foreign minister Marcelo Ebrard reiterated the policy of non-intervention, saying: “We think that we have to have a very cautious position [on Venezuela] because what is normally there in good measure is an agenda promoted by the United States.[…]We are going to be respectful of non-intervention, but this does not mean that we do not care about the situation in other countries. We will see what we can design or how we can contribute in the best way.”
What exactly such an independent position will look like remains unclear. Yet considering the degree to which Venezuela has been raised as a bogeyman by his critics both at home and abroad, it is unlikely that AMLO will seek a warm relationship with Maduro. Instead, the Mexican government could shift towards a strategy of engagement, offering itself as a “good cop” to the Lima Group’s “bad cop” routine, and perhaps try to push for meaningful negotiations to overcome the failure of the Dominican Republic talks. This does not guarantee the success of any future talks, but it at least could create a dynamic where there is some room for creative thinking among Latin American governments in addressing Venezuela’s crisis. Rather than bemoaning Mexico’s departure from the status quo, it may be worth exploring this opportunity for a new approach with a nascent administration, before it gets too heavily locked into domestic affairs to prioritize foreign policy issues.