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Mexico’s new president could help ease pressure on Venezuela

July 9, 2018

Mexico's President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador gives a press conference in Mexico City, Monday, July 9, 2018. Lopez Obrador campaigned on a promise to return to Mexico’s traditional foreign policy of nonintervention. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — The landslide victory of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in Mexico’s presidential election is likely to provide some relief to another leftist firebrand: Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro.

Lopez Obrador campaigned on a promise to return to Mexico’s traditional foreign policy of nonintervention, putting him at odds with his predecessor’s efforts to build a regional alliance to bring pressure against Maduro’s socialist government for taking Venezuela down an increasingly authoritarian path.

“Let the broad avenues of sovereignty and friendship of our peoples be opened,” Maduro said in a congratulatory tweet to Lopez Obrador following his July 1 win. “Truth triumphs over lies, and the hope of the great homeland is renewed.”

Mexican governments in recent years have shifted away from the tread-softly policies of the 20th century. Former President Vicente Fox notably squabbled with both Cuba and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez over their human rights records. Relations grew so frosty between Mexico and Venezuela that they withdrew ambassadors from one another between 2005 and 2009.

Current President Enrique Pena Nieto joined forces with the Trump administration and was leading a push among mostly conservative Latin American governments to put pressure on Maduro.

His government last month sponsored a resolution at the Organization of American States that could pave the way for Venezuela’s suspension from the group over what it considered Maduro’s illegitimate re-election as the oil-rich economy unravels. It’s also working closely with the U.S. to seize assets stolen by corrupt Venezuelan officials.

Last year, Mexico’s Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray went on a hushed mission to Cuba to urge the communist island’s leaders to use their influence to create a more meaningful dialogue in Venezuela, their main ideological and economic ally.

By contrast, Lopez Obrador has indicated a desire to return to what’s known as the Estrada Doctrine, a stance dating from the 1930s by which Mexico long refused to judge foreign governments for fear of inviting meddling by the U.S.

“We will be friends of all the world’s people and governments,” Lopez Obrador said in his victory speech from Mexico City’s Zocalo.

“The principles of non-intervention, self-determination and the peaceful settlement of disputes will be applied again,” he said.

Those principles haven’t meant isolation in the past. Mexico played a significant part in efforts to mediate an end to Central America’s civil wars in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Once a wealthy oil nation, Venezuela in the last five years has spiraled deep into a political and economic chaos under Maduro’s rule. Last year, more than 140 people were killed in anti-government protests that were put down by security forces loyal to Maduro.

Meanwhile, widespread shortages of food and medicine and runaway inflation are sending masses of Venezuelans search of a better life abroad. Many of them have headed to Mexico, which last year received more than 4,000 asylum requests from Venezuelans compared to just a single case in 2013.

Lopez Obrador’s pledges to tackle yawning inequality, root out endemic corruption and forgo bodyguards so he can be closer to “the people” have drawn comparisons to Maduro’s mentor and populist predecessor Hugo Chavez.

But analysts said Lopez Obrador is unlikely to emulate Maduro’s policies as he seeks to transform Mexico’s economy, or to join the Bolivarian Alliance of 11 leftist nations that has been Venezuela’s diplomatic spearhead the past 15 years.

Unlike Chavez, who liked to bash the U.S. “Empire,” the target of Lopez Obrador’s scorn has been domestic elites. And he has named a team of mainstream figures to his economic team, saying repeatedly he had no intention to adopt a Venezuelan-style approach.

“Venezuela has become a watchword for economic failure and mismanagement everywhere in the region,” said Patrick Duddy, a former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela and now a professor of Latin American studies at Duke University. “It would surprise me greatly to see Lopez Obrador embracing Venezuela’s leadership or record.”

But even if Lopez Obrador keeps a safe distance from Maduro, he can still tip the region’s diplomatic balance toward the embattled socialist’s favor.

Maduro’s position in the region has soured as leftist leaders in key countries have been replaced by conservatives with less patience for the chaos in his country and the spillover it has caused into theirs.

“The fear,” said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch, “is that under the banner of non-intervention, Lopez Obrador will break the solid consensus among the region’s top democracies to treat Maduro as a pariah dictator responsible for gross violations of human rights.”

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