Mexico's New Friend: Castro's Cuba
Mexico's New Friend: Castro's Cuba

by Andres Oppenheimer

There are many theories about why Mexico is cozying up to Cuba's dictatorship and looking the other way as Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro brutally represses street demonstrations, but I think the most credible one can be summed up in one word - fear.

Well-placed foreign policy analysts tell me that Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto's disregard for the defense of universal rights and basic freedoms in Cuba and Venezuela is partly due to fear that these two countries could use their clout with Mexico's leftist movements to stir up trouble at home.

Pena Nieto has recently passed ambitious energy, education, and telecommunications reforms that have gained enthusiastic applause from Wall Street, but that most of Mexico's left opposes. The last thing Pena Nieto wants is for Cuba and Venezuela to encourage these leftist groups to derail the reforms in Congress, or through protests on the streets.

"Cuba and Venezuela are domestic policy issues in Mexico," says Miguel Hakim, a former Mexican undersecretary of foreign affairs in charge of Latin American affairs. "The Pena Nieto government does not want them to stir up the pot at home while he is trying to implement his energy and education reforms."

Late last year, Pena Nieto forgave 70 percent of Cuba's nearly $500 million foreign debt to his country. During an official visit to the island in January, he met with semi-retired Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and praised him as "Cuba's political and moral leader." The Pena Nieto government has also remained largely silent on Maduro repression of street protests that have already left 20 dead.

Close aides to Pena Nieto told me that Mexico's foreign policy is guided by pragmatism, and by a desire to be a major player in Latin America's diplomatic community. During the recent governments of Vicente Fox (2000-2006) and Felipe Calderon (2006-2012), of the opposition National Action Party, Mexico had adopted a more pro-human rights, pro-democracy stand regarding Cuba and Venezuela, which had infuriated those countries' leaders.

"We have a very pragmatic view of how we should conduct our foreign policy," Pena Nieto's chief of staff Aurelio Nuno told me in an interview last week. "In the case of Venezuela, we prefer to be prudent. We do not believe that strident positions will be very useful."

Most South American countries, led by Brazil, are openly backing the Maduro government in Venezuela. But Brazil's support for Cuba and Venezuela - which is much more explicit than Mexico's - comes as less of a surprise, because it is consistent with Brazil's shameless foreign policy regarding democracy and human rights issues in recent years.

In its quest to become a Third World power, Brazil has befriended some of the bloodiest dictators in the Americas, Africa and Asia. Also, Brazil's leftist government has been pursuing free market economic policies, while keeping its leftwing base happy with a pro-Cuba, pro-Venezuela foreign policy. Brazil has also invested heavily in Cuba and Venezuela's oil and infrastructure projects over the past 10 years.

Among the few Latin American governments that have expressed concern about the bloodshed in Venezuela are Chile, Peru, Colombia and Panama. Outgoing Chilean president Sebastian Pinera told me in an interview last month that Latin American countries "share a commitment to defend freedom, democracy and human rights not only within our borders, but also outside them."

My opinion: Pena Nieto's policy toward Cuba and Venezuela is not "pragmatism," but - in addition to a shameful disregard for Latin American treaties committing countries to defend universal rights - is a textbook case of diplomatic over-reaction.

If Pena Nieto wanted to keep Cuba and Venezuela from firing up Mexico's left, he could have done the same with polite diplomacy, without the need to praise as a "moral leader" a dictator who is responsible for thousands of deaths and has not allowed a free election in five decades. In an effort to distance himself from his predecessors, Pena Nieto has gone overboard.

In addition, Pena Nieto's new friendship with Cuba will hurt Mexico's image. Mexico's recent passage of long-delayed economic reforms has turned this country once again into a darling of the international financial community, but if Mexico tries to sell itself to the world as a modern democracy, it will not help itself by teaming up with Cuba and Venezuela.

Mexico will have a harder time joining the First World if it embraces some of the most retrograde regimes of the Third World.