Fox Chooses U.S. Over Latin America, Continuing Mexico’s Accommodation to Washington’s Regional Primacy

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COHA Research Fellow Michael Lettieri will be in Mexico the week of the presidential election monitoring the ballot. Michael’s deep grounding in Mexican politics and experience with the region give him a unique perspective on what these elections imply for the future of U.S.-Mexican relations. Michael is available for interviews while in Mexico. Email [email protected] for information and his in-Mexico communication coordinates.

In the latest test of its tenacious allegiance to the U.S., Mexico has once again planted itself squarely in Washington’s corner. Verbalizing what would eventually be its position, Foreign Minister Luis Ernesto Derbez announced to reporters at a lunchtime meeting in Brazil on June 13, that in the race for the temporary UN Security Council seat between U.S.-favorite Guatemala and Venezuela, his country would support the former, and that “the position is quite clear.” The competition for the Security Council slot has sparked vigorous lobbying from Washington in an attempt to block Caracas’ bid. Even veiled efforts have been made, including a meeting in Secretary of State Rice’s office, in order to coerce Chilean foreign minister Alejandro Foxley, and a confidential diplomatic note – leaked to the BBC – which underscored the U.S. position. Yet it is likely that Derbez, just like his predecessor Jorge Castañeda, did not need much of a push. Under President Vicente Fox, Mexican foreign policy in recent years has consistently trended away from an independent stance, in favor of near obeisance to pro-U.S. initiatives, and the supremacy of Washington’s hemispheric wish list.

Doing Things Your Way

Whatever its previous corrupt and repressive domestic profile, Mexico, prior to Fox and his ruling PAN party’s arrival to office, had long maintained a proud and independent foreign policy during decades of uninterrupted rule by the authoritarian PRI. Examples of this are numerous, and include respectful relations with Cuba throughout the Castro era and resistance to Washington’s hegemonic Central American policy during the 1980s. Moreover, Mexico had often served as a de facto interlocutor for Latin American interests with Washington, attempting to advocate a constructive engagement with the region. Yet, under the Fox administration, Mexico witnessed an abrupt and embarrassing turn from such a stance, as first under Jorge Castañeda and then under Ernesto Derbez, Mexican policy became all but indistinguishable from Washington’s, be it Iraq or giving the cold shoulder to Castro at Monterrey,.

Numerous acts of genuflection to White House diplomatic positions could be seen even before Mexico readily enlisted in the anti-Chávez ranks and reversed course, particularly regarding Cuba. Fox even shamefully complied with Colin Powell’s request for the removal of the late distinguished Mexican ambassador to the UN, Adolfo Aguilar – who had strongly spoken out against the Iraq war resolution and had developed a purity of heart that was required to maintain one’s integrity and self respect, during Castañeda’s dramatic shift to the right within his foreign ministry, which included firing from his post the highly regarded Mexican envoy to Havana, Ambassador Ricardo Pascoe. Such backtracking on Mexico’s previously unqualified embrace of sovereignty eventually proved costly, as Mexico lost much of the hemispheric prestige it had once held. Indeed, in a race where he clearly had Washington’s vigorous backing as its second choice, the perpetually clumsy Derbez – due to the unease throughout Latin America with Fox’s persistent deference to the U.S. – was unable to clinch the OAS Secretary Generalship, eventually withdrawing and conceding it to the Chilean diplomat, José Miguel Insulza.

A Foreign Policy that Lost Its Way

It is undeniable that Mexico’s foreign policy has lost its way, wandering from one ill-defined and vague initiative, to another, such as Fox’s flatlining attempts at Mesoamerican integration, to an almost slavish devotion to Washington’s trade positions. But if Fox seemed all too keen to photo-op his rather pathetic token handshakes with Bush, it was almost, but not entirely, pointless. The central axis of Fox’s administration had been the negotiation of a favorable immigration accord with the U.S., and the Mexican president clearly felt the need to pander after this imperative at any price, in order to buy political influence north of the border. September 11, however, tragically sabotaged Fox’s hopes, which he has completely failed to comprehend ever since. Incapable of believing that “my friend” Bush had allowed Mexico to be pushed downstairs on the U. S. agenda, Fox seemingly intensified his efforts to convince the White House that a good hemispheric grenadier like himself deserved to be awarded a battlefield promotion. This included an almost outlandish support for a discredited Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) agreement at the 2005 Summit of the Americas in Mar del Plata. This lack of inspiration and vision on the part of the White House, kept a prideless Fox futilely knocking on the door of the Oval Office for six years, even after it became painfully evident that no reciprocal benefits would surface. Such rewards were urgently needed for the Fox presidency to survive, let alone thrive, yet they were not forthcoming.

Mexico Craves for U.S. Support

All concerned recognized that Mexico was extremely reliant on good relations with Washington. For example, by 2003, remittances by its nationals abroad (mainly in the U.S.) were, according to Fox, the country’s “biggest source of foreign income, bigger than oil, tourism or foreign investment.” Moreover, the ongoing crisis concerning illegal immigration has highlighted the sad fact that Mexican politicians have long allowed the northern “escape valve” to serve as a substitute for good government and effective leadership, as well as the encouragement of innovative policies within their country’s borders. Productive relations with Washington and their significance to Mexico cannot be exaggerated; however, even Fox’s bathetic dedication failed to achieve this, because there were greater loyalties, mainly domestic ones, at play.

It is within this context that the deep stains were made by Fox’s rather sad decision to join Washington’s undeclared war against Chávez and throwing his support behind Guatemala—one of Fox’s last opportunities to vote for Latin America rather than Bush, through his support of the brash Chávez instead of the U.S. President who gave Latin America Roger Noriega, John Bolton and Otto Reich. If it could be claimed that the decision on Venezuela was founded on a truly independent judgment, or on some specific rationale apart from Washington’s openly expressed desire to torpedo Venezuela’s Chávez at every opportunity, then perhaps Mexico’s role could be interpreted as serving broadly defined national interests. Yet this is not the case.

Expecting Fox to back Caracas’ bid may be too much, considering that the Mexican president’s verbal fumbling had fanned numerous vituperative exchanges with his Venezuelan counterpart. But, unfortunately for Fox, abstention apparently has never been an option. Clearly, such ideological jousting likely came to outweigh the reality that Guatemala is not exactly a paradigm of democracy, has repeatedly been referred to as a near-failed state, has a horrendous human rights history, and is today one of the hemisphere’s major drug traffickers. On the other hand, at the end of his presidency, to so eagerly align with the White House once again, compounds the servility with which Fox’s government has replaced his nation’s once proud tradition of an independent foreign policy.

On the Eve of the Elections

While the winner of the July 2 presidential election will have an opportunity to remake the country’s hemispheric image, neither of the frontrunners – left-leaning Andrés Manuel López Obrador or conservative Felipe Calderón – is likely to do so. The former, despite fearmongering allegations both in and outside of Mexico, is hardly an ally of Hugo Chávez, and is far more concerned with domestic issues than mounting any grand adherence to Chavez’s ALBA. Indeed, he has been exceedingly careful to coil the ropes of a positive relationship with Washington while on the campaign trail. Calderón, on the other hand, is all too willing to continue Fox’s fawning pattern of serving Washington’s cause at almost any price, perhaps even enough to become a drum majorette in Washington’s thinly populated anti-Chávez crusade.