Mexico’s new foreign policy under AMLO seeks an agenda of regional cooperation

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s (AMLO) third international tour begins on May 5. It includes visits to a group of Central American countries and Cuba. The visit takes on special importance due to the context in which it takes place: the announcement of the next Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles; the increase in migratory flows towards the northern power that involves all the countries of the region, but fundamentally to those that AMLO incorporates in his tour; and the recent review of bilateral relations between Mexico and its northern neighbor that involved an approximately 50 minute telephone call with President Joe Biden.

Starting in 2018, the current Mexican administration began a change of direction in foreign policy emphasizing rescuing its leadership in Latin America, the proposal of a regional cooperation agenda that compromises the area of ​​southern Mexico and the countries of Central America, as well as the favoring of a multilateral approach in the face of global problems.

Despite the fact that any Mexican foreign policy strategy must necessarily start from the real elements that the bilateral relationship with North America supposes, the current government also has chosen to position itself as an actor of dialogue between the U.S. and the rest of the region.

The plan, rather than accentuate and claim the borders of Latin America south of the Rio Grande, is committed to extending the limits of its area of ​​influence to the north of Canada, but not from imperial expansionist view but through promoting cooperation in the framework of a dialogue and conception of respect in political communication from a multilateral position. This poses an interesting and possible bet, perhaps one of the most innovative aspects of the 4T (The fourth transformation: a programmatic conception that animates the political effort of the current government and the Morena party that achieved electoral majorities in 2018) government that explicitly rejects the adoption of neoliberal models and prioritizes social problems on the public agenda and the recovery of welfare policies as ways to solve the profound problems of the region.

In this regard, and given the specific problem of the increase in migratory flows to the U.S. — up to April of this year 115,379 migrants had been officially identified according to the National Institute of Migration (INM), and the political asylum requests registered a historical maximum of 131,414 applications in 2021 — the Mexican executive has proposed as a solution the extension of its own economic and social support programs to those Central American countries that make up an important part of this exodus, such as the case of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

The idea is that by all adopting these programs, the beneficiaries are contemplated in a regular plan of work visas that the U.S. government would grant in order to regularize access to that country and reduce the flows of undocumented and irregular migrants. This would imply a substantive change in the conception of security on the migratory issue. The background of this plan is stimulated by the growth of the regional trade balance that in 2021, for example, registered exchanges worth $5,038,290 billion, when comparing the months of January and February, a percentage increase of 32.1% between 2021 and 2022.

This kind of Latin American Marshall plan, from the conception of the Aztec government, would attack the causes that propitiate this phenomenon and that occupy an essential part of the bilateral agenda in relation to the United States. Although both countries consider themselves allies, not only because they share a free trade agreement with Canada that represents 64% of Mexico’s trade with the world, but also, even with the asymmetries that North American power implies, because of a historical relationship of interdependence between the two, there have been many obstacles and conflicting issues in the shared agenda that make areas such as security, trade disputes and emigration elements of deep debate and, sometimes, disagreements between the two countries.

The current strategy supposes — in this new symbolic and political alignment towards South America, Central America and the Caribbean — a means to attenuate the power differences between the two states and a strategic factor of capital importance for the safeguarding of Mexican interests. President AMLO has made political gestures on different occasions that insist on cooperation and mutual respect, expressing the will to maintain a position of non-confrontation and dialogue towards the northern neighbor, despite having highlighted some misunderstandings and disagreements.

Contrary to the opinion of some analysts, this shift in Mexican foreign policy does not constitute a reissue of the old Estrada doctrine (Mexico’s core foreign policy ideal from 1930 to the early 2000s, and again since 2018. Its name derives from Genaro Estrada, Secretary of Foreign Affairs during the presidency of Pascual Ortiz Rubio, 1930–1932), which proposed, in addition to respect for neutrality, a duplicity of Mexico’s traditional policy towards the United States and therefore separated from Latin America, as if they were parallel worlds, but rather implies a new reconfiguration taking into account the interdependence and interconnection with the first capitalist power and the need to link, and articulate regionally with the Latin American space that contributes to the balance of this relationship and economic-social progress inscribed in the historical conformation of the socio-political relations of the nation.

Invoking this new political conception in international relations implies bringing into this new frame of reference the specific case of Cuba, the country on the continent that has been in conflict with the United States for more than 60 years. Contrary to assumptions of an ideological type, so longed for by nostalgic people on the right and on the left, the assimilation of Cuba to this new strategy lays the foundations and consolidates the new regional role that is intended. It is not possible to maintain these criteria and at the same time support the isolationist, exclusionary and sanctioning plan of the U.S. administration in relation to the Caribbean country.

When it comes to effects of change, paving the way for the normalization of political relations, even between adversaries, generates greater dividends and possibilities to dismantle old disagreements, as the thaw initiated by the Obama administration demonstrated. It seems that the Mexican proposal aspires to position itself as a facilitator to return to these conditions between the two governments in dispute. In addition, any affectation and impact of U.S. policy in relation to Cuba would be reflected in the Mexican regional area of ​​influence, which is why it becomes a primary necessity to accompany these processes.

The Mexican president has explicitly reproached the U.S. government for the policy of isolation and sanctions against Cuba, accompanying this position with gestures of closeness and solidarity towards the Cuban government, such as the invitation to the new Cuban president to official acts for independence in September 2021, after the largest social protests that occurred on the island since the triumph of the 1959 revolution.

In the current situation, this direction has been sustained. The Mexican government has rejected the possible exclusion of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua from the next Pan-American Summit of the Americas, scheduled to be held in June in the city of Los Angeles in its ninth edition, questioning the selective nature of such action. It would be a contradiction to the plans and aspirations of the new leadership of Mexico in the region to join and accompany the traditional commitment to ideological confrontation and positions of strength to achieve political changes. The Mexican president has emphasized his reasons by morally questioning the meaning and outcome of these options.

From this position, it is logical that the Mexican president’s tour end on the island in what will be a support for the idea that even with their differences only regional unity and integration, and multilateral treatment of the challenges of the countries, makes solutions possible.

The migratory issue between the two countries has been announced as a fundamental matter to be discussed and the reaffirmation of the agreements between the two in this regard is not excluded in relation to the deportation policy, the regularization of Cuban citizens in Mexican lands, and the normalization of consular visa issues to organize population movements. In this regard, the Mexican government could act together with the Cuban authorities to structure a consensual response to the demand for migratory policies that the State Department in Washington has repeatedly requested.

Other issues that will dominate the agenda will deal with economic cooperation projects and the reactivation of areas in which collaboration could bring benefits to both countries, from the previously arranged scheme.

For Mexico, the regime change policies in Cuba proposed by the right-wing conservative sectors of the U.S. government and the anti-communist fanatics in Florida represent more than a benefit, they represent a threat to the regional balance. A stable Cuba is an idea more in tune with the scenarios that are convenient for the current interests of the Mexican authorities. AMLO’s tour seems to follow Winston Churchill’s diplomatic maxim: in peace, good will.