Mexico’s new friend: Castro’s Cuba

Andres Oppenheimer in The Miami Herald:

Mexico’s new friend: Castro’s Cuba

There are many theories about why Mexico is cozying up to Cuba’s dictatorship and looking the other way as Venezuelan President Nicolás 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 Peña 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.

Peña 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 Peña 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 Peña 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, Peña 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 Peña Nieto government has also remained largely silent on Maduro repression of street protests that have already left 20 dead.

Close aides to Peña 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 Calderón (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,” Peña Nieto’s chief of staff Aurelio Nuño 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.

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