Why Won't Mexico's President Meet With Venezuela's Biggest Anti-Chavista?

Last Tuesday, Venezuelan opposition leader Enrique Capriles said that he will be visiting the presidents of Brazil, Peru, Chile, and maybe Mexico. Mexico’s president Enrique Peña Nieto answered that he will not receive Capriles. Peña Nieto’s rebuff has caused an exchange of words between Venezuela’s government and opposition. National Assembly legislator Maria Corina Machado, one of the most outspoken critics of President Nicolas Maduro’s government, harshly disapproved of Peña Nieto’s declarations. She said it was “another excuse to ignore and wash hands regarding what is going on in some Latin American countries.” I share Machado’s concern and spirit, but I believe she should be aware of Mexico’s foreign policy doctrine, and be more cautious about it.

Peña Nieto is a president from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), and during the PRI’s long rule Mexico followed a foreign policy named after Don Genero Estrada, the Mexican secretary of foreign affairs in the 1930s. The Estrada Doctrine claims that government recognition should be based on de facto existence rather than on legitimacy. According to Estrada, Mexico’s diplomacy should never issue any declaration that amounted to a grant of recognition, because he felt that it was an insulting practice that offended the sovereignty of other nations. This doctrine has guided Mexico’s foreign policy for decades, and with the PRI back in power Peña Nieto’s rebuff of Capriles is an understandable move.

Mexico’s foreign policy has solid reasoning behind it. The country's history has been marked by foreign invasions, from the Spanish conquest of the early 16th century to the U.S. invasion of 1846-1848 and the French occupation of 1861-1867. During the 20th century the U.S. intervened in Mexico’s internal affairs in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920. Being located next to the U.S. also means that the probability of others interfering in your affairs is greater than the probability of you meddling in the affairs of others, so you play always neutral as a policy of self defense. Furthermore, in 2006 there was a legitimacy crisis in Mexico in the aftermath of the presidential elections, when Andres Manuel López Obrador declared the results illegitimate. The disagreement escalated into widespread social conflict but eventually Obrador's challenge was defeated.

Venezuela is going today through something similar to what happened in Mexico back in 2006, and Mexico appreciates that other countries did not interfere with its internal affairs. Peña Nieto’s government is acting according to this tradition. It is precisely because Maduro is the Venezuelan de facto president that Peña Nieto recognizes him, independently of legitimacy questions. Mexico is always neutral on these scenarios and asks others to be neutral when the same thing happens to it.

The Venezuelan opposition must recognize this and think before criticizing Peña Nieto’s foreign policy. Mexico’s neutrality with regards to Venezuela is for very different reasons than those of some other South American countries that have clear malicious interests at stake. Hammering Mexico's stance without considering its unique position in Latin America only hurts the Venezuelan opposition.