Latin America and the Caribbean are in political and economic turmoil. Chile, Ecuador, Haiti, Peru, Venezuela, Colombia, Bolivia, Argentina and Uruguay, among others, witness social unrest, economic stagnation, and/or political crisis at a time when the United States does not care much about the region.

The Donald Trump Administration, at the beginning, ignored the events south of the Rio Grande. At some point he referred to some Central American, Caribbean and other developing nations as “shithole countries.” During the presidential campaign back in 2016, he said that Mexico was a country of murderers, rapists and bad hombres. Yet, once in power he didn’t look South.

As time went by, however, Trump discovered that sensible issues such as migration, drug trafficking and trade were of political value for his personal ambitions, including his re-election. Thus, he sponsored sanctions against the Venezuelan regime of Ricardo Maduro. He announced the reduction of economic cooperation with Central American countries and forced Guatemala to become a “third safe country” to contain migration. He criticized Colombia’s role in the fight against drugs. He threatened Mexico with economic sanctions if the country did not stop migration from coming into the U.S. territory.

The only country with which Trump seems to get along is Bolsonaro’s Brazil. Both presidents have a political understanding and a very compatible ideology. Despite that, the “understanding” has not translated into economic benefits or concessions for the South American giant. One may assume that, given Trump’s lack of interest on the region, Latin America is trying to sort its challenges out, leading some countries, like Mexico, to lead the way as a broker or “problem solver.” But, is it really the case?

Mexico and Bolivia Relations

One may not remember it, but on September 10, 1994, Mexico and Bolivia signed a Free Trade Agreement. Previously, Mexico had faced criticism from several Latin American countries which feared the negotiation of the then North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with the U.S. and Canada created an insurmountable barrier between Mexicans and South Americans.

At that time, the Presidents of Mexico and Bolivia were Carlos Salinas de Gortari and Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, respectively. Sánchez de Lozada had performed structural reforms like those in Mexico under Salinas de Gortari. Raised in the United States, he was President of Bolivia from 1993 to 1997 and for a second term between August 2002 and October 2003. Considered more a “gringo” than a Bolivian – since his mastering of the English language was not typical of native speakers – he faced a major crisis during his second term, due to the so-called “gas war.” Apparently, Sánchez de Lozada arranged with Chile access to its coastlines so that gas exports could reach Mexico and California in the U.S. Riots headed by Evo Morales Ayma paralyzed the country and Sánchez de Lozada decided to leave the country, heading North, to the United States.

After the fall of Sánchez de Lozada, Carlos Mesa replaced him, but social protests under the leadership of Morales, again linked to gas, oil and the sovereignty of Bolivia’s natural resources, continued. Thus, Carlos Mesa resigned in 2005. His successor, Eduardo Rodríguez Vetzé ruled for a short period only to call elections in which Evo Morales was elected for the first time, becoming the President of Bolivia on January 22, 2006.

As is well known, Morales was re-elected three times and looked for a fourth term. By the way: in 2010, Evo Morales withdrew from the Free Trade Agreement with Mexico, by arguing the deal was not in Bolivia’s best interest and more probably due to pressures coming from Lula Da Silva, then President of Brazil, who disliked the idea of Mexico being involved in South American businesses.

In the most recent elections held in Bolivia last October 20 several anomalies were recorded by international and local observers, including the Organization of American States (OAS) mission sent to the South American country. The most important contender against Morales, Carlos Mesa – who had served as President once Sánchez de Lozada left for the U.S. – said the elections were a fraud orchestrated by Morales so that he could ruled Bolivia for a fourth term. That day, when the elections concluded and the votes were counted, Morales couldn’t beat Mesa by more than ten percent of the total votes to skip a second electoral round. This reminds one of a similar situation faced by Mexico during the 1988 Presidential elections, when Salinas de Gortari ran for President and apparently lost to Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, the leader of a center-left wing coalition. Salinas stole the election with the complicity of the Minister of the Interior, who, during the counting of votes, shot the system down. When the counting resumed, the previous trends that favored Cárdenas changed for the benefit of Salinas. Similar to that, when counting of ballots resumed in Bolivia, Evo Morales claimed victory with a 11 percent advantage over Mesa, thus avoiding the second round.

Given the irregularities shown in the process and documented by the OAS mission, Morales resigned from the presidency on November 10, after more than 13 years in power. Bolivia, already in turmoil, led Morales to seek asylum options. He approached several countries, among them Argentina, Peru, Chile and Brazil. These countries even denied him access to their airspace and then, Morales finally accepted the Mexican offer to give him political asylum “for humanitarian reasons.”

On the afternoon of November 11, a Mexican Air Force plane departed for Bolivia to fly Morales to Mexico, with the initial permission of Peru, where the Mexican aircraft would have the possibility of loading fuel and using Peruvian airspace. That did happen one way, but not when Morales was on board the plane. The Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard, and Evo Morales himself have detailed the obstacles faced to accomplish the mission. It was necessary for Mexico to negotiate with various nations of the Southern Cone, the required permits to use their airspace so that the Mexican aircraft could finally transport the Bolivian politician into Mexico. At the end, on the morning of November 12, before noon, Evo Morales arrived safe and sound in Mexico.

Thus, a cycle in the political history of Bolivia ends: Evo Morales left the country in a way similar to how he managed his rising to the highest spheres of Bolivian politics. Riots, protests and social mobilizations that once catapulted him to the presidency of his country – by deposing Carlos Mesa and by defeating other prominent politicians – now, 13 years later, were used against him.

Rarities about Mexico’s Foreign Policy

Former Bolivian President Evo Morales waves upon landing in Mexico City, where he was granted exile after his resignation (Photo: Pedro Pardo/AFP)

It’s evident the decision to protect Morales at this critical juncture came directly from the Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Morales attended the inauguration of the later, back on December 1, 2018. The ideological empathy between the two is evident. Yet, ideologies are not always consistent with foreign policy decisions. Here’s an example.

In the federal elections of October 27 in Argentina, the Peronistas Alberto Fernández and Cristina Fernández de Kirschner avoided a second round since they clearly advantaged and won by more than 45 percent of the votes over the current President, Mauricio Macri. Criticized by Brazil, whose president, Jair Bolsonaro filled his mouth denouncing the bad decision made by the Argentines and pointing out that he would not call Fernández to congratulate him and neither would attend his inauguration on December 10, Fernández found himself isolated in the region. Chile, Argentina’s neighbor suffers from a major political-social crisis that even led President Sebastián Piñeira to cancel the scheduled meetings of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum (APEC) and the Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP25). Uruguay, where elections also took place on the same day as in Argentina, may be turning to the right after a second electoral round. As explained, the Bolivia of Evo Morales entered political turmoil after the presidential elections.

Other countries in the region also face riots, demonstrations and crises for various reasons – Ecuador, Colombia, Haiti – and the options to manage an alliance in Latin America thinking about his next government, were substantially reduced for Fernández. Thus, in need of oxygen, he traveled to Mexico to meet with López Obrador and possibly agree on an association that promised a lot. However, the Argentinian elected President was received by López Obrador not as expected, thus canceling the possibility of assuming regional leadership at a time when Brazil is withdrawing. No major agreements – neither political nor economic – were reached between Mexico and Argentina on that occasion. Thus, Fernandez had no choice but to continue his way to the United States, where, ironically, he was met with Washington’s promise of supporting the various negotiations that his country must undertake with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in face of Argentina’s economic crisis.

Having this background in mind, the way the Mexican Government acted regarding the events in Bolivia is surprising. The Mexican Foreign Minister, Marcelo Ebrard, referred to the Bolivian crisis as a “coup” after the armed forces asked Morales to resign. Although it is shocking and dangerous for the military to make demands like this (especially remembering the history of Bolivia), the sayings of the armed forces were not accompanied by physical actions. That is, they did not perform a coup d’état as such. The violence has certainly been rising and even Morales’ sister’s house and his own were assaulted. The President resigned for the sake of the population, to avoid a bloodshed. Yet, Morales’ physical integrity was compromised, although currently, amid political turbulence, the armed forces are not installed in power in the troubled South American country.

The extensive documentation generated by the OAS regarding the irregularities shown in the Bolivian electoral process, which put Morales in an awkward situation, should not be overlooked. What bothers is that once the OAS expressed its concern on irregularities during the elections, remained silent after the announcement of the resignation of Morales. It played a role in his resignation, but beyond that, the OAS hasn’t helped Bolivia to sort things out.

Yet, speaking about Mexico’s role on this crisis, the question remains: why did the Mexican Government receive a democratically elected President like Alberto Fernández so coldly – remembering that his political and ideological orientation is perfectly compatible with that of López Obrador – and instead decides to offer and grant political asylum to Evo Morales who presumably perpetrated electoral fraud in the most recent elections?

So… the world matters after all?

The President of Mexico, who has not made a single trip abroad throughout his government, has insisted that his priority is internal politics. However, circumstances have forced him to make decisions on a number of foreign policy issues. It must have done so due to pressures coming from the Trump Administration who has threatened trade sanctions if Mexican immigration policy was not aimed at reducing the pressures of migrants to enter the United States. López Obrador offered programs of economic support to Central American nations that may mitigate the migratory pressures destined for the United States – and now also for Mexico. He has granted asylum and protection to Ecuadorian parliamentarians such as Luis Fernando Molina, Soledad Buendía, and Carlos Viteri, considered as “correístas” in face of Ecuador’s political turmoil. And, as mentioned, he met with the elected President of Argentina, Alberto Fernández and now decides to welcome Evo Morales. One may think that finally, after decades of abandonment, Mexico is looking South.

The asylum tradition of Mexico is not in doubt. In the past Mexico opened its doors to Leon Trotsky, to the Spaniards after the rise of Franco during the Civil War, and to the victims of dictatorships in the Southern Cone. But also, Mexico, 40 years ago, decided to grant asylum to a very controversial character: Mohamed Reza Pahlevi, the Shah of Iran, who had to leave his country after the Islamic revolution.

In need of shelter, the Shah sought help from the United States, Peru, Panama, Morocco. He also stopped at the Bahamas. The United States pressured Mexico to welcome him. Thus, the Shah arrived into the country accompanied by his wife, relatives and assistants and initially settled in Cuernavaca and then Acapulco. Mexico navigated troubled waters at that time, since the Iranian government requested the extradition of Reza Pahlevi. There was the possibility of physical attacks against the Shah sponsored by Teheran, wherever he was – which for Mexico was a constant concern, recalling the assassination of Leon Trotsky at the beginning of 20th century. After his stay in Mexico, the Shah eventually managed to leave for Egypt, being welcomed by President Anwar el-Sadat where, shortly after, he died of cancer.

The experiences of Trotsky and the Shah reveal how complex asylum is when it comes to prominent political figures. It is therefore important to learn from history. That said, it does not appear that Mexico has a defined foreign policy in Latin America, in the face of, for example, Brazil, a country that, at least for now, has disregarded the region. The fact that Mexico did not agree to the alliance suggested by Alberto Fernández, gives the Argentine elected President the opportunity of leading the way. For example, by visiting Uruguay and meeting with Daniel Martínez, the candidate of Frente Amplio, in face of the second round of the Presidential elections scheduled for November 24. As opposed to Fernandez’ activism in the region, everything indicates that circumstances have forced Mexico to act without a defined strategy. Thus, the result may not favor Mexican interests in the world generally or in Latin America in particular after all.

There’s no question the decision of granting political asylum to Evo Morales was made by López Obrador himself. This decision, of course, comes with a cost, both internally and internationally for Mexico. Inside the country there’s divided opinion on the issue, with some applauding the asylum granted, and others rejecting and criticizing it. Outside the country, the protection of Morales may be an expensive toll for the Mexican Government, by increasing frictions with the United States, the European Union, the OAS, several Latin American countries and human rights organizations, not to mention that Morales’ political activism from Mexico is creating tensions with all the mentioned actors as well as Bolivia’s provisional authorities. This is a very challenging scenario for López Obrador, who still believes the world is not important.