Mexico, not Venezuela

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, April 16, 2013


While the presidential election in Venezuela captured the attention of Latin America, Washington seemed less interested on the outcome of Sunday’s presidential election. The Obama administration has decided to strengthen relations with friendly governments and deepen cooperation with countries interested more in economic development than in confronting with the U.S. Thus, while the election in Venezuela dominated the news in Latin America, the Obama administration was occupied with the upcoming visit President Obama will make to Mexico in early May.


The election in Venezuela was closely followed in Latin America.  The death of Hugo Chávez had political consequences for the governments of several countries in the region associated with the anti-American rhetoric of the late Venezuelan leader. As Chávez hand-picked successor, Nicolás Maduro was widely expected to win. The sympathy vote should have been enough for Maduro to crush the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles.  Though Capriles had done reasonably well against Chávez in the October 2012 election—receiving 6.5 million votes, 44.3% of the total—few expected that Capriles could mount a competitive campaign against Maduro. Yet, as many Venezuelans doubted Maduro’s leadership skills and given the worsening economic conditions in the country, the race became close in the last few weeks.


Maduro’s 50.7% victory, with 7.6 million votes was narrower than Chávez’s 55.1% (8.2 million votes) in October 2012. The close result has fed allegations of irregularities by the opposition. Capriles has not conceded and instead has asked for a recount. Though the election board has ruled out a recount and has proclaimed Maduro’s victory, the president-elect does not have the charisma of his predecessor and lacks democratic legitimacy in a deeply divided country. Concerns over what might transpire in Venezuela have led many leaders in Latin America to abstain from making the customary courtesy call to the president-elect. Though Chávez’s well-known allies in Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua have rushed to call Maduro to congratulate him, the leaders of Brazil, Mexico, Colombia and Chile are being more cautious. Nobody wants to worsen the already fragile situation in Venezuela.


The U.S. has also remained cautious. Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, has congratulated Venezuelans for the high turnout in Sunday’s election and has expressed support for a recount. But the U.S. has not taken an active role in rallying support behind a call for a recount among other Latin American leaders. In fact, the U.S. has monitored events in Venezuela from a distance.  It is no secret that Washington would have preferred Capriles to win the election, but the U.S. is not sending any signals about having a stronger role in making sure that the electoral process in Venezuela is not rigged.   

In fact, the way Washington has reacted to the events unfolding in Venezuela stands in sharp contrast with the way the White House has treated the recently announced Obama visit to Mexico. Mexico has always had a more complex bilateral agenda with the US than any other Latin American country. Because the two countries share a large border, since more than 10 million Mexicans illegally reside in the U.S. and because the two countries have deepened trade integration since NAFTA came into effect in 1994, the U.S. now sees Mexico as belonging to a different category than the rest of Latin America. Many Latin American experts in the U.S. believe that the future of the American economy depends on deepening ties with Latin America, but most policy-makers and politicians in the U.S. understand that the present of the U.S. requires Washington to have a good working relation with Mexico.


Since he assumed the presidency in Mexico in December of 2012, Enrique Peña Nieto has made a number of bold policy moves. He has signaled his intention to reform education and to generate more competition in the telecommunications industry.  Mexico is seen as a country on the move in the right direction. Growth has picked up in recent years and, if implemented, the reforms announced by Peña Nieto will further push Mexico along a sustainable development path.  Washington seems to favor Peña Nieto’s decisions and President Obama’s visit is a sign that his administration wants to work closely with the Mexican government on several other initiatives. The most important initiative Washington has on the agenda is the war against drugs.  As Peña Nieto campaigned against former president Felipe Calderón’s war on drug lords in Mexico, Washington wants to know what Peña Nieto’s plans are to combat the illicit traffic of drugs. President Obama will likely put some pressure on the Mexican government to clearly spell out how it plans to work with the U.S. in fighting drug trafficking.


It is unclear if Obama’s visit to Mexico will produce any progress on this and other issues, but the election in Venezuela has made it crystal clear that Washington is more interested in deepening relations with Mexico and working with the Mexican government than in engaging with other Latin American countries to help protect and strengthen democracy in Venezuela.