Don’t Corner Mexico!
If Washington insists on underlining Mexico's present regional impotence, then Mexican instability may become a real danger no matter what happens in Central America.
The breakdown of the Contadora peace initiative because of either infinite procedural nitpicking or substantive confrontation marks, among other things, the end of Mexico's first starring role on the international political stage. The adventure had begun in the late 1970s, at a time of U.S. interest in and sympathy for Latin America, new oil discoveries, and high oil prices, and culminated in the joint Mexican-Colombian-Panamanian-Venezuelan effort to bring peace to Central America. But it has been crippled by the weight of foreign, debt, by domestic disenchantment, and by President Ronald Reagan's Central American machismo. Although it may not be evident today, the demise of Mexico's foreign policy may prove to be one of the most serious casualties of Reagan's Central America policy.
Present appearances notwithstanding, Mexico was not always interested in Central American and Caribbean Basin matters. It dabbled in the region's politics in the 1920s, when then President Plutarco Elias Calles sent arms to the liberals in Nicaragua; in the 1930s, when Augusto Cesar Sandino, the self-styled Nicaraguan liberator, tried to raise funds and sought refuge in Mexico; and in the 1950s, when Fidel Castro, Ernesto ("Che") Guevara, and their guerrillas launched the Cuban revolution from the Mexican seaport of Tuxpan. In general, however, Mexico had looked north or across the Atlantic Ocean when it focused on the rest of the world. So it was with some surprise that the country's inhabitants -- and foreign observers -- realized in the late 1970s that Mexico was seeking a leading role in the unfolding Central American crisis.
The breakdown of the Contadora peace initiative because of either infinite procedural nitpicking or substantive confrontation marks, among other things, the end of Mexico’s first starring role on the international political stage. The adventure had begun in the late 1970s, at a time of U.S. interest in and sympathy for Latin America, new oil discoveries, and high oil prices, and culminated in the joint Mexican-Colombian-Panamanian-Venezuelan effort to bring peace to Central America. But it has been crippled by the weight of foreign, debt, by domestic disenchantment, and by President Ronald Reagan’s Central American machismo. Although it may not be evident today, the demise of Mexico’s foreign policy may prove to be one of the most serious casualties of Reagan’s Central America policy.
Present appearances notwithstanding, Mexico was not always interested in Central American and Caribbean Basin matters. It dabbled in the region’s politics in the 1920s, when then President Plutarco Elias Calles sent arms to the liberals in Nicaragua; in the 1930s, when Augusto Cesar Sandino, the self-styled Nicaraguan liberator, tried to raise funds and sought refuge in Mexico; and in the 1950s, when Fidel Castro, Ernesto ("Che") Guevara, and their guerrillas launched the Cuban revolution from the Mexican seaport of Tuxpan. In general, however, Mexico had looked north or across the Atlantic Ocean when it focused on the rest of the world. So it was with some surprise that the country’s inhabitants — and foreign observers — realized in the late 1970s that Mexico was seeking a leading role in the unfolding Central American crisis.
As Mexico became increasingly active in the area’s affairs, many analyses of the reasons for and origins of this activity appeared. These analyses cited Mexico’s historical sympathy for revolutionary movements in Latin America, deeply rooted in the country’s own revolution of 1910; its ideological posturing for the benefit of the domestic political system’s left wing; and the simplistic — and nearsighted — U.S.-baiting by a Mexican president, Jose Lopez Portillo, who let his dislike for former President Jimmy Carter get out of hand. More accurately, it was seen as an attempt by Mexico to turn its northern neighbor’s growing difficulties in Nicaragua, and later, EI Salvador, to its own advantage at a time of strained Mexican-U.S. relations. These and other analyses of Mexico’s new activist foreign policy came and went across the Rio Grande; all had some ring of truth to them, but none could fully explain Mexico’s intentions in the Caribbean Basin.
In fact, though never clearly expressed and only vaguely perceived in different sectors of society and government, from mid-1978 on, Mexico’s actions sprang from a general idea of goals in the region and how to achieve them. Mexican policy aimed to carve out a sphere of influence in the only areas where such an ambition was feasible: Central America and the Caribbean Basin. South America was too divided and removed from Mexican concerns and capabilities, and no other region then had anything remotely like a strong link to Mexico or seemed close to developing any in the future. True, the country had never shown much interest in the "sister republics" to the south or in the island countries to the east, but nonetheless these countries had always looked to Mexico with a mixture of fascination and fear, respect and resentment.
Indeed, Central American elites had been studying law, medicine, engineering, and the art of war in Mexico for many years. The area’s revolutionaries and reformers, from Cuba’s Jose Marti at the turn of the century to CIA-ousted Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz Guzman in 1954, had always conspired from, fled to, and come to die in Mexico. So in addition to the country’s obvious affinities with most Caribbean Basin countries — shared language, history, and problems — Mexico had sound cultural grounds for envisaging a durable influence in the region.
Some solid, if less obvious, economic and political reasons for thinking in these terms also existed. By the end of the 1970s, Mexico had become a relatively developed country, by Latin American standards. Despite serious structural weaknesses in its economy, glaring inequities in the distribution of wealth, and recurring economic crises that shook the country’s finances and self-confidence, Mexico had built a large and diverse industrial base. Its economy increasingly complemented that of most Central American and Caribbean countries. And the discovery in 1976 to 1979 of new, giant oil reserves in the states of Chiapas and Tabasco and in the Campeche Sound, as well as the prospect of high revenues from oil exports, made Mexico’s economic future seem bright, even dazzling.
In contrast, the isthmus and island economies have remained essentially agricultural exporters of commodities. They depend mainly on American imports for consumer goods and for most of the tractors, herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizer they need to produce the cotton, coffee, bananas, sugar, and meat they sell on the world market. Mexico produced nearly all of the same goods imported — largely from elsewhere — by the Caribbean Basin economies. On paper, it looked like an ideal marriage.
But hypothetical economic considerations alone could not make Central America and the Caribbean Basin the keystone of Mexican foreign policy. Mexico would never be able to wage, much less win, an economic competition with the United States, the region’s reigning power since the turn of the century. How could the inefficient and poverty-ridden Mexican economy compete with the United States, literally in America’s own back yard?
Courting the Left
The answer, of course, was to compete not economically, but politically. Here the emerging social unrest and desire for change in much of the region entered into the equation. Mexico would be able to nudge out the United States as the dominant influence in the Caribbean Basin only by winning the political sympathies of the area’s inhabitants and governments. And it would find this sympathy only on the left, not on the right end of the political spectrum. Subsequent American warnings notwithstanding, Mexico felt it had nothing to fear from left-wing governments in the Caribbean Basin. It knew that, despite their Marxist-Leninist trappings, Latin American revolutionaries continued to be middle-class nationalists with a popular following. It had learned from the records of Guatemala from 1950 to 1954, Cuba since 1959, and Chile from 1970 to 1973 that left-wing governments would never think of meddling in Mexican politics: Mexico was their best — their only — ally in the Western Hemisphere.
Although most of the countries in the area had right-wing, pro-American, and unpopular leaders who would never look to Mexico as a counterweight to the United States, the situation was changing rapidly. The victory of the Nicaraguan revolution seemed imminent. That and the apparently favorable prospects for insurgencies in EI Salvador and Guatemala in late 1978 and early 1979 gave Mexico every reason to be optimistic. If the Sandinistas overthrew Anastasio Somoza Debayle; if the guerrillas in EI Salvador rode on the Sandinistas’ coattails to victory in their own country; if the Guatemalan revolutionaries were in turn swept into power by the regional revolutionary tide; if geographic realities obliged Honduras and Costa Rica to align themselves with their neighbors’ policies; and if Mexico were seen by these newly triumphant revolutionary movements as a true and trusted ally, it would achieve the anti-American political edge it sought. For no matter how moderate the Central American and Caribbean revolutionaries might appear in dealing with the United States, their anti-American nationalism was deep enough for Mexico to turn to its advantage.
Mexico had its work cut out for it: Support the Central American revolutionaries in their quest for power; transform, with time, the political capital thus acquired into lasting influence; and ensure the staying power required by a long-term policy. By wagering that the future of Central America and the Caribbean belonged to a nationalist, not fully democratic, and largely anti-American Left, Mexico may have been betting on the right horse — but only in a very long race.
It also was assuming an additional task, possibly the most difficult: conciliating the interests of these new regimes with U.S. interests. Little would remain of Mexico’s regional ambitions if some form of coexistence were not worked out between the United States and the revolutionaries in Central America and the Caribbean. Mexico had both a motive and the capability to encourage a modus vivendi. But it could succeed only with some very deft diplomatic maneuvers: supporting the rebels in their struggles against U.S.-backed regimes until they took power, then turning around and convincing the former adversaries that they had to live with each other — a formidable, perhaps unrealistic, task.
Nevertheless, some factors were operating in Mexico’s favor. To begin with, its policy was based exclusively on self-interest. Mexico supported the tide of radical change in Central America and the Caribbean not out of sympathy — though sympathy clearly existed — or anti-American spite — a small dose of which is always present in Mexican foreign policy but rather because becoming a regional power required a left-leaning Caribbean Basin. Such a policy always would be easier to sustain domestically than one based on high-minded but abstract principles that would entail some sacrifice of Mexico’s interests. Further, Mexico could switch back and forth between supporting revolution and reconciling the Left with U.S. interests, depending on Mexican, regional, and American political considerations.
Third, and most important, this approach did not appear to oppose the core of the Carter administration’s approach toward both Latin America and the developing world as a whole. Under Carter, the United States seemed to be indicating that it could live with radical governments in the Third World if they did not alter fundamental geopolitical equations or massively violate human rights. Mexico was confident that it would have enough leverage with Central American and Caribbean radicals to ensure their respect for these American constraints.
Between late 1978 and early 1982, then, Mexico openly supported revolution in Nicaragua; viewed with favor its progress in El Salvador and Grenada; improved and emphasized its ties with Cuba; and watched with interest (and some unease) as guerrilla warfare heated up in neighboring Guatemala. Starting in late 1978, Mexican Interior Minister Jesus Reyes Heroles and Carlos Sansores Perez and Gustavo Carvajal Moreno, then chairman and secretary general, respectively, of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRJ), appropriated small but significant amounts of money for the Sandinista guerrillas and their political front, the Group of Twelve. The Mexican embassy in Managua became a center for anti-Somoza conspiracies, a haven and clinic for tired or wounded guerrillas, and a meeting place for opposition leaders. Nicaraguan Vice President Sergio Ramirez Mercado, Foreign Minister Miguel d’Escoto Brockman, Attorney General Ernesto Castillo Martinez, and other current Sandinista officials all made the embassy their home for varying periods of time.
But Mexico’s most important role in the Nicaraguan insurrection came in May and June 1979, when international pressure, primarily from Latin American countries, as much as internal armed conflict, forced Somoza from power. In May, shortly after visits to Mexico by Castro and Costa Rican President Rodrigo Carazo Odio, Lopez Portillo broke diplomatic relations with Nicaragua and encouraged other Latin American countries to do the same. At a June meeting of the Organization of American States, the Mexican foreign minister openly defended "the sacred right [of the Nicaraguan people] to rebel against tyranny" and played a key role in stopping the United States from dispatching an inter-American peace keeping force intended to impede Sandinista access to power even if it was too late to save Somoza. Lopez Portillo shipped substantial quantities of ammunition to the Sandinista southern front, and on July 19 the Mexican presidential airplane carried the newly formed junta into Nicaragua — and power — from Costa Rica.
Through 1983, Mexican economic aid to Nicaragua topped $500 million, including outright grants, loans, and free or discounted oil. Lopez Portillo visited Nicaragua three times, and Sandinista comandantes called regularly at the Mexican Presidential Palace and the Foreign Ministry, often with a lengthy shopping list. Although Mexico was criticized then, as now, for not attaching at least some strings to this support, it viewed the policy as an attempt to buy political trust for the future.
Inevitably, Mexico began looking at the situation in El Salvador through the lens of the Sandinista victory. If developments there proceeded as they had in Nicaragua in 1979, there was no reason to believe a similar Pattern would not take hold. In early 1980, Carvajal, by then chairman of the PRI, met with the Salvadoran rebel commanders and their political representatives; in August 1980, the Mexican Foreign Ministry established high-level and ongoing communications with the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), a federation of guerrilla groups, and its political arm, the Democratic Revolutionary Front (FDR). This relationship with the Salvadoran rebels allowed Mexican authorities to monitor closely events in El Salvador; it also created, even more than in Nicaragua, the kind of trust that would serve Mexico greatly later, if the Salvadoran insurgents attained power.
The best example of this long-term political investment was the so-called Franco-Mexican declaration on El Salvador. In August 1981, the newly elected government of French President Francois Mitterrand joined Mexico in calling for a negotiated settlement in El Salvador and recognized the FMLN and the FDR as "representative political forces." Coming during a period of military weakness for the guerrillas, this diplomatic move gave the rebels the single most important expression of international support they have ever received.
Mexico also strengthened its ties with Cuba. In August 1980, Lopez Portillo traveled to Havana, where he was given a hero’s welcome. Castro, in turn, twice visited the Mexican resort of Cozumel. In late 1981, when Cuba desperately needed dollars to meet payments on its debt to Western banks, the Mexican government secretly lent the Cubans $100 million. And, though Mexico gave no aid to Grenada, the late Prime Minister Maurice Bishop was warmly received in Mexico City in late 1981.
Mexico’s armed forces never viewed Guatemala as they viewed the rest of the region and clearly would have opposed any open or significant support of revolution south of the border. Yet Lopez Portillo’s policy toward the Guatemalan insurgency was not totally at odds with Mexican policy toward Central America as a whole. In mid-1981, when the first Guatemalan refugees began pouring over Mexico’s southern border, Lopez Portillo, after some initial hesitation, ordered a reluctant army to accept their presence. This decision in part reciprocated advance warnings from the guerrilla leaders that refugees soon would start leaving Guatemala in search of a Mexican haven.
If Mexico clearly emphasized the pro-revolution track of its dual Central America policy, it did not totally discard efforts to find a modus vivendi between Washington and the Central American Left. Mexico repeatedly lectured the United States on the need to coexist with Nicaragua, normalize relations with Cuba, and negotiate a solution to the civil war in El Salvador. Mexico also tried to convince the Sandinistas, the Cubans, and the Salvadoran insurgents to take American concerns into account. Although official and unofficial meetings and exchanges of views among the various parties did take place, these efforts remained fruitless. Despite certain signs of leftist flexibility, such as a Sandinista willingness to discuss the departure of Cubans from Nicaragua without defining their status as teachers or advisers, Mexico proved unable to deliver American concessions and consequently was unable to transform flashes of apparent moderation from Cuba, Nicaragua, and the Salvadoran rebels into meaningful concessions.
In November 1981, then Secretary of State Alexander Haig, Jr., met with Cuban vice president Carlos Rafael Rodriguez in Mexico City; 4 months later, special presidential envoy General Vernon Walters traveled to Havana for a 7-hour talk with Castro. According to Mexican officials, in early 1981, just after Reagan’s first inauguration, then national security adviser Richard Allen and Director of Central Intelligence William Casey agreed to a Mexican request to hold talks secretly, in Washington, with Salvadoran rebel leaders.
But Haig vetoed the arrangement as soon as he learned of it, considering the idea entirely contrary to his Central America policy. Other Mexican attempts to promote talks between the warring factions in El Salvador fared no better because of U.S. opposition and a simple fact of diplomatic life: Mexico was too supportive of the Central American and Caribbean Left to play the role of honest broker, yet if it turned away from its new found allies, it would lose their trust — its only card to begin with.
Mexican efforts on Nicaragua likewise failed repeatedly, with the first phase of Mexico’s Central America policy culminating in February 1982, when Lopez Portillo visited Managua, Nicaragua, publicly called for talks and mutual concessions, and tried to convince the United States to enter into formal negotiations with the Sandinistas. But once again Haig blocked the initiative, although some progress was made in identifying both sides’ grievances and aspirations.
By this time, however, economic insolvency had hit Mexico. Lopez Portillo had become a lame duck, and increasing domestic opposition to Mexico’s open support of "subversives" had rendered this policy inoperative. The end of the first phase and the beginning of the second might have come in early 1982, when a European democracy privately asked Lopez Portillo to join it in financially supporting the FMLN-FDR. Mexico refused, though this meant that European funds would not be forthcoming either. Likewise, in December 1981, after France announced a sale of $17 million in arms to Nicaragua, Mitterrand asked Mexico to support publicly this act. Mexico turned him down.
A New Mexican Stance
During the transition between the outgoing administration of Lopez Portillo and the new government of Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado, Mexico shifted the emphasis of its policy from supporting revolution in Central America to mediating between that revolution and its avowed adversary, Ronald Reagan. And in order to mediate with any chance of success, Mexico had to slide over to the diplomatic Center, a difficult place in Latin American politics under any circumstances, and particularly during the Reagan era.
In September 1982, Mexico and Venezuela sent jointly signed letters to the presidents of Nicaragua, Honduras, and the United States, calling on them to negotiate their differences. For the first time, Mexico publicly stated that Nicaragua was not entirely blameless in the regional crisis, especially concerning tensions with Honduras. The initiative, however, was still essentially pro-Sandinista. Four months later, after de la Madrid’s inauguration, this joint Mexican-Venezuelan effort was transformed into the Contadora initiative, named after the Panamanian resort island where the foreign ministers of Colombia, Mexico, Panama, and Venezuela met in early 1983.
The Contadora process revealed not only a major revision in Mexican positions, but also an underlying continuity, however unaware of it Mexican policymakers may have been at the time. As Mexico’s own economic problems increased; as the Guatemalan insurgency suffered a nearly fatal blow at the hands of later ousted president General Efrain Rios Monn; as the Salvadoran guerrillas proved unable to defeat the U.S.-hacked government; and, perhaps most important, as the very survival of the Nicaraguan revolution came into question because of the Sandinistas’ own mistakes and Reagan’s support for the contras, Mexico began to emphasize its "mediation" function as opposed to its "support" role. The Contadora group adopted a more centrist approach than previous Mexican initiatives not only because of the presence of other countries more sympathetic to U.S. positions, but also because of the new "balanced and objective" stance laid out by de la Madrid.
This new Mexican stance was reflected in many of the Contadora group’s documents and arguments. Nicaragua’s problems with Honduras were made the center of the regional crisis, whereas before Mexico had stressed the need to address both the Nicaraguan and the Salvadoran dimensions of Central American tensions. The insurgents in EI Salvador clearly perceived this shift. "Contadora, as a group, however, has been unwilling up to now to use its good offices to work for this dialogue [between the FMLN-FDR and Salvadoran President Jose Napoleon Duarte]. It has not even directly discussed the Salvadoran case," stated an official FMLN-FDR document of mid-1984.
A series of symmetries also was established. Each of these symmetries ran counter to Mexico’s previous positions, but each made Mexico a more credible mediator. Cuba was placed alongside the United States in the category of interested outside parties. When the four Contadora presidents met in Cancun, Mexico, in July 1983, they sent messages to both Castro and Reagan, asking for their support. In a January 8, 1984, bulletin issued after a meeting of the Contadora foreign ministers, the insurgents in El Salvador were equated, at least implicitly, with the Nicaraguan contras. Both were referred to as "irregular forces which aim to destabilize the Central American governments."
The questions of internal reforms, democratic elections, and respect for human rights were addressed in individual sections of the Contadora group’s documents, and particularly in the Revised Contadora Act for Peace and Cooperation in Central America. This put Nicaragua’s "self-determination" on an equal footing with El Salvador’s "human rights violations," which Mexico had repeatedly condemned at the United Nations General Assembly. Neither issue, the act implied, could be considered merely an internal matter. Other, less important changes in the Mexican position also were reflected in the Contadora documents.
While pursuing the multilateral, symmetrical approach to peace in the region through the Contadora process, Mexico also insisted, but with greater authority and success than before, on the need for direct U.S.-Nicaraguan talks. By May 1984, when de la Madrid visited Washington, Mexico’s new attempt at playing the honest broker apparently began to payoff. Reagan soon accepted the principle of direct dialogue with Nicaragua, and two weeks later, Secretary of State George Shultz made a brief stop at the Managua airport for the first of nine high-level exchanges between the two countries. Almost all the other meetings were held in the Mexican resort of Manzanillo, a tribute to Mexico’s role in bringing about the talks.
In addition to altering its views on many Central American issues in order to make Contadora credible, Mexico has toned down its other forms of support for Central American revolutionaries. Economic aid to Nicaragua was cut back sharply and oil shipments were subjected to a number of financial conditions, leading Nicaragua to turn to the Soviet Union for what quickly became the bulk of its petroleum supplies. Sandinista leaders travel to Mexico less frequently and more discreetly than before. Two and a half years into his 6-year term of office, de la Madrid has yet to visit Nicaragua or Cuba. Moreover, several Cuban diplomats have been either expelled from Mexico or quietly asked to leave.
Salvadoran insurgent leaders continue to hold press conferences and meet with foreign delegations in Mexico City, but they no longer enjoy their previous access to senior Mexican officials. Nor do they remain Mexico’s main Salvadoran contacts; Foreign Minister Bernardo Sepulveda Amor’s attendance at Duarte’s 1984 presidential inauguration was widely interpreted as a sign of rapprochement between the two governments. Finally, although refugees from Guatemala continue to enter Mexico, most of them have been more or less forcibly transferred to areas removed from the border, largely in response to pressure from the Guatemalan army.
But just as Mexico did not completely forgo mediation when it most ardently supported revolution, it has not entirely forsaken its revolutionary friends while pursuing conciliation. It continues to maintain closer and more trustful relations with Nicaragua than with any other Central American country; it improved its ties with Duarte but has not given them a higher standing than those it maintains with the FMLN-FDR. In spite of the distance it has put between itself and Cuba, communication, official travel, and consultations continue, in a way unique in all of Latin America.
A Regional Force for Change
Yet despite sporadic achievements, Mexico’s first incursion into the tricky waters of international affairs has not met with resounding success. For if in 1982 Mexico had the option to shift from supporting revolution to mediating, in 1985 there are no such options left.
The failure of the Contadora effort, because of U.S. unwillingness to exchange an effective, albeit aggressive, probably illegal, and certainly unpopular (in Latin America) policy toward Central America for a well-intentioned, theoretically verifiable, but probably unenforceable document, is the main sign of Mexico’s frustrated ambitions in Central America. Mexico cannot go back to aiding or sponsoring anti-American rebellions. An increasingly vocal and powerful conservative opposition probably would take to the streets, the United States doubtless would consider such action unfriendly, and the ensuing confrontation undoubtedly would be more than de la Madrid could bear after nearly three years of highly unpopular economic austerity.
But with no tangible results to show for its Contadora efforts, Mexico cannot continue pursuing the elusive, if not impossible, goal of "peace with honor for all in Central America." As might be expected, it has lost leverage with its former revolutionary allies, though they continue to view Mexico as a friend. Moreover, Mexican domestic support for any Central American involvement is rapidly eroding, partly because of growing disenchantment with everything the government does, and partly because of the conservative and isolationist drift that has been accelerated by economic ills. Yet a humiliating return to introspective isolationism also would endanger the political system’s legitimacy. Mexico has literally no place left to go in Central America, yet has nowhere to go in international affairs other than Central America.
Washington obviously cannot entirely subordinate its Central America policy to Mexico’s problems. Indeed, some might argue that, thanks to its well-deserved failure, Mexico finally can begin to act responsibly in the region. This view, probably as widely held in Mexican business and conservative circles as it is in Washington, may win debating points, but it reveals a basic misunderstanding of Mexican politics. True, Mexico strove to create a sphere of influence for itself in the Caribbean Basin partly out of delusions of grandeur, partly out of national ambition, and partly to have more leverage in its everyday, often prickly relationship with the United States. But traditional Mexican foreign posturing, if not a foreign policy in the strict sense of the word, has always played a key role in the delicate system of checks and balances upon which Mexican political legitimacy rests.
This key role has made foreign affairs the one realm of government action where the gap between the rhetoric of the revolution and actual policy is not outrageously wide. The Mexican political system might be able to function effectively without the progressive international stance that until now has neutralized its institutional left wing. Moreover,
Mexico’s support for left-wing causes abroad has rarely been intended to placate the country’s own extreme Left, which has always been dealt with through repression and corruption. The actual domestic purpose of Mexican foreign policy traditionally has been to silence or paralyze sectors of the Mexican establishment that at different times may have considered opposing the government from a leftist perspective because of its various domestic policies.
Such opposition was deemed illegitimate to the extent that it weakened the government’s support for Republican Spain in the 1930s, the Allies during World War II, Castro’s Cuba in the 1950s and 196Os, Salvador Allende’s Chile in the 1970s, and the Nicaraguan and Salvadoran revolutionaries in the 1970s and 1980s. At the same time, official support for worthy causes abroad allowed many intellectuals and politicians in the Mexican establishment to continue supporting the government in other fields without losing face with their leftist colleagues. The current stability of Mexican politics — however tenuous — indicates at the least that foreign policy may be one contributing factor. And current U.S. policy in Central America has helped take this tool almost completely out of Mexican leaders’ hands.
Because of the ever-present tensions in bilateral U.S.-Mexican affairs, Mexico cannot afford to follow U.S. policy in Central America to the letter, even if domestic support for such a course among the urban, U.S.-oriented middle classes is growing. In order for Mexico to make important concessions that Washington is currently pressing for on bilateral issues — most recently, the drug trade — it must be able to prove its independence in other ways. But if Mexico cannot support the United States or continue its Central America policy in any mode, then it has no foreign policy left at all. And if it has no foreign policy, Mexican politics must function without one of its most prominent features. This feature may be redundant. Yet it may also be indispensable to the system’s ability to reproduce and maintain itself. No one knows, but the risk of finding out, at a time of deepening economic crisis, seems excessive.
The United States should not humiliate Mexico and Central America, nor should it foreclose Mexican policy in the region. The Contadora process may not be a realistic way out of the Central American quagmire, and Mexico may not yet be the regional power that can conciliate the region’s desire and need for change with key U.S. national security interests. But until now, whatever certain conservatives in the United States may think, Mexico has been part of the solution in Central America, not part of the problem.
In time, a Mexican government with sufficient domestic clout once again may be able to play an active role in the Caribbean Basin. If this activism coincides with greater realism on the part of the region’s revolutionaries and, above all, with a much more precise and more realistic definition of U.S. national security interests in Central America and the Caribbean, Mexico may yet achieve its ambitious goals. Its recent record will serve it well in negotiations and revolutions to come. Eventually, the United States will have to define its regional stake in terms that do not change with every administration, with every secretary of state, with every national security adviser. Only then will Mexico be able effectively to foster needed change, overall stability, and geopolitical realism. Only views that are clearly spelled out, serious, and constant can be conciliated.
If Washington insists on underlining Mexico’s present regional impotence; if it continues systematically to disqualify, reject, or wear down every Mexican attempt to further its current goals in Central America; if it leaves Mexico no choice but to withdraw from all international activity and simply to manage its day-to-day affairs with the United States, then Mexican instability may become a real danger no matter what happens in Central America. This instability is much less likely to take the form of a left-wing drift or takeover than of the slow breakdown of the finely tuned, delicately crafted, clockwork-like mechanisms that have guaranteed Mexico’s political stability since the 1930s. A line in the sand, whether drawn by Ronald Reagan or by anyone else, cannot possibly be worth it.
Jorge Castañeda is a professor at New York University, a former Mexican foreign minister, and the author of America Through Foreign Eyes. Twitter: @JorgeGCastaneda
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