Days before his January 10th inauguration in Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro’s biggest critics in Latin America issued a feisty ultimatum: Leave office or face sanctions and diplomatic isolation. By going beyond standard condemnations, the Grupo de Lima communique was designed to spook the Venezuelan strongman. Instead, in some ways, it was reassuring. Mexico, the second-largest member of the Grupo de Lima, had refused to sign the statement, dialing down the pressure on Venezuela’s repressive regime.
Mexico’s decision dispirited human rights advocates, but the writing was on the wall. After all, Mexico’s new leftist president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), had invited Maduro to his December 1 inauguration. AMLO and his foreign minister, Marcelo Ebrard, have proudly proclaimed a return to Mexico’s traditional non-interventionist foreign policy. Mexico, the new president said, would be a “friend to all governments.”
The principle of non-intervention, a senior Mexican diplomat told Grupo de Lima members, is a constitutional requirement.
Mexico’s last two presidents might disagree. For twelve years, they moved Mexico away from its reflexive anti-Americanism and its allergy to regional leadership.
Either way, now that Mexico’s new approach has taken shape, is it truly a major blow to the regional response to Venezuela? After all, Latin America’s other major players are hardly backing down. Argentina’s Mauricio Macri, who has led efforts to prosecute Maduro at the International Criminal Court, mocked Maduro’s complaints about diplomatic bullying. “Maduro portrays himself as a persecuted president,” Macri wrote on Twitter, “but he is not the victim, he’s the abuser.”
Most importantly, the Grupo de Lima will survive Mexico’s cold feet. Under pressure from the Trump administration, at least some of its members will likely carry out threats to impose travel bans on senior Venezuelan officials, and to freeze their assets.
Still, Mexico’s role in building a coalition to pressure Venezuela will be missed more than is widely recognized. This is particularly true at the Organization of American States (OAS)—the epicenter of the regional response to the Venezuela crisis.
In recent years, Mexico’s mission to the OAS played a leading behind-the-scenes role in catalyzing action on Venezuela. While the OAS Secretary General, Luis Almagro, is the public face of the organization’s Venezuela policy, Mexico’s delegation frequently convened likeminded governments at its mission on Massachusetts Avenue, where it whipped votes; negotiated OAS statements on Venezuela; and mediated disagreements among members. It was also Mexico that regularly requested OAS Permanent Council meetings on Venezuela, and helped advance OAS resolutions to draw attention to the democratic collapse and humanitarian nightmare in the once-prosperous country.
Last June, when Mexico hosted the OAS General Assembly in Cancún, its government supported including the Venezuela crisis as the central agenda item.
Mexico’s leadership undermined Maduro’s assertions that the international pressure campaign was Made in America. It also made it easier for countries uncomfortable with U.S. hemispheric influence, and the collective defense of democracy, to get on board. Given the massive displacement of Venezuelans—three million and counting—Mexico’s deep interest in migration issues made it a natural driver of the regional response.
Mexico’s vote was also critical. Despite its economic collapse, Venezuela has retained a grip over many Caribbean island countries that benefited from Petrocaribe, Caracas’s subsidized oil program. Their voting bloc—allied with Maduro’s ideological compatriots in places like Nicaragua and Bolivia—has made every vote on Venezuela a nail biter. (The Caribbean Community, CARICOM, controls 14 of the OAS’s 34 votes.)
Last June, for example, a resolution threatening to suspend Venezuela from the OAS attracted 19 “Yes” votes, just one above the required simple majority. That number would have increased to 20 on January 10, when the OAS narrowly approved a resolution refusing to recognize Maduro’s reelection. Instead, Mexico abstained. (By contrast, Haiti switched its allegiance for the first time, after years of pressure from the United States.)
Given the assertiveness of the Grupo de Lima and the weaknesses of the OAS—including its failure to take up Vice President Mike Pence’s call to suspend Venezuela, despite its glaring violations of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, and Venezuela’s refusal to abide by the recommendations and rulings of the Inter-American Human Rights System—it is easy to dismiss the OAS’s importance to the regional response to Venezuela.
That would be a mistake.
After all, the only alternative forum, the Grupo de Lima, has few institutional capabilities; it lacks both a budget and a secretariat. It is the OAS that is uniquely capable of coordinating the growing Venezuelan diaspora; marshalling resources to support Venezuelan migrants and facilitating international burden sharing; drafting model legislation for sanctions on Maduro’s regime; gathering testimony and evidence for Maduro’s potential prosecution for human rights abuses; and supporting an eventual democratic transition through electoral support and monitoring.
Following Maduro’s sham re-election in May, the OAS appeared poised to step up its activities to address the most severe crisis in modern Latin American history. Instead, thanks to Mexico’s policy reversal, the regional effort risks losing momentum even as Venezuela continues its dangerous collapse.
Benjamin N. Gedan is a senior adviser to the Latin American Program at the Wilson Center and the director of its Argentina Project. He also serves as an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University. He is a former South America director on the National Security Council at the White House.