Photo Credit: MARCO UGARTE / AP
Four days after the U.S. presidential election, Latin American presidents began congratulating Joe Biden for his victory over Donald Trump. By the next day, all but Brazil and Mexico had done so. Before long, they shared that distinction only with Russia. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) used the lofty rhetoric of non-intervention to explain his decision not to accept any results until all legal processes had ended, a vague endpoint that could take months. This has negative repercussions in the short term and perhaps even worse consequences in the longer term.
U.S. members of Congress speculated whether that decision would damage cooperation. Academics wondered whether AMLO would pay a political price with Biden. The Editorial Director of the Mexican newspaper Excélsior tweeted that it would make a difficult relationship even worse. The short-term impact is certainly problematic. AMLO’s own history of losing a close election in 2006, then refusing to accept it, helps explain his decision. So, perhaps, does his identification with Trump’s populist and authoritarian tendencies. This matter of why is still a matter of debate. But beyond these questions lies a larger, more serious concern.
AMLO’s stance raises an alarm about hemispheric support for democratic elections. Democracy in Latin America has eroded badly in recent years. Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela are all dictatorships. Presidents were ousted through questionable or outright illegal means in Brazil (2016), Bolivia (2019), and Peru (2020). Latin American militaries have taken on greater roles, accelerated by the global pandemic. Popular support for democracy is falling precipitously. Now the Mexican president is calling into question even clearly free and fair elections.
There is historical precedence for this in Mexico. In the wake of the stock market crash of 1929, Latin American democracy foundered. Mexico itself had four presidents between 1928 and 1932, one of whom (Álvaro Obregón) was assassinated before taking office. In the same period, Chile had 10 presidents and Brazil had a president-elect (Júlio Prestes) who, in 1930, was overthrown before he could even take office. The military across the region was a moderating power, stepping directly into politics to decide who would be president.
In 1930, Mexican Foreign Minister Genaro Estrada declared that he had sent instructions to all his diplomats “that the Mexican Government is issuing no declarations in the sense of grants of recognition, since that nation considers that such a course is an insulting practice and one which, in addition to the fact that it offends the sovereignty of other nations, implies that judgment of some sort may be passed upon the internal affairs of those nations by other governments.”
In so doing, high-minded logic became a convenient way to shield Mexico from foreign criticism of its own authoritarian political system, and to avoid the obligation of criticizing others. The 1930s was a dark time for Latin American democracy, where elites drew lessons from European fascism and militaries responded to political crises with force.
Mexican leaders invoked the Estrada Doctrine numerous times, but never aimed it at the United States. In 2000, George W. Bush declared himself president-elect, then appeared with outgoing President Ernesto Zedillo, before the Supreme Court decision that ended the election process. In 2016, President Enrique Peña Nieto tweeted congratulations to Donald Trump before the electoral authorities proclaimed the victory.
AMLO wields the doctrine even more widely than his predecessors, which undermines already weakened democracies, including Mexico’s, since he refuses to accept criticism of his own centralization of power. He invoked the doctrine in 2019 to avoid making any judgment on the legitimacy of the Nicolás Maduro government of Venezuela, and now in 2020 did the same with Donald Trump’s evidence-free claims of voter fraud.
The effect, amplified by Brazil’s similar stance and echoed by the right in the United States, is to render all elections potentially suspect. The Biden administration therefore immediately hits a regional headwind as it tries to find multilateral means of protecting democracy. Regional unity in supporting democracy, historically shaky, is already fractured. Authoritarian-minded political leaders increasingly see possibilities for seizing power.
The Estrada Doctrine did not have much influence over the years outside Mexico, but that might be changing. The risk we run now is the growth of a transnational notion that no election, no matter how clean, can necessarily be trusted. When he becomes president, Joe Biden will have to join with regional partners to counter that anti-democratic trend. One important lesson of the 1930s is that democracies can fall remarkably quickly when political elites stop valuing elections.