I was twelve years old when my family decided unexpectedly to leave Venezuela. They didn’t wait to empty their bank accounts or gather any of my school books and notebooks. We left with no proof that my older sister and I had spent two years studying in the city of Puerto la Cruz, in the state of Anzoátegui. My mother and father were raised, met and married, and started a family in communist Romania. What they saw in Venezuela the day we left were the all-too-familiar indications that the presidency of Hugo Chávez was heading toward a sort of authoritarianism that they thought to have escaped in 1989. It was October 2, 2002. We drove to the airport in Barcelona, Anzoátegui and boarded a plane out of the country. My father left the keys to the recently bought car in the glove compartment. At the time, I didn’t think it strange that he left the car on which we gone on so many road trips around Venezuela. My father was an engineer. We were accustomed to moving to a new country every time he acquired a new contract.
As I grew older, and slowly started to understand what was happening in Venezuela, I realized that my family’s decision to leave the country was not a simple outcome of my father’s line of work. The television broadcast constant news of protests, an economic downturn, and the mass exodus of refugees from the country my family once considered a second home. The situation in Venezuela deteriorated further as the years passed. With it, hope that anything might change for the better waned. Yet, despite the years of struggle and unsuccessful attempts at regime change, the recent protests feel optimistically different.
The current situation in Venezuela began almost two months ago, when Nicolás Maduro, successor of Hugo Chávez, was sworn in for his second 6-year term in office. This followed a 2018 election boycotted by the major opposition parties, and marred by many irregularities. Maduro’s critics were prevented from running, some of them through imprisonment or threats to their safety. As a result, the National Assembly, which had been controlled by the opposition since 2015, declared the presidency vacant, refusing to accept what they claimed was a rigged election result. Based on a constitutional provision which allows the leader of the National Assembly to assume the role of President in case the office becomes vacant, opposition leader Juán Guaido declared himself acting President on January 23, 2019.
International reaction to this move was swift, with many countries recognizing Guaido as the new President. One country that did not, however, was Mexico, citing instead a decades old foreign policy doctrine which has its roots in the concepts of neutrality and non-interventionism. Formally known as the Estrada Doctrine, this policy abstains from taking any position on the legitimacy of a new government in another country, claiming that taking any position would amount to a violation of the sovereignty of that other country. In the current case of Venezuela, where the effects of a contested election and a constitutional crisis are playing out, not taking an official position has a value in itself. By claiming that it is willing to implicitly accept the status-quo, the Mexican government is legitimizing Maduro’s administration, and the appalling social conditions that the Venezuelan people are currently facing.
Beyond what could be argued to be a moral obligation to help improve the situation on the ground in Venezuela, Mexico’s decision to bring back the Estrada Doctrine also points to a missed opportunity for claiming a larger role in regional politics. Since the financial crisis of 2008, a debate has been taking place in Latin America regarding who is the region’s leader. Mexico already wields a lot of influence through its extensive trade network, its position as economic leader–second only to Brazil–and its close relationship to the United States. It has lacked a clear initiative to propel it into a leadership role.
This is why Mexico finds itself in an ideal political position. Not only does it hold relatively vast reserves of soft power, but it also has the advantage of being the first line of defense against what is widely perceived as a hostile U.S. administration. This could allow Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, to settle the debate over who the region’s leader is. Having won an election based on a left-wing platform, the current situation in Venezuela gave Obrador the chance to distance himself from the kind of broken socialist rule that has taken the South American country’s economy to the brink of collapse, thus defining Mexico’s place as a regional leader. Obrador instead missed an opportunity to make it clear that the sovereignty of Venezuela rests with the people, not its government, and that Mexico recognizes the will of the people to hold new, fair, and uncontested elections–free from the authoritarian shadow of Nicolás Maduro.
The humanitarian situation in Venezuela should be enough to convince any government that it should take a stand against Maduro’s rule. With inflation topping 80,000% in 2018, foreign aid being blocked from entering the country, and medicine and food in short supply, the incentives for non-neutrality are already present. If these are still not convincing, as it seemed to have happened in the case of Mexico, at least the rational arguments for expanding its regional influence should have prevailed. Mexico’s administration missed the mark on both fronts. Not only has it failed to stand up for the people of Venezuela through its foreign policy, but it has also prevented the country from emerging as Latin America’s most prominent leader.