Mexico’s position of neutrality over the Russia-Ukraine war provokes backlash from Washington.
The U.S. Ambassador to Mexico caused a stir at the tail end of last week when he told Mexican lawmakers that Mexico cannot ever be close to Russia. That is quite literally what Ambassador Ken Salazar’s said in his address to select members of Mexico’s lower house of Congress on Thursday (translated by yours truly):
“I have here (he said while indicating lapels on his jacket breast) the flags of Mexico, the United States and Ukraine. We have to be in solidarity with Ukraine and against Russia.
The Russian ambassador was here yesterday making a lot of noise about how Mexico and Russia are so close. This, sorry, can never happen. It can never happen…
I remember very well that during the Second World War there was no distance between Mexico and the United States, both were united against what Hitler was doing…
When a family is attacked, the family comes together…Between Mexico and the United States there can be no difference, we have to be the same.”
Mexico’s Long History of Neutrality
Salazar’s comments are controversial for a whole slew of reasons. First, Mexico is a sovereign nation and as such should be able to choose which countries it wants to forge close ties with, even if they are the target of U.S. sanctions.
Second, the hypocrisy stinks. U.S. and its European allies have consistently argued that Russia has absolutely no right to try to determine what happens within the borders of its sovereign neighbor Ukraine, even as tons of weapons poured into the country from NATO Member States such as Poland and the Czech Republic. Yet the US Government, through its ambassador to Mexico, is now trying to literally dictate the terms of Mexico’s relationship with Russia.
What the U.S. essentially seems to be saying is that neutrality is not an option in the escalating conflict between Russia and the West — at least not for Mexico.
Which brings us to the third point: Mexico has a long, albeit interrupted, history of neutrality dating all the way back to the early 1930s. In 1939, a neutrality clause was even added to its constitution by the government of then-President Lazaro Cardenas, which also nationalized Mexico’s oil and gas a year earlier. Since then Mexico has enjoyed close relations with many countries that have been targeted by international sanctions, including Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. Mexico’s long-held position of neutrality has also made it a haven for people seeking political asylum, including republicans fleeing Spain at the end of the Spanish Civil War and the emigres of the Southern Cone dictatorships of the 1960s and ’70s.
Lastly, even Salazar’s elicitation of Mexico’s unwavering alliance with the U.S. against Hitler in the Second World War is not entirely fact-based. Mexico did not join the war until 1942 and that was only after a German submarine torpedoed the Mexican oil tanker “Potrero del Llano” in international waters, leading to the loss of 14 lives.
Salazar’s comments came a day after a handful of Mexican congressmen and women belonging to the ruling coalition parties Morena, PT and PRI created a pro-Russian group in the Congress. The guest of honor to the event was Russia’s ambassador to Mexico, Víktor Koronelli, who described the group ‘s formation as “a sign of support, of friendship, of solidarity in these complicated times in which my country is not just facing a special military operation in Ukraine, but a tremendous media war.”
It was a provocative move on the part of the lawmakers in question and it didn’t take long for the U.S. to respond. First, Salazar issued its warning that Mexico should never get close to Russia. Then, a few hours later, the chief of U.S. North Command Glen VanHerck testified to the U.S. Senate that Mexico is currently home to more Russian spies than any other country on planet Earth:
“I would like to point out that most of the GRU members in the world are in Mexico at the moment. That’s Russian intelligence personnel. And they keep a very close eye on their chances of influencing the opportunities and access that the United States has.”
As El País points out, the four-star general was answering questions from senators on the Committee on Armed Services. He also claimed that both China and Russia are “very aggressive and active” in the whole area of the Northern Command’s area of responsibility, including the Bahamas and Mexico. While it is highly likely that both Russian and Chinese intelligence services do have a large presence in Mexico, given its geostrategic position, it is hard not to see VanHerck’s comments as a barely veiled threat.
As readers are well aware, relations between the U.S. and Mexico have soured of late as AMLO has sought to rebalance Mexico’s economic model by, among other things, promoting domestic, non-GMO production of staple crops such as corn; prioritizing Mexico’s crude oil for the domestic market; bringing Mexico’s electricity market back under the control of the state-owned utility Comisión Federal de Electricidad (CFE) and nationalizing the country’s lithium deposits.
These policy measures do not necessarily dovetail with the commercial interests of Mexico’s largest trading partner, the U.S — hence the souring relations.
A Step Too Far
Most countries in Latin America, including Mexico, were prepared to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine at the emergency meeting of the United Nations General Assembly of March 2. But almost all of them, with the exception of Chile and Colombia, refuse to endorse the US-NATO-led push to isolate Russia from the global economy. Most importantly, they include the two heavyweight economies of Latin America, Brazil and Mexico, which together account for roughly 60% of the region’s GDP.
In response to the comments of Salazar, Koronelli and VanHerck Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, also known by his initials AMLO, underscored Mexico’s position of neutrality on the conflict:
“We need to send them telegrams informing them that Mexico is not a colony of any foreign country; Mexico is a free, independent, sovereign country. We are not a colony of Russia, China or the United States…
We are not going to Moscow to spy on anyone, nor are we going to Beijing to spy on what they are doing in China, nor are we going to Washington, not even to Los Angeles. We don’t do that sort of thing…We are not going to participate either for or against [this war], it is a position of neutrality of ours, which has to do with Mexico’s foreign policy.”
AMLO also acknowledged that he does not know if there are Russian spies on Mexican soil or if so how many. In December 2020, the Mexican Senate approved, at the president’s behest, a reform to the National Security Law aimed at limiting the presence of foreign agents in Mexico. The measure forces all foreign agents to request authorization to enter Mexico and report to the authorities. Although the reform was aimed specifically at US DEA and CIA agents, the Mexican government says it applies to all countries.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, AMLO has insisted on following a policy of non-intervention in the conflict, but that is not easy when your number one trading partner is United States of America, which accounts for over 80% of all global purchases of Mexico’s exports and is arguably the main instigator of conflict in Ukraine, through its insistence that Ukraine should become a member of NATO.
The U.S. appears to be determined to apply a “with us or against us” approach to Russian sanctions. But for the moment it is not working. Many of the world’s largest nations – including China, India, Brazil, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Mexico — have refused to join in.
Mexico has sent humanitarian aid to Ukraine, but has made it clear that it will not impose sanctions of any kind on Russia, with whom it has limited trade anyway. On February 24, just two days after the invasion began, Mexico’s Foreign Secretary Manuel Marcelo Luis Ebrard justified Mexico’s rejection of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by citing Mexico’s experience of losing roughly half of its territory to a neighboring state:
“Due to our history and tradition, the way we formed as a nation, we must forcefully reject and condemn the invasion of a country like Ukraine by a great power like Russia.”
But both AMLO and Ebrard have stopped short of supporting the no-holes barred economic war the U.S. and its European allies have unleashed against Russia. The countries that have so far agreed to endorse U.S.-EU-led sanctions include the UK, Canada, South Korea, Switzerland, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, Singapore, Chile and Colombia. Beyond this coalition, few nations have taken part in the economic war against the Putin government. Even close U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia, Israel and NATO Member Turkey have refused to join the melee.
One obvious reason for this is that the governments of many countries in the so-called “Global South” are shocked by the precedent the U.S., EU and friends have set by attempting to banish Russia, one of the world’s largest commodity producers and exporters, from the global financial system. They know that if the sanctions are successful in toppling the Putin government, which for them moment seems pretty unlikely, they could be next.
Another reason is that many governments simply do not feel they have skin in the game. This is a commonly held stance of Latin American governments in times of international war. As El País notes, Latin American countries have tended to adopt a position of neutrality in large international conflicts, limiting themselves to participating in peace missions under the UN flag.
It´s a position that was perfectly summed up by AMLO in the first days of the Russia-Ukraine war:
“We do not consider that [this war] concerns us. We are not going to take any sort of economic reprisal because we want to have good relations with all governments.”
According to Washington, however, this position is no longer tenable with regard to Russia.