Mexico’s Chamber of Deputies “hosted” a video conference with Zelensky last week, becoming only the second legislative chamber in Latin American to do so since the war began. But the event turned out to be a lot less than met the eye.
Over the past couple of years, Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (aka AMLO) has tried to steer a more independent course for his country, both in the realms of economic and foreign policy, and has been facing ever increasing pressure and interference from Washington as a result. Mexico already had 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.
In May last year, AMLO reiterated that position in relation to the Russia-Ukraine/NATO conflict:
The policy stays the same, we do not want to get directly involved in sanctioning any country. We want to have a position of neutrality, we have been expressing that in the United Nations so that dialogue can be sought in this way. If we lean in favor of one position or another, we lose authority and therefore cannot, if requested, participate in the possibility of reaching an agreement, of conciliation.”
A Significant Turnaround (Or Perhaps Not?)
But on Wednesday last week, reports began emerging in Mexican and international media that Mexico’s Chamber of Deputies had invited Zelensky to speak to the Mexican nation in a video conference, becoming just the second legislative chamber in Latin American to do so since the war began. On the surface, it represented a significant turnaround. After all, the AMLO government has steadfastly refused to endorse sanctions against Russia while AMLO himself has repeatedly criticised NATO’s relentless arming of Ukraine as well as Zelensky’s own role in the conflict.
But the event turned out to be a lot less than met the eye. In reality, just a small group of opposition lawmakers called the Mexico-Ukraine Friendship Group* had invited the Ukrainian president to speak. The event was not held in the Chamber of Deputies but a much smaller side chamber where roughly 100 of the Chamber’s 500 deputies, all from the opposition PAN, PRI and Citizens’ Movement parties, were gathered. That didn’t stop the Chamber’s President Santiago Creel, who presided over the conference, from condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine and expressing Mexico’s solidarity with Ukraine.
This takes some chutzpah given that: a) it is the executive, not the legislative, branch — and more specifically, the Foreign Ministry — that sets foreign policy in Mexico; and b) only around one-fifth of all the Chamber’s deputies were actually present at the event, and those who were absent included all members of the governing MORENA party.
In fact, shortly after the event the Political Coordination Board of the Chamber of Deputies, headed by MORENA member Ignacio Mier, released a statement clarifying that the meeting of the Mexico-Ukraine Friendship Group “does not represent the consensual position” of the Chamber of Deputies. The speeches at the event, it said, were given in a purely personal capacity. In other words, this was not in any way a bilateral meeting between States and Creel was in no position to speak for the Mexican people.
Zelensky Escalates His Charm Offensive
As readers know, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (and his US-EU backers) have been trying to build support for Ukraine’s cause across Latin America and the Caribbean ever since the early days of Russia’s special military operation, albeit with limited success. While most of the governments in the region did condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, few were willing to support Western sanctions against Russia, as I reported in my March 11 2022 piece, Latin America, As a Whole, Refuses to Embrace Total Economic War Against Russia:
Only four out of 33 Latin American and Caribbean countries — Cuba, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Bolivia — abstained in the vote to condemn Russia’s invasion during the emergency meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. The real number would have almost certainly been five if Venezuela’s diplomats hadn’t been barred from attending the vote after Maduro’s cash-strapped government had fallen behind on its subscription fees.
On the other side of the divide, a small number of governments in the region have publicly endorsed the West’s… economic sanctions against Russia. They include Ecuador, Colombia, Chile and Guatemala. The rest of the countries occupy the vast middle ground between the two polar extremes. Despite condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, they have expressed opposition to 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. To put that in perspective, the two largest economies of the European Union, Germany and France, account for just under 40% of the total GDP of the European Union.
In early October, Zelensky issued another call for Latin America to support Ukraine in its war efforts, this time in a speech to the UN General Assembly. The following day, AMLO responded by blasting sanctions as “irrational” policy instruments that only serve to exacerbate “the suffering of the people.” Like Argentina, and Brazil, Mexico refused to sign a statement of the Organization of American States summit that condemned Russia alone for the war in Ukraine.
In late February, Zelensky announced plans to escalate his diplomatic offensive in Africa and Latin America, just days after Western governments had spectacularly failed, at the Munich Security Conference, to persuade governments from the two continents that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine represented an existential threat not only in Europe but across the globe.
A Bumpy Relationship
To what extent Zelensky himself, who’s more accustomed to speaking to packed parliaments of fawning lawmakers in Europe (with Austria being an obvious outlier), North America and Australia, was aware that he was addressing merely a small fraction of Mexico’s lawmakers in a smallish antechamber is far from clear. If he was, he didn’t seem to mind. He began his speech with the words:
“Ladies and Gentlemen! People of Mexico! Aren’t we united by the dream of safety and peace on all the streets of all the cities of our countries? Don’t we equally condemn those who shoot civilians and burn houses?”
At no point in his speech did Zelensky even mention AMLO’s name, though he did deliver a not-too-subtle dig by criticising certain “populist national leaders” who had chosen not to visit Ukraine to witness first hand the devastation Russia has inflicted upon the country.
Ironically, on the same day of Zelensky’s speech AMLO was receiving John and Gabriel Shipton, the father and brother of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, at Mexico’s National Palace. On his Twitter feed Mexico’s president said he would continue defending Assange, whose case he described as an unacceptable assault on the freedom of expression. As I reported in my December 10 post, Latin American Leaders Call For Pardon and Release of Julian Assange from His “Unjust Imprisonment”, AMLO has been one of Assange’s fiercest defenders.
Despite never having met in person, Zelensky and AMLO have had a bumpy relationship over the past 14 months. In his independence speech on September 15th last year, AMLO denounced the war in Ukraine, Western sanctions on Russia and the massive shipment of weapons to Ukraine which “only served to exacerbate the conflict, create more suffering among victims, their families and refugees, worsen the shortage of food and energy and drive inflation globally—issues that harm the vast majority of people in the world.”
He also presented a plan for a five-year truce between Russia and Ukraine, which Zelensky’s spokesman panned as being “made in Russia”. Now Zelensky is calling on Mexico and other Latin American countries to endorse his own 10-point plan for peace, whose terms include a non-negotiable demand to restore Ukraine’s full territorial integrity and the establishment of a special tribunal to prosecute war crimes, both of which are entirely unacceptable to Moscow.
In October of last year, AMLO also condemned the European Parliament’s nomination of Zelensky for last year’s Nobel Peace Prize, saying: “[H]ow can one of the actors in the war receive a Nobel Peace Prize?” He again reiterated Mexico’s commitment to neutrality and peace:
Do not drag us in. We are not warmongers. We have ties with peoples from all over the world. Our policy is against war and for peace. Our policy is neutrality. No, we are not on the side of any hegemonic power in the world… In this case, we have acted and will continue to act in a neutral manner.
AMLO’s comments drew a sharp rebuke from US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, who warned that “there is no neutrality when we are speaking about annexations. What’s important is to ask oneself if the U.N.’s values are reflected in Mexico’s position.”
As an article in WSWS noted at the time, “these comments give only a glimpse of much more severe threats and bullying behind the scenes.” After all, as the article notes, it must be both a source of embarrassment as well as a blow for the war propaganda of the United States and NATO, which asserts that all would be well with the world if only Putin had not invaded Ukraine, that the government of America’s neighbor and main trade partner openly blames the United States for escalating the war in Ukraine for its “own hegemonic interests”.
Walking a Tightrope
Since then, AMLO has had to walk a tightrope to preserve Mexico’s position of neutrality on the Ukraine conflict. In October, Mexico voted in support of a UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russia’s annexation of four new territories in eastern Ukraine. AMLO also declared that he had no problem with Ukraine’s president speaking to the Mexican Congress. What he didn’t say is that Zelensky would be addressing a smallish group of opposition lawmakers in a side chamber called the “Green Room”.
In his speech Zelensky called on Latin American nations to support Ukraine, including through sanctions against Russia:
Ukraine has already proposed to the Latin American community to convene a special summit and speak unitedly in defense of the globally important principles of territorial integrity, peace and respect between peoples, and the sovereignty of nations. I believe [that] with the help of Mexico, it can happen much faster.
Something tells me that said help is unlikely to be forthcoming, at least from the current AMLO government. As already mentioned, not a single member of the governing MORENA party attended his speech. It also remains to be seen whether Zelensky will be able to scrape together enough attendees for his “special” summit. And that will presumably mean having to invite the actual lawmakers in government rather than in opposition. And why would they get behind a peace process that has absolutely zero chances of succeeding?
Even Chile, one of the few countries in the region to actually support sanctions on Russia, however halfheartedly, has refused to send weapons Ukraine’s way. Chile was the first Latin America country to host Zelensky, first at an event organized by the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile on Aug 17 last year, and more recently (April 7) at the Chilean parliament where he thanked lawmakers for the support provided by Chile in different international arenas as well as the solidarity offered by President Gabriel Boric.
Most other governments in Latin America continue to refuse to support US-EU sanctions on Russia, for a whole slew of reasons. First and foremost, many of them are heavily dependent on Russian imports of fertilisers and other vital commodities. Another reason is that most governments in the region are understandably put off by the precedent the U.S., EU and friends tried to set by attempting to banish Russia, one of the world’s largest commodity producers and exporters, from the global financial system, just as they have with Venezuela and Cuba. If the sanctions had been successful, they know they could be next.
Also, there is a general feeling among people in the region, as in Africa, that this war is just another European conflict that has little, if anything, to do with them. At the same time, both the U.S. and to a somewhat lesser extent the EU have lost significant influence in the region over the past two decades. With the BRICS emerging as a geopolitical counterweight to the collective West and China as South America’s (and soon quite possibly Latin America’s) largest trading partner, governments are more willing to say no to Washington.
A recent case in point: no country in the region has acceded to US and EU requests to provide Ukraine with Russian-produced weapons. Just four days ago Colombia’s president, on a visit to Washington, reiterated that his government would not supply weapons to Kiev. In January he told US and EU policymakers that the Russian-made weapons in Colombia “will remain as scrap metal; we will not hand them over so that they can be taken to Ukraine to prolong a war.”
In the meantime, Russia is looking to expand its trade with Latin America. Just days after Sergei Lavrov’s whistle-stop tour of the region, which included visits to Brazil, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba, Tatiana Mashkova, the general director of the National Committee for Economic Cooperation with Latin American countries, spoke to Cuba’s Prensa Latina about the potential room for growth in Russia’s trade with LatAm economies:
Trade between Russia and Latin American countries in 2022 decreased by 6 percent compared to 2021, reaching a value of $19.9 billion…
The reasons for this are evident: the long distances, insufficient information on the exportable supply and the import potential of the parties involved, the significant presence of the United States and China in the Latin American markets, and traditionally scant interest among Russian businessmen in this distant and little understood continent.
Now the situation has changed. On the one hand, the majority of Latin American countries did not support sanctions against Russia and have a high interest in importing fertilizers, chemical products, oil and its derivatives, and metals from Russia.
On the other hand, Latin American economies export to our country their agricultural products such as wine, fruit, fish, meat, among others.
Likewise, Russian and Latin American businessmen are working on improving trade routes, since international companies tend to deny services to ships bound for Russia.
It is probably no coincidence that during Lavrov’s tour of Latin America, the Commander of US Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM), General Laura Richardson, was having separate sit downs with the ministers of defense of Argentina and Chile, two of the three countries that make up the so-called Lithium Triangle, home to roughly 60% of the world’s known lithium reserves. The race for resources is heating up. As Richardson has candidly admitted in the past, the US considers the region’s strategic resources such as lithium as a matter of national security, for which the country must “step up [its] game” against rival powers (read: China and Russia).
* As readers may recall, the Mexican Chamber of Deputies also has a Mexico-Russia Friendship Group. In March last year, just weeks after the breakout of war in Ukraine, it invited the Russian Ambassador to Mexico as special guest to one of its events. The US Ambassador to Mexico Ken Salazar responded to the incident by calling an emergency meeting with senior Mexican lawmakers and telling them that Mexico can never be close to Russia.