WHEN Cubans launched the largest demonstration in years against their government last month, the usual suspects in Washington were delighted.
But the White House may not have expected their southern neighbours to be such enthusiastic supporters of the Cuban state.
President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador rebuffed the Biden administration by defying the decades-long embargo to send aid to Cuba.
Labelling the economic blockade “inhumane”, Obrador said his “independent” nation had the right to ship over much-needed fuel.
While it may have come as a shock to the White House, experts were quick to point out that Obrador – considered many as a centre-left politician – has always cultivated good relations with nations antagonistic to Washington in South America.
Dr Tony Payan of Rice University, told Redaction Report: “The López Obrador administration has always exhibited some degree of affection for authoritarian regimes in Latin America: Bolivia, Venezuela, Cuba.
“It has come accompanied by a native anti-Americanism, which during the Trump administration he hid very well, but since Biden took office he has become increasingly bolder in his dislike for the United States.
“That is despite the fact that he knows that the U.S. weighs heavily on Mexico’s affairs and he is not likely to be able to get rid of the centrality of that relationship. Cuba is giving him an opportunity today to show defiance toward Washington and to poke at Biden’s eye.
“We do not know how Washington will respond, but Mexico is definitely turning its eye to those regimes.”
There is also the possibility that Obrador sent over “military and policy” aid as well as humanitarian help, Dr Payan added.
“That, however, would be a clear confrontation with the U.S., with whom he is running an increasingly irritating tab,” he said.
“So, I think it is a combination of both: His penchant for these authoritarian regimes in Latin America and his anti-Americanism that is moving him closer and closer to helping propping up the Cuban regime.”
His affection towards Havana may not play well at home, however.
His personal approval rating has remained high since his election in 2018 and his governing party even gained seats in June’s mid-term congressional elections – but his affinity towards Cuba could wreak political havoc, especially if it means sacrificing political capital with Washington.
Dr Payan said: “A large portion of the Mexican population understands that the U.S. is much more important to Mexico’s security and prosperity than Cuba will ever be.
“Most Mexicans have relatives in the U.S.; many Mexican families receive remittances from the U.S.; and most Mexicans would move to the U.S. than any other country.
“So, getting closer to the Cuban regime has very little political pay for Mr. López Obrador beyond his more radical base, which does include some self-proclaimed Marxists and radical leftists of all sorts.
“There is, of course, lots of opposition to this actions. Most Mexicans have not yet become aware of the full extent to which he is going to prop up the Cuban regime, but I suspect that with the Mexican economy and healthcare systems as bad as they are, when people become more aware that he is sending food and medicines to Cuba, there will be a push back in public opinion.
“Given the low rewards in getting close to Cuba further reinforces my idea that he is simply an autocrat and coming out of the closet as anti-American.
“Ideology moves him, even if it is stale ideology, going back to his activist years in the 1970s.”
But while the State Department will certainly be taken aback with Obrador’s actions and relatively inflammatory statements, Mexico-US relations should remain stable – at least until the Biden administration has less on their hands.
“I suspect that the Biden administration is consumed by what is going on in Washington, the economic recovery, and the resurgence in the pandemic and has not yet paid serious attention to Mexico,” Dr Payan said.
“This is a mistake. No other country has more influence on the quality of lives of more millions of Americans–for good and will–than Mexico.
“They really need to turn their attention to a political/diplomatic strategy to rein in Mr. López Obrador or he will do much damage not only to Mexico but also to the binational relationship.”
There are some who suggest that the recent wave of left-wing victories in Latin America – Chile and Ecuador, for example – may have emboldened Obrador to ‘bet’ on leftist nations to remain stalwart allies.
But he may be in trouble if anything like the conservative counter-wave of the 2010s occur.
“Latin American goes back and forth, and if Mr. López Obrador is betting on Latin America to help him get out of trouble, he would be mistaken,” Dr Payan told Redaction Report.
“There is not much there for Mexico. I suspect, however, that his messianic concept of himself is forcing him to think that he can somehow lead in Latin America.
“No one can lead in Latin America. It is a complex continent, still engaged in a dynamic of exacerbated nationalisms.
“No one is going to pay attention to anyone there. No one can lead Latin America. At the end of the day, each country is on its own.
“Affinities of the left or the right have never led anywhere. They never pan out into anything interesting. They always die out.”
Dr Tony Payan is the Director of the Center for the U.S. and Mexico at Rice University’s Baker Institute.
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