In My Opinion

Andres Oppenheimer: Surprise! Mexico backs human rights cause!

What a pleasant surprise! Mexico, whose government routinely supports human rights violators throughout the region, played a key role in thwarting an effort by a group of countries to weaken the region’s most important human rights commission.

Mexico — alongside Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Panama, Canada and the United States — succeeded in defeating a proposal by Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua to strip the 34-country Organization of American States’ human rights commission of most of its funding, and to significantly reduce its powers.

The semi-independent body, known as the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, has long been a thorn on the side of governments that violate human rights and suppress freedom of the press.

It’s by far the best — if not the only — thing the OAS has to show. Over the past decades, the commission and its Office of the Special Raporteur of Freedom of Expression have singled out abuses from governments across the political spectrum. They have criticized both the United States for its prison camp in Guantánamo, and Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia for their constant attacks on press freedoms.

Venezuela and its allies, whose presidents already control all government branches and want to clamp down on the last vestige of criticism in their countries — the media — had mounted a diplomatic offensive over the past two years to effectively silence the two OAS agencies.

Fortunately, the Venezuelan-led group — in this case, with Ecuador acting as its spokesman — failed in its effort.

The group was left totally isolated at the end of a 12-hour special session of OAS foreign ministers that ended at midnight Friday in Washington, D.C.

“It was a resounding victory for the commission, and a major defeat for the Venezuela-Ecuador bloc,” said Jose Miguel Vivanco, head of the Americas section of the Human Rights Watch advocacy organization. “It became evident that they were left totally isolated, without the support they were expecting from other countries.”

Vivanco added that only at the last minute, when Ecuador and Bolivia threatened to withdraw from the commission, the bloc was given a face-saving way out. Argentina helped the group introduce a vague line in the final document that keeps the issue alive by authorizing future OAS meetings to take it up, he said.

To my surprise, Mexico’s 3-month-old government of President Enrique Peña Nieto — of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which ruled Mexico for much of the 20th century and has traditionally been a key supporter of Cuba — sided with the defenders of human rights and freedom of the press.

At the OAS meeting, Mexico’s Foreign Minister Jose Antonio Meade gave his unconditional support to the commission and the raporteur’s office.

Because of its size and diplomatic weight, Mexico’s position was key to help counterbalance Brazil’s efforts to reach a consensus that would accommodate the Venezuelan-bloc’s demands.

After Meade’s speech, I called former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda, who supported human rights causes during his 2000-2003 stint, and asked him whether Peña Nieto is changing the PRI’s traditional foreign policy for the better.

“Not at all,” Castañeda told me. “This OAS vote was an exception to the rule, in part because Mexico’s ambassador to the OAS is very good, and because both the commission’s president and its technical secretary are Mexicans.”

According to Castañeda, Peña Nieto has pretty much returned to the PRI’s tradition of embracing dictators.

Castañeda noted that when Cuba’s dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez visited Mexico recently, she was not received by any government official. When Peña Nieto visited Venezuela for late President Hugo Chávez’s funeral, he did not meet with any opposition politician. And when Latin American countries elected Cuba’s military dictator Gen. Raúl Castro as president of the region’s CELAC group of countries, Peña Nieto enthusiastically supported the move, he added.

My opinion: It’s true that Mexico’s new PRI government may not have abandoned its historic support for anti-U.S. authoritarian governments.

That may be ingrained in Mexico’s ruling party’s DNA, as I corroborated when I asked Peña Nieto in an interview shortly after his election about his foreign policy priorities, and his first reaction was to mention almost everything except the promotion of democracy and human rights in the region.

But let’s give Mexico credit for having done the right thing this time. In part thanks to Mexico, Venezuela and Ecuador’s demagogic leaders were left isolated and defeated — at least for now — in their efforts to silence all critical voices in their own countries, and the most important institutions that defend human rights and press freedom in the region.

Read more Andres Oppenheimer stories from the Miami Herald

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