Mexico, in geopolitical terms, faces fundamentally different realities than South American countries despite also being a former Spanish colony. Since gaining independence, Mexico has adopted a strategy of seeking closer ties with South America for primarily defensive motives. This regularly results in limited support from South American countries and Mexico refraining from responding to or interfering with domestic affairs in South America.
- Mexico behaves as a North American nation and faces a different set of geopolitical realities compared to South American countries.
- Pacific coast countries in South America – particularly Colombia, Peru and Chile – hold more strategic value for Mexico than Atlantic coast South American countries.
- Mexico does not currently face any external existential threats but remains vulnerable to economic threats.
Latin America is an academic and cultural term used to categorize countries in the Western Hemisphere that were previously under Spanish or Portuguese colonial rule. For this reason, it is not uncommon for a discussion of Mexico’s foreign relations to be lumped into Latin American affairs. However, the notion of Latin America is not a geopolitical distinction. Rather, geopolitics focuses on two separate regions: North America and South America. While Mexico shares linguistic, religious and cultural ties with other Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking nations in the Western Hemisphere, the country is part of a different geopolitical region – North America. A geopolitical analysis must examine Mexico’s relationship with South American countries instead of considering Mexico part of the same geopolitical bloc. Mexico’s relationship with South America has three defining characteristics: Mexico turns to South America when it feels threatened by an outside power, the support Mexico receives from South America is very limited, and Mexico reciprocates this more hands-off approach in its foreign policy toward South America.
To make sense of the dynamics of the Mexico-South America relationship, it is important to first understand the geography and the geopolitical distinctions that are involved. The Western Hemisphere has two geopolitical regions: North America and South America. This distinction is based on geographic criteria rather than cultural ties. This is not a new geopolitical concept and dates as far back as the first years of the independence movement in the Spanish colonies. William Burke, a writer for a Caracas newspaper, penned “Derechos de la América del Sur y México” (“Rights of South America and Mexico”) in 1811. In this piece, he suggested that there are two Americas, divided into north and south.
North America stretches from Canada to Panama, while South America is the giant landmass that starts in Colombia and ends in Tierra del Fuego. Dense terrain and seas separate North and South America. The Darién Gap, a nearly impenetrable, dangerous swamp and jungle that remains undeveloped to this day, overlaps both sides of the Colombia-Panama border, which is about 140 miles long. The Pacific Ocean, Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea insulate South America from other landmasses.
North American countries, including Mexico, face fundamentally different geopolitical realities compared to South American countries. South American countries enjoy strong, natural borders that significantly reduce the threat of invasion. The continent’s remote location in the Southern Hemisphere means its countries are naturally excluded from the majority of trade that passes through the Northern Hemisphere between Asian, North American and European markets. Most countries have direct access to just one ocean. Only Colombia has access to two and Paraguay and Bolivia are landlocked. Meanwhile, eight countries in North America, including Mexico, are bicoastal. This feature means they have easy access to maritime shipping routes to Asia via the Pacific and to Europe via the Atlantic. Mexico’s nearly 2,000-mile border with the United States (the current global hegemon) is easily penetrated and is a geographic feature that largely influences the country’s ability to act on its imperatives and constraints.
Mexico treats each country in South America as its own separate entity rather than as a regional bloc, given that relationships with some countries are more beneficial than others. In general, Mexico prioritizes relationships with South American countries that help support Mexico’s livelihood and are beneficial in circumventing or mitigating external threats.
Among South American countries, Chile, Peru and Colombia have provided Mexico’s most strategic and comparatively reliable relationships. A key common thread among these countries is that they have a coastline on the Pacific Ocean. Unlike countries located on the Atlantic, no physical obstacles exist between Mexico’s ports and Peruvian, Chilean and Colombian ports, making Mexico an attractive trading partner. The lack of obstacles means not only clear, direct maritime trade routes but also a significant reduction in foreign powers’ ability to influence or intervene in this area. Especially in the 19th century, the distance from the Atlantic also meant that Chile and Peru had weaker ties to European powers than Atlantic coast counterparts. Furthermore, the port cities of Valparaíso (and later San Antonio) in Chile and Callao in Peru were and continue to be among the largest ports by trade volume in all of South America. In addition, Peru’s and Chile’s major population centers are isolated from the rest of South America. For all of these reasons, these three countries actively engaged in developing and diversifying their trade ties with other nations, including Mexico.
Colombia has proved especially strategic to Mexico because of its borders with the Pacific, the Atlantic and Panama. Colombia’s Pacific coast, which includes the Port of Buenaventura, offers many of the same advantages outlined above for Chile and Peru. Furthermore, Colombia’s Atlantic coast creates space for potential bilateral cooperation to counter any foreign presence in the Caribbean. This is particularly important for Mexico given that the majority of its eastern coast, with the exception of the Yucatán Peninsula, is relatively cut off from easy, direct access to ocean waters. These overlapping interests were particularly crucial in the 19th century when foreign powers still used islands to exert power in the Caribbean. Mexico and Colombia are also positioned as the bookends of Central America. Bilateral cooperation between these countries opens opportunities to better control or to mitigate threats in Central America. Though the fundamentals of the Mexico-Colombia relationship remain, the relevance of controlling the Caribbean and, to a lesser extent, Central America has decreased due to the U.S. military assuming or supporting security operations in these regions.
Mexico’s relationship with Argentina started off as a secondary priority and has not reached the same strategic level as its relationship with South America’s Pacific coast countries. Though it is a strong economic center, Buenos Aires is far away and requires a more complex navigation route to reach than Pacific ports. Additionally, Argentina historically sought to maintain close ties with Europe and continues to do so to this day. As the various colonies gained their independence from Spain, Mexico insisted on recognizing them as sovereign nations while Argentina said it would accept a declared armistice with Spain. Argentina’s abundance of natural resources also made it more self-sufficient and therefore not as pressed as Pacific nations to strongly engage in trade.
For a variety of reasons, Mexico’s relationship with Brazil has been the most contentious and complicated of its South American relationships. From the early days of Mexico’s independence at the beginning of the 19th century, Mexico perceived Brazil as a threat to its interests. After Mexico and other South American countries achieved independence, Brazil remained governed by a monarchy with close ties to European powers. The new nations feared that Brazil could serve as a foothold in the Western Hemisphere for European powers to reinstall themselves. It was through this lens that Mexico viewed Brazil’s support of French attempts to introduce a monarchy in Mexico, which is best described as tacit since Brazil feared backlash from neighboring countries and refrained from actual participation. After essentially ignoring Brazil for a time, Mexico restored diplomatic relations, but they were not friendly. The tension between Brazil and Mexico has also resulted from trade competition. Initial areas for conflict included trade in products like coffee. Conflicts have since evolved into areas such as the automotive sector. It should be noted that Brazil is the only South American country whose resources and economic size can rival Mexico’s, and it is therefore the only country on the continent that can compete with Mexico for economic markets and influence in other South American countries.
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, center, reviews an honor guard with Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos at the Casa de Nariño presidential palace in Bogota, Colombia, on Oct. 27, 2016. GUILLERMO LEGARIA/AFP/Getty Images
Historically, Mexico’s relationship with South America has risen to the forefront of Mexican foreign relations at times when the country felt threatened by an outside power and sought ways to deflect that threat. Throughout its history, Mexico has faced multiple existential threats from outside powers, including Spain, France and the United States. Part of Mexico’s strategy to confront these threats involves trying to mobilize support from and unity with South American countries that are also potentially susceptible to threats from these same powers (though to a lesser degree). In practice, Mexico typically receives limited support from South American countries because they either have their own domestic problems or they cannot afford to risk putting themselves in harm’s way. For this reason, Mexico-South America cooperation and attempts at unity often remain at the diplomatic and rhetorical level.
Mexico achieved independence from Spain in 1821 but still felt – particularly in the immediate aftermath – that Spain’s interest in regaining lost territory threatened its independent status. Therefore, Mexico adopted a two-point strategy for solidifying its independence. First, its ruling government pursued close ties with Great Britain. This was the country of choice because it had emerged as Europe’s premier power and, for its own reasons, stood at odds with Spain. Being recognized by Britain provided Mexico and other newly independent countries in the Americas with a level of legitimacy. However, Britain found itself in the delicate position of needing to support Spanish colonial independence without completely alienating itself from the rest of Europe and without provoking Spain to take action. Additionally, Britain was in the middle of its own imperial construction endeavors. As a result, it was unable to offer much political capital to support Mexico.
For this reason, Mexico enacted the second component of its strategy to legitimize independence – reaching out to other new nation-states for mutual recognition. Mexico prioritized attaining recognition from (and granting recognition to) Lima, Bogota, Santiago and, eventually, Buenos Aires. The logic was that Spain would be forced to accept Mexico’s independence if it was recognized by both a European power (Britain) and all other former colonies. However, actions taken to fulfill this strategy were limited to establishing diplomatic relations between governments and signing basic agreements in areas such as trade and maritime transit.
About 40 years later, a European power threatened Mexico’s sovereignty when French-led military campaigns (backed by Britain and Spain) occupied Mexico from 1861-1867. At the time, Mexico and the South American nations had outstanding debts with France, Spain and Britain. Debt collection efforts and desire for market access in the Western Hemisphere escalated until France supplanted the Mexican government with a European monarch. Mexican newspapers at the time warned that European powers would not stop with Mexico and claimed that former colonies like Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Argentina would be next. When the Mexican government temporarily relocated to San Luis Potosí, it also invited South American countries including Peru, Venezuela, Ecuador and Chile to move their diplomatic missions to that city. These diplomatic missions declined the offer because they did not want to put a target on their own backs. Mexico’s new French-backed junta immediately called on South American nations to recognize it. These nations’ diplomats acknowledged that while they did not move to San Luis Potosí, their diplomatic orders had not been amended to recognize the new government. Once more, South American governments’ support for Mexico remained limited to diplomatic rhetoric and did not include acts of hard power, such as military support.
Lastly, Mexico has regularly faced threats of intervention or interference from the United States. During the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), the first military confrontation between these countries, Mexico and the United States found themselves on relatively equal footing in terms of geopolitical strength. Furthermore, their shared, permeable border made each a threat to the other. Mexico ultimately lost the war with the United States and, with it, a large swatch of borderland territory. In the lead-up to the Mexican-American War, the Mexican government made two strong attempts to get support and backing from South American nations. The first was during the mid-1830s when then-Foreign Minister Juan de Dios Cañedo embarked on an international tour to develop relations with Bogota, Lima and Santiago. However, internal disputes and funding problems in Mexico cut short Cañedo’s mission.
Another attempt was made in 1843 when Mexico, in conjunction with Peru, proposed the creation of an Assembly of American States that would have included Mexico, New Granada (later Colombia), Chile, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil but excluded the U.S. The idea was to form a group that would protect these countries’ national interests in the face of threatening outside powers. Ultimately, however, this assembly did not take shape as problems with the U.S. escalated. In both cases, Mexico wanted to strengthen ties with South American countries for immediate defensive purposes; the idea of unity was more of an afterthought. However, efforts to gain support failed to advance beyond the diplomatic sphere and South American countries’ support once again consisted only of rhetoric.
Nearly seven decades later, the United States again threatened the Mexican state with two military incursions in 1914 and 1916. These incursions coincided with Mexico’s revolution period (1910-1917), which was marked by domestic turmoil and a high degree of vulnerability to outside forces. In this case, Mexico’s attempts to garner support from South American nations eventually resulted in mediation efforts with Washington; these efforts were led by Argentina, Brazil and Chile. As a follow-up, Mexico’s national leader, Venustiano Carranza, prioritized improving relationships with South American nations by sending several delegations to strengthen ties. Then, in early 1917, Mexico – too weak to risk re-engagement with the United States – rebuffed Germany’s invitation to join its alliance in World War I. Carranza’s diplomatic campaign included calls for South American nations to remain neutral during World War I rather than risk inviting conflict from the other side of the Atlantic. In this unique case, South American support for Mexico advanced beyond mere rhetoric to mediation. However, on the spectrum of potential actions, this course was more conservative and limited. Additionally, this instance illustrates the first two characteristics of Mexico’s approach to relations with South America: The country turns to this region when it feels threatened by an outside power and South American countries respond with hesitancy, resulting in limited support.
Mexico’s deep-rooted fear of foreign intervention, limited support from South America and the prevalence of political conflict in its past have led to the third characteristic of the Mexico-South America relationship. In general, Mexico has a hands-off approach when it comes to relations with South America. Mexico’s famed Estrada Doctrine, the guiding principle for the country’s foreign policy throughout most of the 20th century, is rooted in these behaviors. Loosely explained, the Estrada Doctrine follows a “live and let live” approach to international relations. Genaro Estrada, Mexico’s foreign minister from 1930-32, introduced this idea of non-intervention, self-determination and non-bellicose resolution when Mexico was allowed to join the League of Nations. The approach reflects Mexico’s recurring fear of outside powers either intervening in its affairs or infringing on its sovereignty. This practice was best illustrated during the 1970s when coups became prevalent in South America. At no time did Mexico withdraw recognition of a South American government; instead, its reactions were limited to merely withdrawing diplomatic missions.
Mexico has a history of turning to South America when it feels threatened by an outside power. Such efforts have often been met with minimal support from South American nations in that their responses are primarily diplomatic and rhetorical. This is explained in part by the fact that both Mexico and South American countries have a deeply rooted fear of and aversion to foreign intervention. It is also explained by the fact that Mexico often approaches these calls for closer ties from its own defensive posture.
Mexico’s sovereignty and nation-state status do not currently face the same existential threats as in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The country now finds itself in a more powerful geopolitical position than it did at that time. Its greatest external threats are currently economic and have most recently been met with Mexico turning to South America for enhanced trade relationships. Its most successful relationships have been with other countries in the Pacific Alliance trade bloc. Even today Mexico continues to draw on the same approaches that it has historically used in its relationship with South American countries.