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President Biden plans to co-host the Second Summit for Democracy from March 29-30 to “defend free and fair elections” around the world. But he should seriously consider not inviting the president of Mexico — or giving him a very minor role in the meeting.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador is rapidly taking Mexico back to its authoritarian past, when one almighty political party ruled the country for seven consecutive decades until 2000. The then-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party controlled virtually all national institutions and could rig elections and steal public funds at will.
There are several reasons why Lopez Obrador should not be sitting at the table at the virtual democracy summit that Biden will host alongside the governments of Costa Rica, the Netherlands, South Korea and Zambia. More than 100 governments from around the world are scheduled to attend the plenary session.
First, Lopez Obrador is dismantling Mexico’s National Electoral Institute, or INE, the independent election agency that has made free elections in Mexico possible since the 1990s. Among other things, the INE counts the votes, and monitors the election process to make sure that the government doesn’t use public funds to favor its candidate and forces officials to abide by electoral rules.
On Feb. 22, Lopez Obrador’s party, which has a majority in Congress, passed a bill supported by the president that drastically cuts the electoral agency’s staff and limits its capacity to supervise elections.
If upheld by Mexico’s Supreme Court, the electoral agency’s overhaul could allow Lopez Obrador’s party to manipulate the process, and perhaps even the results, of the 2024 presidential elections.
The INE’s downsizing “endangers the very existence of fair elections” in Mexico, the electoral agency’s president Lorenzo Cordova told me in a recent interview.
Mexico’s pro-democracy groups are preparing a massive march in Mexico City Sunday to demand that the INE not be effectively stripped of its powers.
Second, Lopez Obrador has become an increasingly vocal ally of the dictatorships in Cuba and Venezuela. He recently also interfered in Peru’s political crisis, defending former leftist president Pedro Castillo’s coup attempt. Castillo was constitutionally removed from office after he announced that he was dissolving Congress and that he would rule by decree.
Earlier this month, Lopez Obrador decorated Cuba’s dictator Miguel Diaz-Canel with Mexico’s highest medal for foreigners. On that occasion, the Mexican president claimed that Cuba, which has hundreds of political prisoners and has not allowed a free election in over six decades, has a “profoundly humane government.”
Lopez Obrador even boycotted Biden’s Summit of the Americas, held in Los Angeles last year, because Biden, to his credit, had not invite the Cuban dictatorship to the meeting. Mexico’s absence at the summit captured the headlines and, in part, stole Biden’s show.
Third, Mexico has had a wishy-washy position on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While Mexico has voted in favor of Russia’s withdrawal from Ukraine at the United Nations, Lopez Obrador has expressed his “neutrality” in the conflict, and has not offered active help to Ukraine.
To the contrary, last month he criticized Germany’s decision to supply Ukraine with Leopard 2 tanks, claiming that it was “orchestrated” by the media and “the world’s oligarchies.” The Russian embassy in Mexico issued a statement thanking Lopez Obrador for his stand on the German tanks.
Despite all this, the Biden administration has gone out of it way to avoid criticizing Lopez Obrador. It has only made general statements in support of free elections around the world, without mentioning Mexico by name.
U.S. officials fear that if Biden condemns Lopez Obrador’s offensive against the INE, Mexico will retaliate by reducing its cooperation to stop undocumented migrants along the U.S. border. That would be bad news for the Biden administration as we near the 2024 elections.
But the Biden administration should not reward Lopez Obrador with a seat at the virtual table of its Summit for Democracy.
Biden should reward countries that are trying to improve their democratic systems. And he should side with Mexicans who are fighting to keep a neutral electoral agency, rather than with a government that’s trying to control the electoral system.
Don’t miss the “Oppenheimer Presenta” TV show on Sundays at 8 pm E.T. on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera