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Brazil and Mexico: distance and misunderstandings

Co-author Álvaro Costa Silva

The two countries with the most advanced economies in Latin America and with the greatest capacity to implement regional initiatives, Brazil and Mexico, have interacted little since the rise of Jair Bolsonaro to government. In the past, Brazil and Mexico, although geographically distant, interacted in relevant regional initiatives: they were partners in the creation of LAFTA in 1960, ALADI in 1980, and the Rio Group in 1986. But the estrangement began earlier than this and the disagreements have continued. Why?

In 1990, Mexico formed the Group of Three with Colombia and Venezuela and signed an agreement with Chile. Both were based on the concept of open regionalism. Brazil, in 1991, formed MERCOSUR, also based on open regionalism, but with restrictions. MERCOSUR was to be a dress rehearsal for a future outward opening.

1994 was a historic year. Mexico joined NAFTA, reducing its autonomy from the United States. Brazilian diplomacy, for its part, turned to South America with the creation of a South American free trade zone. With this regional rethinking, Brazil adapted its foreign policy in terms of discourse and actions towards South America. It was the year in which negotiations for the FTAA, of which Mexico would be a part, began and Brazil, in turn, resisted the progress of the negotiations.

Although the South American free trade zone was unsuccessful, the idea of South America was progressively strengthened in Brazil’s diplomatic behavior, which culminated with Lula’s initiatives to structure South American governance under Brazilian leadership. Central American and Caribbean countries, in contrast, were seen as in the orbit of the United States.

The weight of ideologies

Several reasons have contributed to this picture. At the regional level, in the 2000s the pink wave was the predominant feature on the cognitive maps of South America and drove a project of regional cohesion. In the internal Brazilian dimension, the approach to South America was based on the articulation between developmentalists, autonomist diplomats, and a pro-integration epistemic community that included political and academic actors.

This initiative took shape with post-liberal regionalism and its main organization, UNASUR. In Brazilian foreign policy, UNASUR and the South American countries would take advantage of the country’s efforts to project itself strongly in the international arena, in addition to being recipients of Brazilian development. During this period, Mexico even applied to join MERCOSUR as an associate member, but was denied.

Mexico, unlike the governments that were a part of the pink wave, was governed during the decade by the National Action Party, conservative and liberal in its economic policy. It took a different path to ascend as a global player, moving closer to the United States and sharing votes with European countries in multilateral forums. Likewise, it was always seeking to neutralize Brazilian projections of power that bothered the Mexican government.

Mexico’s opposition to Brazil’s candidacy for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council was one example. Another friction proved to be Mexico’s suspension in 2005 of the Short-Term Visa Waiver Agreement (later reinstated in 2013), in an attempt to curb the passage of Brazilians through the country to enter the United States. 

There were also initiatives of rapprochement, but they proved to be tenuous. A Binational Commission was created to facilitate economic negotiations between the two countries. In the twilight of the Lula administration, both countries collaborated in the creation of CELAC, as part of the Felipe Calderón administration’s efforts to reconnect with Latin America.

In the economic sphere, there was the signing of an economic complementation agreement (ECA 55) within the framework of ALADI by both countries. The agreement was aimed at trade liberalization and the integration of the automotive sector. Proposed by the Mexican president in 2009, the two countries began talks on a comprehensive trade future. In any case, trade between the two was (and is) not relevant for either of them for a variety of reasons: geographical distance; little complementarity between their economies; trade preferences conditioned by MERCOSUR, NAFTA and China.

A political turn

In the early 2010s, both governments changed: Dilma Rousseff in Brazil and the return of the PRI to power with Peña Nieto. However, Rousseff’s government did not enjoy the favorable circumstances of the previous decade. The international economic crisis interrupted the boom period. At the regional level, several liberal and/or conservative governments were elected and post-liberal regionalism declined.

Domestically, the economic crisis, the political crisis, and an inactive foreign policy were the hallmarks of the Rousseff administration. Brazil’s role as a structuring force in the South American agenda lost consistency, giving way to low-profile behavior. In the same period, Mexico joined the Pacific Alliance, inspired by the precepts of open regionalism, and re-articulated with the South American countries.

Then, in 2012, the Brazilian government decided to renounce the ECA 55 due to Brazil’s deficit in automobile trade. To avoid collapse, the governments signed a protocol establishing annual import quotas, but negotiations for the bilateral agreement broke down. Dilma Rousseff made a state visit to Mexico in 2015, but with little results.

After a harsh impeachment process, Temer’s government adopted a foreign policy averse to anything reminiscent of the pink wave. One of its main goals was the revitalization of trade policy. A MERCOSUR-Pacific Alliance agreement came to be seen as positive. At the end of his administration, a summit was held between the governments of the two integrationist agreements, and the Puerto Vallarta Action Plan was conceived to facilitate trade between the countries of both blocs. The issue of Venezuela was another point of convergence between Temer and Peña Nieto: both governments were members of the Lima Group and condemned the regime of Nicolás Maduro.

A new rift

With the rise of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Andrés López Obrador in Mexico, a new estrangement has occurred. Although they have commonalities in their approach to the pandemic – denial from the outset – their political positions illustrate a major disagreement.

While Bolsonaro adopted a rhetoric critical of Venezuela, López Obrador adopted the position of supporting a negotiated way out of the crisis. Brazil recognized Juan Guaidó through the Lima Group Declaration. Mexico did not support the declaration. Instead, it collaborated with Argentina in the Puebla Group. While Bolsonaro supported the government of Jeanine Áñez in Bolivia, Mexico gave asylum to former President Evo Morales. Brazil suspended its participation in CELAC when Mexico presided over the organization. Former Foreign Minister of Brazil, Ernesto Araújo, accused it, via Twitter, of giving “stage to non-democratic regimes”. Brazil remains in PROSUR, which does not include Mexico.

Thus, the estrangement and disagreements are not only due to geography. Political-ideological differences, different foreign policy priorities and interests, and trade mismatches have limited the potential of a bilateral relationship. A harmonious articulation between the two largest states in a region is not always easy.

*Translation from Spanish by Alek Langford

Álvaro Costa Silva holds a master’s degree in International Relations from the State University of Rio de Janeiro (2019) and is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the same institution. He is a researcher at the Laboratory of Studies on Regionalism and Foreign Policy (Lerpe-UERJ).


Profesora e investigadora del Programa de Postgrado en Rel. Internacionales de la Univ. del Estado de Río de Janeiro (UERJ). Doctora en C. Política por la Univ. Complutense de Madrid. Postdoctorado en el Inst. Universitario Europeo (Florencia, Italia).


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