As Miguel de Cervantes wrote in Don Quixote, “if appearances are removed, it becomes obvious where the first confusion lies.” In foreign policy, the first source of Mexico’s confusion lies in forgetting our geographic location and giving in to Chavez’s alluring swan song. There is no contradiction in developing brotherly, media-rich or personal closeness with the southern neighbors while at the same time, trying to advance north our most basic and fundamental interests. In fact, the key, and complexity of our foreign policy lies in being able to strike a balance in articulating an active presence in the south together with a decisive brokering of our interests towards the north. The former is politics, the latter, development.

The farce with which Manuel Zelaya, the deposed Honduran president concluded his visit should make us reflect on the difference between our interests and our hearts. Beyond the lesson for the government, that entails being used by someone they meant to use, the fact remains that Mexico has very clear interests both in the north and in the south, and that these sometimes do not coincide, for whichever reason, with the public attitude that a government must hold.

In politics (both foreign and domestic), it is perfectly legitimate for a government to look after its various audiences and support bases. Sometimes, this will imply budget decisions, in others it will mean appointments and in other, just pure discourse. These types of support and deployments are necessary because they help placate or satisfy, depending on the situation, different sectors and groups regardless of the fact that the attention being offered has no real content or is simply put, merely rhetorical. Politics is a balancing act that seeks to achieve the sum of opposites that are usually incompatible.

Rhetoric and reality go hand in hand when we construct political strategies that constitute the instrumental arm of any government’s activity. For decades, our government’s foreign policy actions were guided by rhetoric and this was sometimes incompatible with reality. Rhetoric took the shape of fraternal and unrestricted love; the reality was an unspoken agreement of non aggression and mutual respect. Rhetoric appeased politically active and weighty sectors within the country while reality allowed Mexico to be safe from Cuban guerilla activism. Both governments understood the difference and knew that Mexican rhetoric, including its votes in multilateral fora, were part of the game. The United States government understood it too: they all participated and acknowledged the underlying reasoning and the circumstances.

The unspoken strategy of the Estrada doctrine, a cornerstone of Mexican foreign policy, summarized the Mexican stance; we respect others and we demand respect for ourselves. Decades after the end of the Lazaro Cardenas administration, which defined the doctrine, when the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) started to gaze in the mirror with shameful glances and started to accept as factual the illegitimacy with which both the opposition and society at large viewed them, the Estrada doctrine seemed to loose its momentum. This was exacerbated when the Fox administration chose to follow a foreign policy that aspired to be coherent in speech and deed.

The fall of the Berlin wall changed the world and, in our case, the PRI wall collapsed and we were suddenly disoriented: the PAN governments became critical of the ways others were ruling. Relationships that were crucial to our stability, such as the one with Cuba, started to experience fractures. The previous understandings became obsolete giving rise, among others, to misunderstandings, some of them rather humorous (like telling Fidel Castro to come and leave before lunch so as not to upset Bush) but, above all, the government lost support from critical domestic constituencies that were not costly but extremely valuable politically. A new form of Manichaeism emerged when we thought that a closer relationship with the north excluded an active, yet respectful and non militant presence in the south. Spain, to quote an obvious example, never confuses their real interests with its widespread commercial, media and political presence.

The current government, when first came into office, adopted a policy of friendly rapprochement while trying to soften disputes inherited from the Fox administration. It acknowledged the need to avoid unnecessary conflict. Soon, however, we ended up in the opposite extreme. The key elements of our relationship with the United States were abandoned: the administration lost track of the growing needs and combativeness of Mexicans residing in that country and chose to privilege its contacts with the south at the expense of those with the north, as if reality demanded it do so.

One thing is rhetoric and another one is reality, and both ought never get them mixed up. Auguste Comte, the French sociologist believed that at the root of all historical crises lies a profound intellectual confusion. Nobody can object and deny the impending need to reestablish a functional relationship with regimes such as the Venezuelan or the Cuban, each extremely significant in its own way. But in both cases it is obvious that we cannot achieve a certain coincidence except in terms of a necessary coexistence, which as I can recall, was the true sense of the Estrada doctrine. Pretending to coincide has led us to experience some bitter moments which at times have been pathetic.

A case in point is our recent experience with Honduras. The Mexican government had to rebuke the coup d’etat staged against Manuel Zelaya, for this was the only public position it could take while it surely served to maintain its legitimacy in the south. Yet, in spite of the latter, it could not afford to ignore the particular circumstances that surrounded the case (the Congress in Honduras convened and the Supreme Court instructed the Army to act). No matter how much we read between the lines, it was not a caricature Junta removing an innocent victim from the presidency. It was logical and reasonable to maintain a formal stance but the current state of affairs makes Mexico’s militant support of Zelaya hard to comprehend. Giving the deposed president a formal welcome as head of State knowing full well that his staunchest supporters came from the most backward and aggressive regimes in the region, implied, in the best case scenario, a case of naïveté and in the worse, a stupid error in judgment.

No government can afford to confuse its country’s interests with rhetoric; they are just not the same, yet the latter should always constitute a useful tool to achieve the former. In any case, what matters is to achieve our interests: development and stability. In the region where we live, the first can be procured north and, for the second, it is vital we maintain respectful peace with the south.