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Gimme Shelter: from Garibaldi to Evo

12 November 2019
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Translated from Elías Camhaji and Georgina Zerega. “La vieja tradición de asilo que abre las puertas de México a Evo Morales“, El País (Madrid), 11 November 2019

Mexico has granted asylum to Evo Morales. The former Bolivian president has requested protection from the Mexican government, Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard announced Monday. The Latin American country has a long tradition of asylum and refuge: a list that includes the Spanish Republican exiles, citizens who fled the South American dictatorships in the second half of the twentieth century and victims of the civil war in Central America during the eighties and nineties . Morales, who was forced to resign from the presidency last Sunday, is the latest to join a group of notables harbored in Mexico that has included Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi, Cuban writer and politician José Martí, Soviet ideologue Leon Trotsky, Spanish film director Luis Buñuel, and the Guatemalan Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchú.


The Mexican Government, restrained by being a neighbor of the United States and its own limited military power, has been characterized by legalistic diplomacy, that is, a reliance and adherance to international law, to the principles of non-intervention and to solidarity with the victims of authoritarian regimes and war . Asylum differs from the refuge in which applicants must demonstrate that their lives are threatened by political issues, such as government repression or attacks on their defense of political ideas by groups in power. “It is above all a humanitarian act, which should not be understood as a sign of approval or disapproval, much less hostility to any foreign government,” says Natalia Saltalamacchia, internationalist and professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico.

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“Mexico has had an open door policy, although with some restrictions,” explains Jorge Schiavon, an internationalist at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching. In the case of giving protection to Latin American leaders, Mexican asylum policy has generally been conditioned to receive few people and has focused on ideological profiles close to the governments, Schiavon points out. That tradition was especially reflected during the Governments of the Institutional Revolutionary Party and has been recovered by the Government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, adds the researcher.


Along the same lines, former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda (2000-2003) points out that the offer of asylum by the López Obrador Government could be related to the “his sympathy” for Morales. However, he argues that the offer runs hand in hand with the humanitarian tradition that Mexico has. “The only reason to deny it is that they have committed very harmful acts, human rights violations or crimes against humanity and that is not the case with Morales,” he says. In spite of that, the former foreign chief warns that the double play of condemning “the coup d’etat” on the one hand and not “electoral fraud or violations of the Constitution” on the other, could bring problems from the Organization of American States for the Mexican chief executive.


“Mexico is doing well to grant asylum to Evo Morales, but the focus of the discussion should not be there, but on the steps that follow to have a stable situation in Bolivia,” says Saltalamacchia. The Government has faced criticism after not weighing in on the political crisis in Venezuela and months later offering asylum to Morales, and the consequences of these foreign policy decisions can have.

“I do not see that contradiction, rather that López Obrador follows the doctrine of nonintervention to avoid getting into trouble and appealing to his humanitarian tradition, in the case of Morales,” says Schiavon.


Ebrard noted on Monday that his country’s great tradition of political asylum began in 1853, when the country jointly signed a non-extradition treaty for political crimes with Colombia. “Granting asylum is a sovereign right of the Mexican State that is consistent with its normative principles in foreign policy,” he said. Since then, Mexico has become one of the most important bastions in the continent for those fleeing their country. The dictatorships that ravaged Latin America, from the second half of the twentieth century, produced a large number of asylees in Mexico, in the seventies mainly from Argentina, Chile, Brazil and Uruguay, and later, in the eighties, from El Salvador and Guatemala.


One of the great gestures in foreign policy at the time of the Latin American dictatorships, Castañeda recalls, was the attitude taken by the Government of Luis Echeverría in 1973, when following Augusto Pinochet’s coup, he sent a plane to search for the widow of ousted president Salvador Allende. The last case of high-profile asylum in Mexico was last October, granted to Ricardo Patiño, Ecuadorian Foreign Minister during the Rafael Correa Government, who accused the president, Lenín Moreno, of persecution.

Mexico has faced a growing number of asylum and refuge applications in recent months in the wake of the Venezuelan political crisis and migrant caravans. Requests went from 2,137 in 2014 to 29,631 in 2018, according to official data. Between January and October of this year, 62,299 people have requested permission to settle in Mexico.

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