Mexican presidential hopeful Andrés Manuel López Obrador at a campaign rally in May for Delfina Gomez, a member of his Morena party who is running for governor of Mexico state. (Rebecca Blackwell/Associated Press)

MEXICO CITY — One of Mexico's most cherished political principles is “nonintervention.” Mexican governments have traditionally stayed silent on the internal matters of other nations — and showed little patience for international scrutiny of its own affairs. But when it comes to Venezuela, Mexico is suddenly getting loud.

Mexico and Venezuela are fighting an escalating war of words as Mexico assumes the uncharacteristic role of chief regional critic of Venezuela, where the economy has cratered and street protests have been violently suppressed. Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray condemned Venezuela last week as undemocratic for imprisoning political opponents and showing “authoritarian traits.” His Venezuelan counterpart, Delcy Rodríguez, shot back: “The most dangerous country in the world doesn’t have the moral authority to speak of Venezuela,” she said.

Analysts say the shift is down to simple politics. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a left-wing populist and two-time presidential candidate often nicknamed “AMLO,” leads some early polls for the 2018 vote and campaigned hard in recent weeks in a neck-and-neck gubernatorial race in Mexico state, the most populous in the country. (The election was held Sunday, and preliminary results seemed to show Morena narrowly losing to President Enrique Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.)

López Obrador is often painted by political opponents as his country's version of late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez. So for Mexico's unpopular leader, Peña Nieto, keeping blood-soaked images from Venezuela in the news cycle and condemning human rights violations have become props in his attempt to stop the country from swinging left.

López Obrador's proximity to power spooks political and business elites — “the mafia in power,” he calls them — and political opponents and a cadre of columnists attack him endlessly.

“This is a foreign policy issue turned into a domestic political issue,” said Carlos Heredia, a professor at the Center for Teaching and Research in Economics, a public university. “It isn’t really about democracy in Venezuela. I wish it were. It’s about painting López Obrador as the Mexican Chávez.”

Opponents have tried to tie López Obrador, a former mayor of Mexico City, to Chávez and Venezuela for more than a decade. Attack ads calling him “a danger for Mexico” and comparing him to Chávez torpedoed his 2006 presidential campaign — a race he refused to concede after losing by less than a percentage point. He again finished second in 2012 and again refused to concede.

A deleted tweet from the Venezuelan Embassy in Mexico that praised the support of Mexico's left-wing Morena party. (Venezuelan Embassy in Mexico via Twitter)

López Obrador denies sharing any sympathies or connections with Venezuela, but he has done little to distance himself or his party, from the regime of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. Venezuelan officials, meanwhile, have openly embraced Morena. Venezuela’s ambassador to Mexico, María Urbaneja Durant, met with members of the party last week. The Venezuelan Embassy then boasted of the meeting on Twitter. 

“We celebrate the accompaniment of the Morena party, its solidarity and unreserved support for the Bolivarian Revolution. ¡Viva México y Venezuela!” the embassy tweeted. It later deleted the tweet.

The Morena party later denied having links to Venezuela and said it supported the idea of nonintervention, but there is a significant pro-Venezuela faction in the party. “There are groups within Morena that are really committed to Venezuela regardless of how many human rights violations happen,” said Rodolfo Soriano-Núñez, a sociologist in Mexico City.

And the politics of Mexico's fractious left wing mean López Obrador cannot simply fight the Chávez comparison by disavowing that pro-Venezuela wing. The Mexican left has a love-hate relationship with López Obrador, and those with pro-Venezuela sympathies have been some of his strongest supporters.

“They have been extremely loyal when the rest of the Mexican left was unwilling to support AMLO,” Soriano-Núñez said. “That wing was there with him through thick and thin.”

 So for now, the attacks — and the government's tough talk — will continue. Videgaray, the foreign minister, told a conference in Miami earlier in May: “What is occurring in Venezuela is extraordinarily grave. As a Mexican, I wouldn’t like it if suddenly in Mexico there was such a serious attack on democracy as canceling elections, not recognizing the Congress, imprisoning the opposition, utilizing military tribunals to judge those protesting against the government.”

But those criticisms have also raised uncomfortable questions for Peña Nieto’s administration, which supposedly showered special attention on Mexico state in the lead-up to Sunday's election. The PRI has been accused of bribing poor voters with giveaways ranging from cash to water tanks to prepaid cards.

Peña Nieto’s press office pointed to statements from the foreign relations secretary, when asked for comment on the change in posture on Venezuela.

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