By Dave Graham
MEXICO CITY, Dec 31 (Reuters) - A row between Mexico and Bolivia has created a New Year's headache for Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, exposing him to opposition attacks and testing the credibility of his pledge to stay out of other countries' affairs.
The dispute, in which Bolivia has expelled the Mexican ambassador to La Paz, has created an awkward standoff for Lopez Obrador, who has sought to avoid foreign entanglements and appears to have little to gain from a protracted spat.
"Getting into a fight with a 'small' country doesn't do anything for him; on the contrary, it looks bad," said Roy Campos, head of polling firm Consulta Mitofsky.
Bolivia on Monday gave Mexican ambassador Maria Teresa Mercado 72 hours to leave the country as tensions escalated over Mexico's decision to grant asylum to several people described as criminals by the new interim Bolivian administration.
Relations have been rocky between the leftist Lopez Obrador and the conservative government in La Paz headed by caretaker president Jeanine Anez since Mexico gave asylum to Bolivia's former socialist leader Evo Morales last month.
Mexico cast that decision as a principled gesture on behalf of people at risk of political persecution, and has accused the Bolivian government of harassing and intimidating its diplomatic staff in La Paz.
The Anez administration, which is gearing up for presidential elections, has likened Mexico's attitude to that of colonial overlord meddling in Bolivia's domestic politics.
Although the economy has stagnated and violence has hit record levels under Lopez Obrador, he remains popular after just a year in office. The 66-year-old has blamed previous administrations for Mexico's problems and says it will take time to transform the country after years of corruption and economic mismanagement.
Nevertheless, Morales' sojourn in Mexico was ultimately negative for the president's poll ratings, Mitofsky's Campos said.
Mexico sought to contain tensions on Monday, saying it currently had no intention of breaking ties with Bolivia even as Spain, which has been drawn into the spat, expelled three Bolivian diplomats in a tit-for-tat move.
The European Union denounced Bolivia's expulsion of the Spanish diplomats on Tuesday.
Morales resigned under pressure from Bolivia's armed forces after a presidential election that the Organization of American States said was rigged in his favor.
Mexico's embassy in Bolivia gave refuge to nine people, including Morales allies whom the Anez administration blames for stirring up violent protests and wants to put on trial.
Broadsides from Bolivia have caused offense in some quarters in Mexico, even among critics of Morales, whose tilt for a fourth term ignored the results of a 2016 referendum.
"The current Bolivian government is as indefensible as Evo's bid to stay in power," said Agustin Basave, a former leader of the opposition center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution. "It's a clumsy and rude government with no idea of diplomacy."
Lopez Obrador last month acknowledged that the arrival in Mexico of Morales, who is now in Argentina, created a crisis for his government. But he has defended Mexico's right to offer asylum and said he will not be provoked by insults.
Critics of Lopez Obrador say his support for Morales not only undermined his commitment to non-intervention in other countries' affairs, but also to public sector austerity.
The decision to send a plane to fetch Morales from Bolivia and put up him and others at taxpayers' expense did not look like Mexico was staying neutral, said Victor Giorgana of the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), a former chairman of the lower house foreign relations committee.
Nor did the government look credible digging in its heels with Anez's administration after it had meekly acquiesced to U.S. President Donald Trump's demands that Mexico tighten its borders against illegal immigrants, Giorgana said.
Still, Heriberto Galindo, a former Mexican ambassador to Cuba and PRI member, said Lopez Obrador had rightly upheld a proud tradition by giving Morales and his allies asylum.
It was Morales, said Galindo, who then aggravated tensions by continuing attacks on his Bolivian adversaries from Mexico.
(Reporting by Dave Graham; Editing by Christian Plumb and David Gregorio)
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