Two of Latin America’s most respected dignitaries say the unspeakable about the conflict in Ukraine, setting blood to boil in Western corridors of power.
TIME magazine’s interview of the former, and quite possibly future, President of Brazil Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva will have no doubt raised hackles in Washington, Brussels, London and Kiev. In it, Lula spreads the blame widely for the current war in Ukraine. He also insisted that both Russia and Ukraine should do a little more jaw-jawing rather than war-waring and that peace could be easily achieved if only the US, EU and NATO would make a few basic assurances.
Putin shouldn’t have invaded Ukraine. But it’s not just Putin who is guilty. The U.S. and the E.U. are also guilty. What was the reason for the Ukraine invasion? NATO? Then the U.S. and Europe should have said: “Ukraine won’t join NATO.” That would have solved the problem.
The other issue was Ukraine joining the E.U. The Europeans could have said: “No, now is not the moment for Ukraine to join the E.U., we’ll wait.” They didn’t have to encourage the confrontation.
Asked what he would do if he had been president in the lead-up to the conflict, Lula inferred, once again, that a peaceful solution could be found if there was an actual desire for peace. He also said that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was equally to blame for the war as Putin.
If I was President, I would have phoned [Joe] Biden, and Putin, and Germany, and [Emmanuel] Macron. Because war is not the solution. I think the problem is that if you don’t try, you don’t fix things. And you have to try.
I sometimes get worried. I was very concerned when the U.S. and the E.U. adopted [Juan] Guaidó [then leader of Venezuela’s parliament] as President of the country [in 2019]. You don’t play with democracy. For Guaidó to be President, he would have to be elected. Bureaucracy can’t substitute politics. In politics, it’s two heads of state who are governing, both elected by their people, who have to sit down at the negotiating table and look each other in the eye and talk.
And now, sometimes I sit and watch the President of Ukraine speaking on television, being applauded, getting a standing ovation by all the [European] parliamentarians. This guy is as responsible as Putin for the war. Because in the war, there’s not just one person guilty.
Lula even accused Zelensky of looking for war and, once it began, of using it for his own political ends, none of which, of course, is news to NC readers. But the comments will have no doubt raised the blood pressure even higher in many Western capitals:
He did want war. If he didn’t want war, he would have negotiated a little more. That’s it. I criticized Putin when I was in Mexico City [in March], saying that it was a mistake to invade. But I don’t think anyone is trying to help create peace. People are stimulating hate against Putin. That won’t solve things! We need to reach an agreement. But people are encouraging [the war]. You are encouraging this guy [Zelensky], and then he thinks he is the cherry on your cake. We should be having a serious conversation: “OK, you were a nice comedian. But let us not make war for you to show up on TV.” And we should say to Putin: “You have a lot of weapons, but you don’t need to use them on Ukraine. Let’s talk!”
As a former, albeit potentially future, head of state Lula has more latitude than serving Latin American presidents to speak out against the so-called West’s role in the war in Ukraine. Indeed, his comments have already elicited a stiff rebuke from the Ukrainian government. Ukraine’s senior presidential adviser, Mykhailo Podolyak, on Thursday described them as “Russian attempts to distort the truth.”
BRICS United in Opposition
During his two terms in office Lula was an important mover and shaker on the international stage, increasing Brazil’s diplomatic clout, particularly across the so-called “Global South”. Together with Dimitry Medvedev, Manmohan Singh, and Hu Jintao, he attended the first ever BRICs summit (South Africa had still not joined the grouping), in 2009. As Wikipedia notes, the summit’s focus was on improving the global economic situation and reforming financial institutions.
Interestingly, in the wake of the summit the BRIC nations announced the need for a new global reserve currency, which would have to be “diverse, stable and predictable” — something that could now be in the process of happening, thanks partly to Washington’s repeated cack-handed attempts to use the world’s current reserve currency, the dollar, as a financial weapon against any country that does not toe the line.
Also interesting is the fact that not a single member of the BRICS grouping, which represents just over 40% of both global population and global GDP, has agreed to impose sanctions on their fellow BRICS member Russia, despite concerted pressure to do so from both the US and the EU. Three of the four — India, China and South Africa — abstained in the UN General Assembly resolution of March 2 condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Although Lula is not Brazil’s president, he is hotly tipped to win the presidential elections in October, assuming he is allowed to. Fears are rising that his main opponent (and current incumbent), Jair Bolsonaro, could stage a military coup if Lula wins. The fact that US coup specialist Victoria Nuland just visited Brazil on a “diplomatic mission” to bring Brazil closer to US foreign policy does not auger well. Nor does Bolsonaro’s constant bigging up of his Defense Minister, Paulo Nogueira de Oliveira, who, Bolsonaro says, has “the troops in his hands” and would, if necessary, be responsible for bringing the country back to “normality, progress and peace.”
Lula Not an Outlier
Lula is not the only Latin American dignitary who has spoken out this week against the West’s oft-ignored role in facilitating and fomenting the war in Ukraine. In an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, Pope Francis, an Argentinean of Italian immigrant parents, averred that NATO’s “barking” at Russia’s door may have “facilitated” Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The pontiff also said he has offered to meet the Russian president in Moscow.
Latin America, as a whole, has tried to strike a neutral stance on the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Only four out of 33 Latin American and Caribbean countries — Cuba, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Bolivia — abstained in the vote to condemn Russia’s invasion during the emergency meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. On the other side of the divide, only a small number of governments have publicly endorsed the West’s economic sanctions against Russia. They include Ecuador, Colombia, Chile and Guatemala.
Most governments in the region have stayed firmly on the fence. They include the two heavyweight economies of Latin America, Brazil and Mexico, which together account for roughly 60% of the region’s GDP. While both countries voted to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at the March 2 emergency meeting of the United Nations, they have expressed opposition to the US-NATO-led push to isolate Russia from the global economy.
As previously reported on NC, Brazil is massively dependent on imports of fertilizers from Russia and Belarus for its vital agricultural sector. According to a 2020 report by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Brazil’s agricultural exports account for 37% of its total exports. Brazil is the world’s largest global exporter of soybeans, poultry meat, beef, coffee, sugar, and orange juice, and is the world’s third largest exporter of agricultural products behind the European Union (EU) and the United States.
Under Bolsonaro, Brazil, one of three so-called non-NATO US allies in Latin America, has been forging a special relationship with Russia. Before the war began Putin referred to Brazil as Russia’s most important partner in Latin America, as the two countries discussed plans to deepen collaboration on defense, agriculture, oil, and gas. Thanks in part to Brazil’s close association with Russia as well as the Brazilian government’s neutral stance on the war, shipments of fertilizer have continued to arrive from Russia, though for how much longer that will continue is far from clear.
Mexico’s position of neutrality is in large part a product of its long, albeit interrupted, history of neutrality dating all the way back to the early 1930s. Mexico’s president Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador (aka AMLO) reiterated that position on Wednesday:
The policy stays the same, we do not want to get directly involved in sanctioning any country. We want to have a position of neutrality, we have been expressing that in the United Nations so that dialogue can be sought in this way. If we lean in favor of one position or another, we lose authority and therefore could not, if requested, participate in the possibility of reaching an agreement, of conciliation.”
Argentina, another non-NATO US ally (the other being Colombia) has also refused to endorse sanctions against Russia. Its delegates at the recent G20 meeting, like those of Brazil and Mexico, refused to join a US-UK-EU-Canada walk out of the meeting when the Russian delegates began to speak. The US, UK and EU are trying to get Russia barred from the next G-20 meeting but neither the host nation, Indonesia, China, India, South Africa or the three Latin American members are on board.
“Argentina does not support Russia’s separation from the G20 because we believe in multilateralism and multilateralism is only achieved with countries sitting at the table,” said Argentina’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Santiago Cafiero, adding that the G20 is “a strictly economic forum.”
It’s worth noting that in the weeks before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Argentina also met with Putin as well as China’s Xi Jinping with a view to arranging a loan from the two BRICS countries, thereby reducing Argentina’s almost total dependence on IMF — and indirectly US — funding, as Buenos Aires Times reported:
“Argentina has experienced a very special situation as a result of its indebtedness and the economic situation that I inherited,” the president [of Argentina, Alberto Fernández] told Putin. “From the 1990s onwards, Argentina has looked to the United States, and the Argentine economy depends a great deal on the IMF debt and the US influence in the Fund.”
He stressed that during the terms of former presidents Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, those leaders sought to “break out of the straitjacket” that Argentina had with Washington, which had made it possible to draw up a strategic agreement with Russia.
“In 2015 we had a government that once again turned its gaze to the United States and generated the tremendous debt we have,” Fernández continued, taking aim at his predecessor as president Mauricio Macri.
“I am determined that Argentina has to stop being dependent on the Fund and the United States, and here I believe that Russia has an important place,” he concluded.
US-EU sanctions have put those plans on ice, and a deal to restructure Argentina’s $44.5-billion debt with the IMF still remains elusive.
As I reported in August 2021, the sands are shifting in Latin America, politically, economically and geopolitically — and not in Washington’s favor. China’s trade with the region grew 26-fold between 2000 and 2020, from $12 billion to $315 billion, and is expected to more than double by 2035, to more than $700 billion. According to the World Economic Forum, “China will approach—and could even surpass—the US as LAC’s top trading partner.
As I wrote in that piece, both China and Russia have also reaped the dividends of vaccine diplomacy:
While China was flooding Latin America with vaccines, Pfizer, one of three US vaccine makers whose product has been granted emergency use authorisation, was essentially shaking down countries in the region, demanding that they put up sovereign assets, such as federal bank reserves, embassy buildings and military bases, as insurance against the cost of any future legal cases involving Pfizer BioNTech’s vaccine… Since then, Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have been made available through the GAVI Alliance’s COVAX scheme. Some countries in the region are planning to use the doses as booster shots.
Since that article went out, Chile has voted for a left-of-center coalition that is promising to reform many of the neoliberal economic policies that have prevailed in the country since the Pinochet dictatorship, including some of the rules governing mining concessions. Even in Colombia, the US’ most important South American client state, a former left-wing guerilla is favorite to win this month’s presidential elections, though ominously Victoria Nuland also recently visited Colombia where she met with all major candidates except for Pietro. In the meantime, former President Alvaro Uribe, a long-time favorite of Washington, faces trial for bribing witnesses and procedural fraud.
If he were to win the elections in October, Lula, a strong supporter of multipolarism, would probably further deepen Brazil’s relationship with fellow BRICS nations Russia and China, far and away its largest trade partner, while putting yet more distance between Brazil and the US. Of course, he has reason to want to do that given the well documented role Washington played in his recent imprisonment.
An exposé last year by The Intercept revealed the extent to which the US Department of Justice orchestrated the now-disgraced Operation Car Wash in Brazil, which led to the downfall of Dilma Rousseff’s government, the imprisonment of Lula just as he was preparing to run for office again, and the eventual election of far-right president Jair Bolsonaro.
The US government had plenty of reasons for wanting to unseat Lula’s Workers’ Party (PT). As Glenn Greenwald writes in his latest book, Securing Democracy: My Fight for Press Freedom and Justice in Bolsonaro’s Brazil, the PT governments’ forging of a “foreign policy in a way that diverged from US dictates was intolerable.” Lula himself believes the US was ultimately driven by economic incentives, tweeting out in July 2020:
The goal was Petrobras [Brazil’s state-owned oil giant]. It was the Pre-Salt [Brazilian offshore oil]. And the Brazilian companies that were winning bids from US companies in the Middle East.
The parallels with Mexico’s AMLO are striking. Like Lula, AMLO is trying to steer a more independent course for his country, both in the realms of economic and foreign policy, and is facing ever increasing interference from Washington as a result. Like Lula, AMLO is trying to protect the country’s state-owned energy companies, much to the consternation of US energy interests.
If Lula wins in October and does not fall victim to a military coup, both of the two mega-economies of Latin America, Brazil and Mexico, representing over 60% of the region’s GDP, will, for the first time in decades, be governed by left-of-center governments that are not fully aligned with US economic or foreign policy interests. And that must be causing all manner of angst and consternation in Washington and Langley.