Mercosur’s refusal to host Zelensky at its 60th Summit is yet further confirmation of Latin America’s largely neutral stance on the Ukraine conflict. The US is beginning to get worried.
On Wednesday (July 20) the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, was denied the opportunity to give a speech at the 60th Summit of Presidents of Mercosur being held this week. Zelensky had asked Paraguayan president Mario Abdo, the host of this year’s summit, to let him address the South American trade bloc, which comprises the governments of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay.
The bloc’s members failed to reach agreement on Zelensky’s request, said Paraguay’s deputy foreign minister Raul Cano. Zelensky has already addressed a number of national parliaments, including the UK’s House of Commons, the US Congress and the Australian parliament, since the war began. He has also spoken via video link at regional and international forums such as NATO, the G7, the World Economic Forum, the United Nations, the African Union and even the Cannes Film Festival.
Opposition Most Likely from Brazil and Argentina
But he was not welcome at Mercosur. Although Cano declined to disclose which states rejected Zelensky’s attendance at the event, it is not hard to guess their identity. After all, neither Brazil nor Argentina were willing to sign a February 25 Organization of American States (OAS) resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine while the other two Mercosur members, Uruguay and Paraguay, did.
Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro was in Moscow meeting Putin just days before Russia’s invasion began. In the last month he has received assurances from Putin that Brazil would continue to receive Russian-produced fertilizers while he himself has pledged that Brazil will buy as much diesel from Russia as it can, despite international sanctions against Moscow. Argentina’s President Alberto Fernández was also in Russia in early February, where he held discussions with Putin about the possibility of Russia extending a loan to Argentina.
Most Latin American countries have tried to strike a neutral stance on the Russia-Ukraine conflict. They include the region’s two heavyweight economies, 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 lambasted the US-NATO-led push to isolate Russia from the global economy.
Both countries are currently non-permanent members of the UN Security Council. Brazilian diplomats already tried to lever their position on the Security Council to soften the language of a council resolution condemning the actions of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.
On Monday, Bolsonaro had a phone call with Zelensky, as the Brazilian Report reveals:
In a tweet, Mr. Zelensky said he informed Mr. Bolsonaro about the situation on the front. “[I] discussed the importance of resuming Ukraine’s grain exports to prevent a global food crisis provoked by Russia. I call on all partners to join the sanctions against the aggressor.”
The Brazilian Foreign Affairs Ministry published a Twitter thread about the talk between Presidents Zelensky and Bolsonaro, but no official communiqué. The ministry did not publicly touch on the subject of grain exports but focused on humanitarian assistance to Ukranian refugees.
“The president conveyed the solidarity of the Brazilian people and deeply regretted the human and material losses caused by the conflict. Brazil has been granting humanitarian visas to people affected by the conflict in Ukraine,” the tweet adds.
“Brazil, which holds the presidency of the UN Security Council in July, aims, during its mandate, to promote dialogue, to contribute to the end of the conflict. Brazil will remain in a position of concerning the conflict,” the message continued.
Mexico has also refused to fall into line despite concerted pressure from its direct neighbor to the north and largest trading partner. As I reported for NC, in late March a handful of Mexican congressmen and women belonging to the ruling coalition parties Morena, PT and PRI created a pro-Russian group in Mexico’s Congress. The guest of honor to the event was Russia’s ambassador to Mexico, Víktor Koronelli, who described the group ‘s formation as “a sign of support, of friendship, of solidarity in these complicated times in which my country is not just facing a special military operation in Ukraine, but a tremendous media war.”
Predictably, the event elicited a stinging rebuke from Washington. The US Ambassador to Mexico Ken Salazar even went so far as to instruct select members of Mexico’s lower house of Congress that Mexico, a supposedly sovereign nation, cannot ever be close to Russia. As I wrote on March 29, the hypocrisy stinks: U.S. and its European allies have consistently argued that Russia has absolutely no right to try to determine what happens within the borders of its sovereign neighbor Ukraine, even as tons of weapons poured into the country from NATO Member States such as Poland and the Czech Republic.
Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel Lopéz Obrador response was to underscore Mexico’s long-held position of neutrality on international conflict:
“We need to send them telegrams informing them that Mexico is not a colony of any foreign country; Mexico is a free, independent, sovereign country. We are not a colony of Russia, China or the United States…
We are not going to Moscow to spy on anyone, nor are we going to Beijing to spy on what they are doing in China, nor are we going to Washington, not even to Los Angeles. We don’t do that sort of thing…We are not going to participate either for or against [this war], it is a position of neutrality of ours, which has to do with Mexico’s foreign policy.”
Two of Latin America’s most respected dignitaries, Brazil’s former (and quite possibly) future President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Pope Francis, have also spoken out against the West’s oft-ignored role in facilitating and fomenting the war in Ukraine. The pontiff accused NATO of “barking” at Russia’s door. Lula went even further, blaming not only the US and the EU for precipitating the war but also Zelensky himself:
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!”
Naturally, this sort of talk did not go down well in Kiev. Ukraine’s senior presidential adviser, Mykhailo Podolyak, described Lula’s word as “Russian attempts to distort the truth.” It is also striking that both Bolsonaro and Lula, who have wildly different political ideologies, divergent foreign policy priorities and are fierce political enemies, have resolutely refused to endorse the US-EU’s ratcheting economic sanctions against Russia or NATO’s escalating of tensions in Ukraine.
One obvious reason for this is that Brazil’s huge agricultural industry is heavily dependent on Russian fertilizers. Also, Brazil and most other Latin American countries are eager to protect their trade ties with China and Russia as well as the West. They also see their close commercial, diplomatic and in some cases (such as Venezuela and Nicaragua) security ties with China and Russia as a vital counterbalance against US and European interests in the region.
Washington Pivots Back to Latin America
For its part, Washington is growing increasingly concerned about the growing influence of Russia and China in its own direct neighborhood and is very quickly pivoting back to Latin America. As I said in my last article, the Pentagon appears to be leading the way, which is not a good sign. Speaking this week at the Aspen Security Forum, the Commander of US Southern Command, General Laura Richardson, had the following to say about Latin America:
This region is so rich in resources. It’s off the chart rich. And they have a lot to be proud of and our competitors and adversaries also know how rich in resources this region is. Sixty percent of the world’s lithium is in the region, you have heavy crude, you have light sweet crude, you have rare earth elements, you have the Amazon, which is called the lungs of the world. You have 31% of the world’s fresh water in this region.
And there our adversaries are taking advantage of this region every single day, right in our neighborhood. And I just look at what happens in this region in terms of security [and it] impacts our security and national security in the homeland and the United States.
Moves are also being made on the Hill. In the past few days U.S. Senators Bob Menendez, D-NJ, and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., both descendants of Cuban immigrants, were also able to get their bill to bolster “bilateral and multilateral security cooperation in Latin America and the Caribbean” as well as “disrupt and counter illicit narcotics trafficking” through the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Rubio introduced the “Western Hemisphere Security Strategy Act” with Menendez, the chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as a co-sponsor in February. The bill seeks to counter what the senators perceive as the “harmful and malign influence” in Latin America of China and Russia, contending that the “destabilizing” role of authoritarian governments in Beijing and Moscow represent unique threats to U.S. national security interests as well as the region’s welfare.
“It is imperative for the United States to be strategic and proactive in strengthening security partnerships with democracies throughout the Americas,” Menendez added. “This bill recognizes the geopolitical significance of Latin America.”
As AP reported in February, the bill, if approved, “would require the Secretaries of State and Defense to jointly submit within 180 days a strategy to enhance diplomatic engagement and security assistance in the Western Hemisphere on issues ranging from drug trafficking to transnational crime. Concrete steps would include increasing military training exercises with partner nations and efforts to improve their capacity to conduct disaster relief operations.”
At the same time, Russia, China and Iran, together with 10 other allied countries, are preparing to participate in a series of war games this August in Venezuela, a country that is currently negotiating reestablishing economic ties with Washington after five years of brutal sanctions. Meanwhile, Venezuela’s ties with fellow US-sanctioned Russia, Iran and Cuba have never been closer.
In a recent report the Center for a Secure Free Society (SFS), a Washington-based think tank, described the military exercises as “a strategic movement that seeks to preposition military assets deployed in Latin America and the Caribbean.” The text features an apt quote from Russian President Vladimir Putin on the end of the unipolar world, saying that in Washington they have not yet realized that “new powerful centers have formed and are making themselves known more and more loudly.”