Latin America is once again in the cross-hairs of the world’s great (but in some cases, declining) powers as the new Cold War heats up.
Vladimir Putin upped the ante this week in his standoff with the West by offering Russia’s allies in Latin America, Asia and Africa advanced Russian weaponry — all in the name of safeguarding “peace and security” in the emerging multipolar world. Speaking at the opening ceremony of the International Military and Technical Forum 2022 and the International Army Games-2022, the Russian leader heaped praise on non-aligned countries for not kowtowing to the global hegemon and instead choosing to steer a more independent course of development:
“We highly appreciate the fact that our country has many like-minded allies and partners on different continents. These are the states that do not succumb to the so-called hegemon. Their leaders show a real masculine character and do not bend.
Putin did not name any names but when it comes to Latin America it is not hard to decipher which countries he is probably referring to. While there may be a growing roster of nations in the region wishing to steer a more independent course of Washington, three of the region’s countries already enjoy close military ties with Russia: Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua.
By deepening those ties, Putin puts the US on alert in its own neighborhood. As I previously noted in “Is Russia About to Put the Monroe Doctrine to the Test?“, Daniel Ortega’s government in Nicaragua recently renewed a long-standing military partnership with Russia, despite repeated warnings from Washington not to cooperate with Russia since its invasion of Ukraine. Nicaragua now faces the prospect of a fresh round of US sanctions, after the Ortega government shuttered radio stations belonging to the Catholic Church and banned processions.
Further south, Venezuela is currently hosting the Sniper Frontier competition, with representatives from Russia, Bolivia, Abkhazia, Belarus, Uzbekistan and Myanmar competing to win the title of the world’s best sniper. The competition forms part of the International Army Games, an annual Russian military sports event organized by the Ministry of Defense of Russia (MoD). Now in its eighth year, the two-week event brings together participants from close to 30 countries, including China, Iran, Algeria, Syria, Sudan and Vietnam, all vying to prove which is the most skilled in dozens of competitions.
In recent years, the US and a number of EU Member States, including Germany, France and Austria, have taken part as observers in the event, which is sometimes referred to as the “War Olympics”. Suffice to say, that won’t be happening this year.
Zelensky Gives First Speech Ever in Latin America
Two days after Putin’s speech, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky was given his first chance to address a Latin American audience. The videoconference was organized by the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile and (according to its dean) was broadcast to 300 universities around the world. During his address Zelensky urged Latin America to abandon its position of neutrality and join global sanctions against Russia.
“What matters to us is that Latin American countries know the truth and share our truth with others,” Zelensky said. Asked about what he expected from Latin American countries, the Ukrainian leader replied: “I want them to join those policies carried out by the United States, to make the sanctions policy more effective.”
It is a tall order given that most countries in Latin America, including the two largest, Brazil and Mexico, resolutely oppose sanctions, for an array of economic, geostrategic and ethical reasons that I have outlined in previous posts (here and here). They are also terrified, understandably, by the precedent the U.S., EU and friends have set by attempting to excise Russia from the global financial system. If it works, they know they could be next.
Already around one-quarter of the global population is already suffering the direct effects of US-led sanctions, including Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua. In March 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic was ripping global supply chains apart, those three countries joined Russia, China, Syria, Iran and North Korea in signing a letter to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Director-General of the World Health Organization calling for an end to sanctions. Although UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres requested an immediate end to the sanctions, nothing happened.
Chile is one of the few countries in the region that has endorsed sanctions, albeit in half-hearted fashion. Yet Chile’s President Gabriel Boric and its Foreign Minister Antonia Urrejola Noguera were both conspicuously absent from the event despite having received invites. The snub came almost exactly a month after the South American trade bloc Mercosur refused to host Zelensky at its 60th Summit. The US and EU have both pressured countries in the region to join the sanctions pile-on, to no avail.
Now, as tensions rise between the West and Russia and China and as more independent-minded governments come to power in Latin American countries including Mexico, Brazil, Honduras and Colombia (of all places), both the US and EU are beginning to ratchet their response in the region. The Commander of US Southern Command, General Laura Richardson, recently accused China of engaging in “debt-trap diplomacy” and Russia and China of “undermining democracy” in the region.
Beijing “doesn’t invest in Latin America, it extracts,” Richardson said before a Senate Armed Services Committee in March. She also recounted that in January the Russian deputy foreign minister had said he could neither confirm nor deny that Russia would send military assets to Cuba and Venezuela.
Senator Ted Cruz further escalated the war of words in a blustering floor speech on Aug 4 about Colombia’s election of its first ever left-wing President:
I rise today to discuss the acute dangers to American national security that have formed and are deepening across the Western hemisphere. These dangers have coalesced, Madame President, because of the comprehensive and catastrophic policies pursued by President Biden and his administration. Already nine governments in South America, Central America and the Caribbean are controlled by socialists. All of these governments, with only one exception*, are also overtly and ideologically anti-American.
They are committed to undermining American security and endangering Americans. This weekend, on Sunday, Colombia will become the tenth government within the region controlled by the hard left when the country’s new President Gustavo Petro will take office. I am deeply worried that once he does, Colombia will join the ranks of anti-American forces in Colombia. Petro is the first openly Marxist to be elected president of Colombia. He was brought to power by Colombia’s leftist fringe, including guerillas and terrorist groups.
* Although Cruz does not mention the “socialist” countries by name, my guess is that they are Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Honduras and Bolivia, and that the aforementioned exception is Chile.
Granted, Ted Cruz is only a US senator, and in the minority party at that, though that will probably change in November. While he may sit on the highly influential Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, his immoderate views do not reflect those of the Biden Administration, which has so far been surprisingly supportive of the Petro government — at least in public — even as Colombia has sought to rebuild diplomatic ties with its neighbor (and long-time US foe) Venezuela.
“The times have changed,” says Juan González, Biden’s Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs. “We are going to look for areas of common interest and we are going to advance them,” he told a packed auditorium of Colombian businessman last week, adding (and this is the interesting part):
“Forty years ago, the United States would have done everything possible to prevent the election of Gustavo Petro, and once in power it would have done almost everything possible to sabotage his government (…) A government’s ideology or where it sits on the political spectrum does not matter. If he is elected and governs democratically, we are going to look for areas of common interest and advance them; we are also going to communicate our concerns more.”
It would be nice to think this is true, that after more than 200 years of the Monroe Doctrine, of toppling democratically elected governments and killing their leaders because their policies do not fully align with US strategic and economic interests, Washington has finally mended its ways. But it is probably best to reserve judgment.
EU Joins the Race for Resources
The EU is also looking to refocus its attentions on Latin America, according to a document prepared by the European External Action Service (EEAS), headed by EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell. After receiving advance copy of the document, El País reports that Europe now feels ready once again to prioritize Latin America after being waylaid by “problems in its own immediate neighborhood,” in countries like Libya, Syria and now Ukraine, all of which have been through the rigmarole of a US or NATO-enabled war. Not exactly comforting.
While the US and Europe made war in Europe’s borderlands, China multiplied its investment in Latin America 26-fold between 2000 and 2020 and is now “the first or second most important trading partner of Latin American and Caribbean countries, displacing the EU and surpassing the United States in many countries.” Plus, 21 of the region’s 33 countries have joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
According to the document, Brussels will try to reverse this trend with a “qualitative leap” in the intensity of its relations and contact. “The credibility of the EU and its power and ability to leverage on the international scene is at stake,” warns the document.
What the document doesn’t say is that the EU’s credibility and ability to leverage on the international scene are already in tatters and arguably beyond repair, largely as a result of its own backfiring sanctions on Russia. That said, there are occasional doses of realism as the report charts the EU’s gradual loss of influence, though not once does it direct the blame to where it belongs (i.e. with itself):
At the beginning of his mandate, Borrell set out to strengthen the EU’s presence and influence in Latin America. But the pandemic prevented closer ties. And the Russian invasion of Ukraine has revealed not only that Europe has lost a lot of ground to China, but that many Latin American countries do not share the European response to the war launched by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The text notes that Europe has taken a back foot in many of the 33 countries that make up the region, while China’s economic interests and Russia’s political influence have gained a stronger foothold. The EU now wants to play catch up, which it will apparently do by throwing money at Latin America, just as the region braces for a “perfect storm, with rising interest rates and little margin when it comes to fiscal policy,” says Javi López, an MEP and president of the European delegation in the Euro-Latin American Parliamentary Assembly.
All told, Brussels is considering an investment package that could mobilize €8 billion, which is a drop in the ocean compared to what China brings to the table. But here’s the best part: according to the El País article, the EU is not being guided by “mere altruism” — “the EU document highlights that three countries in the area – Bolivia, Argentina and Chile – have 60% of the lithium reserves located on the planet, and Venezuela, Argentina and Brazil have important oil and gas reserves. These are hydrocarbons in which the EU is about to lose its main supplier: Russia.”
In other words, after trying to end its dependence on Russian energy, with limited success and disastrous consequences for the region’s economies, the energy-starved EU needs hydrocarbon energy, even in its dirtiest, most polluting forms, from wherever it can get it. And that includes Latin America. The EU assumes it should have easy access to the region’s resources, much as it has had for centuries. But times have changed. For the moment China is winning the resource race in the region, thanks largely to its well-honed strategy of offering all the perks of trade and investment with little in the way of conditions.