The West must work to regain lost credibility in Latin America
Is the West Losing Latin America? During the Cold War, this issue was debated feverishly in Washington and beyond. Today, the return of great power competition and the potential revival of spheres of influence – as well as the recent wave of left-wing electoral victories in the region – give it renewed prominence.
For the West, the looming specter of a searing conflict with regimes from Russia to China has again underscored the importance of Latin America as a partner. At the same time, however, the United States and its allies are concerned about the war in Ukraine, including its implications for energy markets and economic prosperity.
Political upheavals in Latin America will make effective engagement all the more difficult. Although the region has long been plagued by corruption, inequality and crises of confidence, it has made significant progress in recent years, reducing poverty – often achieved through social policy experiments funded by the export of raw materials – strengthening political stability.
But the pandemic has disrupted this process and ushered in a period of economic malaise and political instability. Latin America’s traditional political party systems have now broken down and the region seems firmly in the grip of populism and polarization.
Five of the six most populous South American countries are now ruled by leftist governments, albeit cut from a very different cloth than the Cuban or Venezuelan regimes. Peruvian leader Pedro Castillo is a self-proclaimed Marxist. In Chile – once a stronghold of free-market politics in the region – left-wing activist Gabriel Boric is in charge. Colombia, long considered a beacon of Latin American politics, recently elected Gustavo Petro as its president. And Brazil, the region’s most populous country and largest economy, may well join their ranks in the next presidential election in October.
There has been speculation that the region is on the verge of reverting to a Cold War-style posture of non-alignment.
Meanwhile, evidence of the West’s waning influence in Latin America continues to mount. At the United Nations General Assembly in February, five Latin American countries refused to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine (Bolivia, Cuba, El Salvador and Nicaragua abstained, while Venezuela refused to participate in the vote). And many Latin American governments have refused to join the West in imposing sanctions on Russia. This has fueled speculation that the region is on the verge of reverting to a Cold War-style non-alignment posture.
Additionally, several Latin American leaders – including Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and Bolivian President Luis Arce – have vowed to boycott last month’s Summit of the Americas if their Cuban, Venezuelan and Nicaraguan counterparts are excluded. A failed summit – and a major embarrassment for the US administration – was a real possibility.
The meeting was ultimately saved. But the result – a pro forma statement on migration and a somewhat toothless Partnership of the Americas for Economic Prosperity – was hardly impressive. Additionally, Obrador followed through on his threat not to run, and Bolivia, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras sent ministers rather than heads of state or government. It may not have been a debacle, but it won’t leave a lasting mark on the affairs of the hemisphere either.
This reflects Western failures as much as Latin American political developments. Although Joe Biden did not maintain the hostility towards Latin America of his predecessor, Donald Trump, his administration failed to establish an effective policy of regional engagement. Latin American countries are frustrated with Biden’s apparent indifference to them and his willingness to leave national considerations — including the looming midterm elections and politics of states with large Hispanic constituencies, like Florida. – conduct policy.
Europe did no better. Since it accepted “in principle” a free trade agreement with the Mercosur countries – an agreement which has not yet been ratified – the EU’s approach to Latin America was dull. He has failed to pursue effective pandemic diplomacy and now his attention is absorbed by the war in Ukraine, including the imperatives of bolstering its security and weaning itself off Russian energy.
Meanwhile, China continues to expand its presence in Latin America. From 2002 to 2021, China’s total trade with the region has skyrocketed from $18 billion to nearly $449 billion. At this rate, it will exceed $700 billion by 2035. These gains have been propelled in part by free trade agreements with Chile, Costa Rica and Peru. China is also working on an agreement with Ecuador and has engaged 21 Latin American countries in its Belt and Road Initiative.
China has achieved this success by offering all the benefits of trade and investment, with none of the strings attached. That’s not to say China isn’t making any demands, but they only come later, often in the form of hidden clauses. As they come to light, China has a strong foothold in the region – one that includes a growing military presence.
The West cannot afford to lose Latin America today any more than it could during the Cold War. A key producer of fuel and food, the region can fill important gaps in the supply chain. More fundamentally, revitalizing the rules-based international order will require the West to achieve some sort of critical mass with partners and allies, including Latin America.
This is why the West must work urgently to rebuild its lost credibility in Latin America. This will take time, commitment and diplomatic clout. As a first step, the United States and Europe should seek to establish cooperation in areas of mutual interest, such as climate change, public health and migration. The forthcoming Spanish Presidency of the Council of the EU offers an important opportunity to initiate progress. In any case, measures must be taken in the coming months.
Reviving relations with Latin America will not be easy in the polarized political climate that prevails in much of the West. But when the stakes are as high as they are today, we cannot afford to hide our heads in the sand.
• Ana Palacio, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Spain and former Senior Vice President and General Counsel of the World Bank Group, is a visiting lecturer at Georgetown University. © Syndicate Project
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