Latin America Brief

A one-stop weekly digest of politics, economics, technology, and culture in Latin America. Delivered Friday.

Deforestation Déjà Vu at COP26

Past conservation efforts have floundered. Latin American nations will decide whether the new pact succeeds.

By , the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Latin America Brief.
Chilean Environment Minister and COP25 president Carolina Schmidt (center) meets with delegates from Indigenous communities during the COP26 U.N. climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, on Nov. 3.
Chilean Environment Minister and COP25 president Carolina Schmidt (center) meets with delegates from Indigenous communities during the COP26 U.N. climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, on Nov. 3. PAUL ELLIS/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.

The highlights this week: Latin American countries line up behind a new forest protection pledge at COP26, the International Criminal Court announces a probe into alleged abuses in Venezuela, and Brazilians flock to a controversial film.

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Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.

The highlights this week: Latin American countries line up behind a new forest protection pledge at COP26, the International Criminal Court announces a probe into alleged abuses in Venezuela, and Brazilians flock to a controversial film.

If you would like to receive Latin America Brief in your inbox every Friday, please sign up here.


We’ve Been Here Before

On Tuesday, the third day of the U.N. climate change conference in Glasgow, Scotland, known as COP26, more than 100 countries set a non-binding pledge to end all deforestation by 2030. Deforestation contributes to around a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions; in some Latin American countries, particularly those home to the Amazon rainforest, its share of emissions is even higher.

If that all sounds familiar, it’s because in 2014, several of the same nations signed the New York Declaration on Forests, vowing to halve deforestation by 2020 and end it altogether by 2030. Last November, a progress report by the declaration’s backers—which include several environmental nongovernmental organizations and the German government—found countries failed to meet the first goal and were off track to meet the second.

The new promise is different for a few key reasons. For one, Brazil and more than 60 additional new countries, including Argentina and Paraguay, signed on. Second, governments, banks, and philanthropies pledged to contribute $19 billion to make the end of deforestation possible.

Of this, $1.7 billion is slated to go to Indigenous groups, who are custodians of more than 36 percent of the world’s intact forest landscapes. In Latin America and the Caribbean, U.N. research found deforestation was lower in formally recognized Indigenous territories than in forest areas that fell outside them. The other funds will go to initiatives such as deforestation-free soy and cattle projects and direct payments for countries that prove they reduced forest loss.

Additionally, coalitions of both governments and big multinational agricultural companies vowed to work toward promoting sustainability and forest preservation in commodity supply chains. Twelve major global commodities firms are due to present their plans by next year’s U.N. climate conference in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt.

None of this is legally binding, and Tuesday’s pledge was otherwise short on details as to how these goals may be achieved. Discouragingly, under Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration, deforestation in the Amazon rainforest has risen to its highest levels in 12 years. Deforestation in Colombia increased by 8 percent last year alone. And Bolivia, home to more than 10 percent of the Amazon River Basin, did not even sign on to the new promise.

Still, the fact that countries like Brazil, Colombia, and Argentina signed both the deforestation pledge and another big COP26 pact to reduce methane emissions is significant. Despite their weak climate records as of late, financial incentives appear to have been effective in pressing them toward green promises.

Brazil’s poor deforestation record at the start of Bolsonaro’s term, for example, is delaying a free trade deal between Mercosur, a South American trade bloc, and the European Union. It also prompted environmentalists to lobby the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development against accepting Brazil as a member. Argentina and Colombia, struggling with sovereign debt loads that increased during the pandemic, have advocated for debt-for-climate swaps that would provide debt relief in exchange for environmental progress. Lenders like the International Monetary Fund have signaled they might support such a move.

In other words, money talks. Now, to turn ambitious pledges into realities, much depends on external financial support for low- and middle-income countries actually materializing. The remainder of COP26 is expected to provide more clarity on this front.

The aforementioned debt-for-climate swaps are one form of potential relief. On Monday, Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso called for such a swap to fund a new conservation zone around the Galápagos Islands. Another financial boost could come via a global carbon pricing system—for which leaders are set to discuss possible frameworks in the coming days. Latin American leaders are also soliciting direct private sector investments in their renewables sectors. On Monday, Australian mining group Fortescue Metals announced an up to $8.4 billion green hydrogen project in Argentina’s Río Negro Province, which the Argentine government said would create more than 15,000 jobs.

Financial support is just one ingredient necessary for a green energy transition. Decarbonization also requires dedicated planning and action by the Latin American governments themselves, many of which—with some exceptions, such as Costa Rica and Chile—have not made it a top priority in recent years.

Last month, Fiona Clouder, the COP26 regional ambassador for Latin America, told Diálogo Chino that countries could be doing much more in the fight against climate change. She noted that more aggressive climate action could “raise the profile of the region,” bringing not just financial benefits, but geopolitical ones.


The Week Ahead

Friday, Nov. 5: European Union envoy Josep Borrell wraps up a two-day trip to Brazil to meet with top foreign ministry and defense officials. He will also visit a center for Venezuelan refugees.

Sunday, Nov. 7: Nicaragua holds general elections for president and 90 members of its National Assembly.

Monday, Nov. 8: The foreign ministers of Russia and Venezuela hold talks.

Tuesday, Nov. 9: Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador chairs a U.N. Security Council debate on the causes of international insecurity.


What We’re Following

ICC vs. Maduro. On Wednesday, the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced it will open a probe into alleged crimes against humanity committed by Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s government. The court began looking into the possibility of a formal investigation into the country—its first ever in Latin America—in the wake of a 2017 government crackdown on demonstrators, and it said there is evidence that crimes, including arbitrary and abusive detentions, have been committed “since at least April 2017.” Maduro said he disagrees with the ICC’s decision but will respect it.

Troll farm takedown. Facebook and its parent company, Meta, announced it had removed a troll farm of more than 900 accounts linked to Nicaragua’s government ahead of the country’s general election on Sunday. A CID Gallup poll last month found only 9 percent of the Nicaraguan electorate supports President Daniel Ortega’s ruling party; however, it is still expected to win the election after arresting dozens of opposition candidates and dissenters. Facebook has been under increasing pressure to fight disinformation in Latin America after recent leaks and reporting have pointed to the weakness of its content moderation in languages other than English.

Meta’s action, while important, comes after Nicaragua has effectively slid into autocracy. It raises the question of whether the company will be similarly aggressive against disinformation in countries where democracy is shaky but still in place. One example is Brazil, where the Bolsonaro administration’s support for disinformation campaigns has been well documented in Brazilian media and congressional investigations. A recent Facebook takedown of a video that Bolsonaro livestreamed, where he shared false information about COVID-19 vaccines and AIDS, suggests the answer may be yes.

Chilean presidential candidates José Antonio Kast (right) and Gabriel Boric (left) talk during a radio debate at Gabriela Mistral cultural center in Santiago, Chile, on Nov. 2.

Chilean presidential candidates José Antonio Kast (right) and Gabriel Boric (left) talk during a radio debate at Gabriela Mistral cultural center in Santiago, Chile, on Nov. 2.Marcelo Hernandez/Getty Images

Battle of the extremes. On Nov. 21, Chile will also elect a new president. If no candidate earns a majority of the vote, the top two candidates will face off in a December runoff election. That contest is expected to be between far-right candidate José Antonio Kast and left-wing candidate Gabriel Boric. Kast, who is known for his anti-migrant sentiment, is continuing to rise in the polls, trailing Boric by only around 6 percentage points in a late October simulation of the possible runoff. Boric tested positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday and thus will take a break from public appearances in his campaign’s final stretch.

Migration crackdown. It’s not just Washington that is taking a hard stance against Haitian migrants. The Dominican Republic, the only country to share a land border with Haiti, took several steps this week to curtail Haitians’ freedoms in the country. On Monday, the Dominican Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced it would pause a student visa program for Haitians. On Wednesday, the federal government followed up by saying it plans to audit a program that had granted Haitian migrants regular status.

The program was launched in 2013 after the Dominican Republic’s Constitutional Court effectively revoked birthright citizenship from people born on its soil to Haitian parents. Many of the program’s beneficiaries over the past eight years have been Dominican-born people of Haitian descent.


Question of the Week

From March 2020 to May 2021, the number of billionaires in Latin America increased from 76 to 107 people, according to Forbes. The combined net worth of these individuals grew by $196 billion. That’s roughly the size of the economy of which Latin American country?

Peru’s GDP was around $210 billion in 2019, according to the U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.

According to Forbes, Latin American billionaires’ total wealth has grown by at least 40 percent during the pandemic so far. The numbers were compiled by Luis Felipe López-Calva, the U.N. Development Program’s regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean.


In Focus: The Guerrilla Biopic That Bolsonaro Doesn’t Want You to Watch

The cast and crew of Marighella pose during the 69th Berlin International Film Festival in Berlin, Germany, on Feb. 15, 2019.

The cast and crew of Marighella pose during the 69th Berlin International Film Festival in Berlin, Germany, on Feb. 15, 2019.Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

More than two years since the Brazilian biopic Marighella premiered to a standing ovation at the Berlin International Film Festival, Brazilians are finally getting to see it in theaters for the first time.

Director Wagner Moura said the film suffered a censorship attempt by the Bolsonaro administration, and delays and controversies surrounding its distribution have given it “the aura of a pop phenomenon,” Amanda Capuano wrote for Veja magazine. That certainly appeared the case when I went to see Marighella Monday night in Rio de Janeiro; theaters were so packed, it had been hard to find tickets in the city.

The film tells the story of Carlos Marighella, who served as a lawmaker for Brazil’s Communist Party in the 1940s before leading an armed guerrilla group during Brazil’s 1964 to 1985 military dictatorship. By the time secret police officers killed Marighella in 1969, they had classified him as the regime’s “public enemy number one.” The film focuses on the last five years of his life.

It is a skillful directing debut for Moura, who is known for his acting roles as Captain Nascimento in Brazil’s Tropa de Elite films and as Pablo Escobar in Netflix’s Narcos. Far from a hagiography, the film questions Marighella’s political tactics and portrays the brutalities his group committed. Meditations on family and moments of dark humor are threaded between action scenes, which were filmed with a hand-held camera in a style Moura said was inspired by The Battle of Algiers.

Although nominally about the past, Marighella created a stir because of its connection to Brazil today. Bolsonaro has praised Brazil’s dictatorship throughout his political career but rarely are its practices of torture so vividly portrayed as in this film. When a federal government agency blocked funds that would have been used to finalize the film for distribution in 2019, it gave a bureaucratic justification. But Bolsonaro made comments at the time about needing to “filter” public funding for certain films, and his son Carlos tweeted: “Request denied! If it were a different time, the outcome would have been different.”

Now, Bolsonaro’s supporters have organized a campaign to give the film low ratings on IMDb, and when Moura made plans to screen the film for land rights activists in rural Bahia state, Brazil, this week, armed men temporarily kidnapped several of the activists ahead of the event. State police are investigating the attack.

Despite these efforts, thousands of Brazilians are being exposed to a fateful period of their country’s history in unusually sharp detail. The debates portrayed in the film—and the controversy they have provoked among viewers—show how, almost 40 years later, the military dictatorship continues to polarize Brazilian politics.

Catherine Osborn is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Latin America Brief. She is a print and radio journalist based in Rio de Janeiro. Twitter: @cculbertosborn

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