How the War in Ukraine Could Empower Maduro
Skyrocketing oil prices give Venezuela’s embattled leader less incentive to pursue sanctions relief.
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
The highlights this week: how the war in Ukraine could prolong Venezuela’s political crisis, Colombia decriminalizes abortion, and a Mexican marathoner completes a cross-country journey.
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When Anti-Imperialism Meets Noninterference
In the weeks before Russia began its large-scale invasion of Ukraine this Thursday, two Latin American presidents, Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and Alberto Fernández of Argentina, made pilgrimages to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The visits underscored the enduring political ties between Russia and several countries in the region.
Fernández said Argentina could become Russia’s “front door to the region,” while Bolsonaro voiced vague “solidarity” with Russia, prompting a rain of criticism from Washington that the leaders were not joining international efforts to condemn Russian preparations for military action in Ukraine.
Now that a full-blown Russian invasion is underway, Fernández’s administration has changed its tune. His spokesperson issued a statement Thursday calling for a halt to Russian military action.
While Bolsonaro did not immediately comment, Brazil’s foreign ministry called for a suspension of Russian hostilities, and Brazilian Vice President Hamilton Mourão said Western military force should be used to aid Ukraine. Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, said in his morning press conference that he opposed the war but did not condemn Russia by name.
Latin American countries have often been hesitant to criticize human rights violations committed by allies, claiming the principle of noninterference in other countries’ internal affairs. But for Argentina, another tenet seems to have overridden that principle in the last 48 hours: that of anti-imperialism. While all Latin American countries have colonial pasts, Argentina claims it battled a more recent imperial incursion during the 1982 Falklands War against the United Kingdom.
Many other Latin American leaders—including the presidents of Uruguay, Colombia, and Ecuador, as well as the president-elect of Chile—condemned Putin’s actions. Meanwhile, some foreign ministries—such as those of Peru and Bolivia—called for general de-escalation in more lukewarm statements.
But it’s among Russia’s closest allies in the region—Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua—where the new war may bring its most dramatic effects. These countries have for years leaned on Russian financial support while enduring heavy U.S. sanctions. Russia has provided them with foreign aid, loans, and arms sales, and, in the case of Venezuela, purchased its oil exports.
The intensity of these economic ties cuts a contrast with those enjoyed by the likes of Brazil and Argentina. Though these countries have flaunted their political links to Moscow in efforts to gain more international influence, they export less than 1 percent of their goods to Russia.
While the leaders of Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua did not immediately comment on Thursday’s invasion, they did speak up earlier in the week—when Russia ordered troops into the Ukrainian separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk after declaring them independent republics. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro declared “full support” for Russia, and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega praised Putin’s move. Cuba’s foreign affairs ministry called for a diplomatic solution to the crisis and said Russia had the right to defend itself.
Maduro’s decisive stance may sink the possibility of progress in internationally backed negotiations that began last year between his government and Venezuela’s political opposition in Mexico City. The talks could have led to some U.S. sanctions relief for Venezuela in exchange for Maduro making guarantees about the conditions for upcoming presidential elections in 2024. Maduro himself had called off the talks last October, and Washington urged him to rejoin last week.
That pathway now looks far narrower as Russia’s schism with the West—and the United States in particular—deepens.
Meanwhile, rapidly rising oil prices linked to the war in Ukraine put Venezuela, an OPEC member with the world’s largest oil reserves, in a stronger financial position. OPEC has resisted acting to lower prices even as they have skyrocketed in recent days. This means that, in the short term, Maduro needs sanctions relief from the United States even less.
Rising oil prices may benefit Maduro, but their otherwise adverse effects will be felt across Latin America, likely boosting inflation levels that are already among the highest experienced by any world region.
Friday, March 11: Gabriel Boric is inaugurated president of Chile.
Friday, March 11: The deadline for candidates to register for Colombia’s presidential election.
Sunday, March 13: Colombia holds legislative elections.
What We’re Following
Deadly disasters. The United Nations Environment Program released a new report this week on how global warming drives up the risk of catastrophic wildfires. The trend is tragically well illustrated in Argentina’s Corrientes province, where a drought has transformed regular pasture-clearing fires into uncontrolled blazes that have consumed 10 percent of the province and caused an estimated $230 million in economic losses. While the exact cause of some of the fires is still being investigated, they were so severe that Bolivia dispatched firefighters over the border.
Meanwhile, scientists say climate change is also behind the torrential rainfall that caused deadly mudslides in the Brazilian city of Petrópolis last week that killed over 180 people. In a four-hour period, Petrópolis received more rain than it usually does in the entire month of February, the World Resources Institute’s Caroline Rocha said.
Public health pioneer. American doctor and medical anthropologist Paul Farmer, who died unexpectedly this week, was mourned in Peru and Haiti, where he spent years working to direct international donations and shape global health regulations toward what he called “a preferential option for the poor” in health care.
The term comes from Catholic liberation theology, which encourages political action on behalf of the poor and oppressed, and has fueled progressive activism across Latin America since the 1960s. Farmer studied the theology alongside one of its main founders, Peruvian theologist Gustavo Gutiérrez.
Farmer was a longtime advocate for accessible drug prices in developing countries, and his push to get his Peruvian patients treatments for multidrug-resistant tuberculosis, together with the work of other campaigners, eventually resulted in pharmaceutical companies lowering prices in the late 1990s. In the final months of his life, Farmer advocated for forgoing patents on COVID-19 vaccines via a World Trade Organization waiver.
Everyday poetry. Mexican Dominican photographer Alejandro Cartagena’s new photo essay in the New Yorker features portraits taken on Mexican commuter buses that transport early rising workers from the periphery of Monterrey into its city center. The commute includes moments of intimacy, uncertainty, and sometimes violence, writes Alice Driver in the article that accompanies the images.
“Cartagena’s photographs are as political as they are poetic,” Driver writes. “From inside the bus, he captures the tiny, Lego-like affordable housing structure that are ubiquitous on the outskirts of major cities … the deserted areas where some commuters get picked up, for example, speak to a lack of public service.”
Said Cartagena, “Somebody decided to buy a house that they can afford in the middle of nowhere to fulfill a dream that we’ve imported from the U.S.—that we should all have a house.”
Question of the Week
On Sunday, Mexican marathoner Germán Silva completed a run across Mexico that he began on Nov. 5, 2021, in Tijuana, on the border with Southern California. He then cut diagonally across the middle of Mexico to finish in Tulum, on its southeast peninsula. Around how many miles did Silva run?
Silva ran 3,134 miles throughout Mexico. The Washington Post’s Kevin Sieff ran alongside him for part of the journey, reflecting on Silva’s mission to show what Silva called “the veins of Mexico.” It was a pivot away from beaches and narcos to what Sieff described as “a ripple of unnamed mountains, a stretch of desert speckled with wild agave, and an abandoned hacienda whose centuries-old bell chimed in the wind.”
In Focus: A New Bar for Abortion Rights
On Tuesday, in the Bogotá neighborhood of Teusaquillo, the Oriéntame clinic reported it gave Colombia’s first free-access abortion to a 34-year-old Venezuelan migrant woman who works selling coffee as a street vendor.
A day earlier, Colombia’s top court had ruled that abortion until 24 weeks of pregnancy was no longer a crime. Previously, it had been legal only in cases of rape, fetal deformity, or danger to the mother’s health.
With the ruling, Colombia made history for abortion access—not only in Latin America, where most countries restrict or fully ban the procedure, but also worldwide. Very few countries also permit abortions up to 24 weeks, Canada and the Netherlands among them; for many, the cutoff is 12 weeks (South Africa) or 14 weeks (France and Spain).
In their legal arguments and public messaging, Colombia’s abortion rights advocates leaned on strategies that have recently succeeded in Argentina and Mexico. Those include staging public marches and messaging campaigns on social and traditional media, and pushing celebrities and politicians to position themselves on the issue.
In December 2020, Argentina’s legislature legalized abortion for up to 14 weeks of pregnancy. Last September, Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled that criminalizing the procedure is unconstitutional, setting precedent for individual states to enact laws that allow it. Only four Mexican states had previously permitted abortion; that October, the Mexican state of Baja California became the first to legalize it following the Supreme Court’s ruling.
In just over a year, these developments in three of Latin America’s most populous countries show how feminist activism in the region has grown increasingly networked and politically adept. Mexico’s and Colombia’s abortion rights activists have even adopted the same symbol and nickname as Argentina’s: a green bandana, signifier of what they call an advancing “green tide.”
In several countries, the tide is also visible in opinion polls: According to Ipsos, between 2014 and 2021, the number of people who thought abortion should be legal in some or all circumstances rose from 65 to 73 percent in Chile, 53 to 64 percent in Brazil, 51 to 59 percent in Mexico, and 64 to 79 percent in Argentina.
Yet the tide is rising slowly. In countries such as Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, abortion remains completely banned, even in cases of rape. In Honduras, where nearly 1 in 4 women have been physically or sexually abused by a partner, at least 40 percent of pregnancies are unplanned or unwanted, and in 2017 more than 8,600 women were hospitalized for complications of miscarriages or clandestine abortions.
And even where abortion is legal in the region, it is often inaccessible due to doctors who remain personally opposed to the procedure. That was the case last year at most clinics in Argentina’s northern province of Jujuy. And it was sometimes the case at Colombian clinics even when women had been raped and sought abortions under the country’s previous legislation.
Colombia’s next step will be for its legislature and health authorities to regulate the procedure. After President Iván Duque spoke out against the court ruling, doctor and bioethicist Ana Cristina González, who helped prepare the lawsuit, said she expected to see fresh efforts to block access.
That is exactly what’s playing out in neighboring Ecuador, whose top court legalized abortion in cases of rape in April 2021. The country’s Congress created the legal guidelines for its implementation last Tuesday, but President Guillermo Lasso said he will veto the new law.
Before Colombia has a chance to move further, however, it will elect a new legislature in March and a new president in May. That’s an incentive to “vote well,” González said in an interview with journalist María Jimena Duzán. Some top-polling presidential candidates celebrated the ruling, including front-runner Gustavo Petro. Another frontrunner, Rodolfo Hernández, did not immediately comment.
“We have transformed the public debate in Colombia,” González added. “We’re ready for any confrontation that comes.”
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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