Washington Learns to Live With Regional Differences on Ukraine
The White House is mellowing its public criticism of the stances Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico have taken on the war.
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
The highlights this week: The United States looks past Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico’s wavering on Ukraine, a major endorsement shakes up Colombia’s presidential race, and El Salvador’s mass detention campaign earns its president high approval ratings.
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Unpacking the Tone Shift
Late last week, the Organization of American States (OAS) voted to suspend Russia as a permanent observer over its invasion of Ukraine. Although no member states voted against the measure, eight abstained. They included some more autocratic countries, such as El Salvador, as well as Latin America’s three largest economies: Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina—which are democracies. While the triad has at times sided with Washington in U.N. votes condemning the war, it has resisted joining Western sanctions efforts against Moscow.
In the days leading up to and following Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, the Biden administration publicly criticized Brazil’s and Mexico’s interactions with the Kremlin. White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s mid-February visit to Moscow suggested Brazil “may be on the other side of where the majority of the global community stands.” On March 24, U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Ken Salazar told a Mexican congressional committee that Mexican rapprochement with Moscow “can never happen.”
But now, more than two months into the war, Washington’s tone has changed—at least publicly.
This week, a high-level U.S. State Department delegation held a series of meetings in Brasília on strengthening business and security ties between Brazil and the United States. Victoria Nuland, the U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, tweeted a statement celebrating “the strengths and depth of our partnership” and declaring that “the U.S. and Brazil stand together to promote democracy, security, and economic prosperity.”
On Tuesday, Argentine Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner met with Gen. Laura Richardson, the head of U.S. Southern Command, which oversees U.S. military activities in Latin America and the Caribbean, to discuss issues including women’s role in peacekeeping. Southcom tweeted that “Argentina is an important & valued regional security partner.”
If the visits included U.S. admonitions of the countries’ stances on Russia, they were given in private. Similarly, public disagreements between the United States and Mexico in recent weeks have focused on matters other than the war, such as Mexico’s electricity reform.
Several factors may explain the new moderation in U.S. messaging. For one, it could reflect a growing understanding in Washington that much of the global south is hesitant to jump headfirst into a conflict with echoes of the Cold War. U.S. public admonitions toward India, for example—which has similarly refused to unequivocally condemn Russia—have decidedly softened in recent weeks. And overtures by the Biden administration to countries from South Africa to Saudi Arabia have not succeeded in recruiting those countries to join the Western sanctions campaign or help lower global oil prices.
Washington’s calculus appears to be that differences over the war in Ukraine can be set aside if it means securing allies in its competition with China. When Richardson testified to the U.S. Congress about security threats in the Southern Hemisphere in March—several weeks into the war in Ukraine—her prepared comments warning about Chinese engagement in the Western Hemisphere were nine paragraphs long, versus just one devoted to Russia.
Richardson voiced concerns that a Chinese-run space research facility in the Argentine city of Neuquén could track U.S. satellites and warned about Chinese investments in a nuclear power plant, railroad, and dam in the country. On her visit to Buenos Aires, Cenital reported, Richardson was angling to sell Argentina an F-16 fighter plane in order to draw the country away from Beijing and toward Washington.
The White House may also be softening its tone as part of an effort to advance cooperation on other fronts—such as climate policy, investment, and migration—before it hosts the Summit of the Americas, a gathering of OAS heads of state, in June. Washington holds sway over the guest list for the event, which has not yet been released.
“The State Department doesn’t want to sour the run-up to the summit by raising issues with key governments so close to the ‘big day’—especially when it’s not likely to be a long invitation list and some heads of state could decide not to show,” Chatham House’s Christopher Sabatini told Foreign Policy.
Despite differences between the United States and Latin American countries over how to handle Moscow, the geopolitical repercussions of the war could tighten business ties between them. The United States has already started buying more Latin American fuel oil to offset embargoed Russian products. It is also looking to link up with supply chains for essential goods in nearby and politically aligned countries. The U.S. effort to “friend-shore” supply chains, as Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen calls it, began in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and has only hastened since in response to the war in Ukraine.
It seems that nonaligned democracies in the Western Hemisphere still appear friendly enough to Washington to warrant economic overtures. Whether those end up translating into new investments depends on how Latin American countries respond.
The Week Ahead
Friday, April 29: U.S. President Joe Biden and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador hold a virtual meeting.
Friday, April 29: Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu wraps up a tour through Latin America, including visits to Uruguay, Brazil, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, and Panama.
Thursday, May 5: Mexico celebrates its victory over French forces at Puebla in 1862.
What We’re Following
Down with the crown. On Monday, the island nation of Antigua and Barbuda, a Commonwealth realm, where Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II is head of state, told a visiting Prince Edward that it wants to break off ties to the British crown “at some point.” Edward was visiting with his wife, Sophie, the Countess of Wessex, as part of a Caribbean tour. Antigua and Barbuda follows Barbados, which officially made the split last year, and Jamaica, which recently announced plans to be next.
Antigua and Barbuda’s prime minister, Gaston Browne, did not give a precise date for when his country’s transition to a republic would occur, adding that he had a more immediate priority: pushing London for reparations payments for slavery. That was also the ask on the royal couple’s previous stop, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, where they were greeted by protesters.
FP’s Mary Yang explains why so many Caribbean nations have made the recent push to break up with Britain and are demanding reparations.
Key endorsement. On Wednesday, the leadership of Colombia’s powerful Liberal Party, which includes lawmakers ranging from the center-left to center-right, threw its official endorsement behind right-wing candidate Federico Gutiérrez for the country’s May 29 presidential election.
Both Gutiérrez and his top-polling opponent, leftist Gustavo Petro, had been vying for the party’s support. The Liberal Party is a longtime kingmaker in Colombian politics but did not run a candidate in the centrist presidential primaries last month. Some of its rank-and-file members broke with party leadership to say they would vote for Petro.
As of polling released on April 22, Petro was leading Gutiérrez by some 23.8 to 38 percent of voter support. It is yet unclear how this week’s endorsement may affect those numbers. If no candidate wins more than 50 percent in the election’s first round, the top two will advance to a runoff on June 19.
Liberal Party support was key to conservative President Iván Duque’s victory in 2018. Petro may aim to play down the party’s endorsement of his opponent by emphasizing Duque’s low popularity ratings.
Anti-racist Carnival. Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival, generally considered the largest Carnival in the world, returned last weekend after a one-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The festival is usually held during the run-up to Ash Wednesday, in February or early March, but was delayed until after Easter due a rise in cases of the omicron variant.
The traditional float and parade contest between different samba academies often features references to important moments in Brazilian history. This year, a disproportionate number of samba academies designed their musical arrangements around themes of anti-racism.
One school included a float that depicted a statue with “racism” scrawled on it being pulled down by demonstrators, echoing a real protest that occurred at a statuein São Paulo last year. Another opened with a tribute to George Floyd, the Black man murdered by a police officer in Minnesota in 2020. The winning samba school, Grande Rio, designed its parade around homages to the Afro-Brazilian deity Exu, who connects humans with the world of the divine.
These performances were especially noteworthy given that 2022 marks the 200th anniversary of Brazil’s official independence from the Portuguese crown—allusions to which were notably absent, O Globo’s Flávia Oliveira wrote. Brazil’s 1822 independence kept power in the hands of much of the same white, male Portuguese elite, who simply declared themselves an independent monarchy rather than part of the Portuguese empire. Today’s artists preferred instead to talk about the continued legacy of slavery, which was not abolished until 1888.
Question of the Week
Elon Musk, who moved closer to a possible purchase of Twitter this week, has used the platform to weigh in on debates on Latin American politics in the past. In which country did he insinuate that the United States might have aided in a coup in the last five years, prompting waves of anti-American messaging in response?
When a Twitter user accused the United States of supporting a change of Bolivia’s government in 2019 to obtain the country’s lithium, Musk tweeted, “We will coup whoever we want! Deal with it.”
“It’s inaccurate. It’s unethical. It damages [U.S.] policy and reputation. Musk later deleted it, but that doesn’t make much of a difference,” the Latin America Risk Report’s James Bosworth wrote in response.
In Focus: Bukele’s Mass Detentions
On Sunday, El Salvador’s legislature extended a state of emergency in the country for another 30 days. President Nayib Bukele had first called for the emergency powers in response to a spate of gang-linked killings in the country in early March.
The state of emergency suspends due process and allows for arrests of children as young as 12. Authorities can arrest anyone they accuse of being affiliated with gangs.
Bukele said more than 17,000 people have been imprisoned as part of the state of emergency—an extremely high number in a country of only 6.5 million people. Family members of those detained have reported being unable to get updates about detainees’ whereabouts. At least four of the newly detained prisoners have died, La Prensa reported.
Journalists and human rights organizations have sounded alarms, with Amnesty International calling the measures a “perfect storm of human rights violations.” But even so, a CID Gallup poll of 1,200 Salvadorans last week found that 91 percent approved of the measures. Bukele remains one of the world’s most popular leaders.
After homicides in El Salvador initially dropped dramatically under Bukele, who took office in 2019, many Salvadorans see him as “the best option they have,” Florida International University’s José Miguel Cruz told the New York Times. March’s weekend of homicides, when more than 60 people were killed across the country, was the exception to the decline.
Bukele has become the latest face of why tough-on-crime policies remain popular in much of Latin America—even if they are not truly responsible for decreases in violence.
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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