Latin America Brief

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

Lula’s Tricky Comeback

The Brazilian leftist has crafted an unusual alliance with the center. Will it sully or save him?

Osborn-Catherine-foreign-policy-columnist15
Catherine Osborn
By , the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Latin America Brief.
Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva speaks during an event to announce his pre-candidacy for the October presidential elections with running mate Geraldo Alckmin at Expo Center Norte in São Paulo on May 7.
Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva speaks during an event to announce his pre-candidacy for the October presidential elections with running mate Geraldo Alckmin at Expo Center Norte in São Paulo on May 7.
Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva speaks during an event to announce his pre-candidacy for the October presidential elections with running mate Geraldo Alckmin at Expo Center Norte in São Paulo on May 7. Buda Mendes/Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.

The highlights this week: Leftist icon Lula launches his fresh bid for the Brazilian presidency, Colombia’s Gulf Clan flexes its muscles, and Honduras reviews a trade deal with the United States.

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

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.

The highlights this week: Leftist icon Lula launches his fresh bid for the Brazilian presidency, Colombia’s Gulf Clan flexes its muscles, and Honduras reviews a trade deal with the United States.

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


An Alliance Debuts

Brazil’s presidential election on Oct. 2 will be Latin America’s most consequential this year given the country’s size and influence. Some Brazilian observers also say it will be the country’s most important contest in a generation due to President Jair Bolsonaro’s hostility toward democratic institutions. The far-right incumbent has already signaled he may dispute the election results if he loses.

Brazil’s official campaign period—when candidates can begin airing television ads and holding public rallies—begins on Aug. 16. A few other activities, however, such as giving interviews and speaking at closed events, are permitted earlier. A much-hyped speech at one such event last Saturday served as the informal launch of the campaign of Bolsonaro’s top opponent: leftist former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, better known as Lula.

Lula has been signaling a run for president for over a year and has continually led in polls of potential electoral matchups. But the former leader, who held office from 2003 to 2010 and was jailed for corruption in 2018 in a sentence that has since been overturned, has held back on releasing details of his platform. In recent weeks, he finalized an alliance with an unlikely running mate: former São Paulo Gov. Geraldo Alckmin.

The pairing would have been unthinkable only a few years ago. The two politicians ran against each other in Brazil’s 2006 presidential election, and in 2016, the center-right Alckmin supported the impeachment of Lula’s hand-picked presidential successor, Dilma Rousseff. Now, he and Lula are urging voters to join a broad coalition to “defend democracy.”

“Without Lula, there will not be a transfer of power in the country. And without a transfer of power, there will be no guarantees for our democracy,” Alckmin said Saturday. He spoke via video link because he had tested positive for COVID-19.

In Lula’s speech, some details of his yet-to-be-released platform began to emerge. Lula suggested he would increase the role of state banks to drive local economic development, invest more in scientific research and the health care system, and promote an “active” foreign policy that encourages Latin American integration and engagement with other countries in the BRICS grouping of emerging economies: Russia, India, China, and South Africa.

Lula—who is usually known for impassioned and extemporaneous comments—read his speech slowly at Saturday’s event, likely reflecting careful negotiations over its phrasing and reported urgings from his communications team to avoid any potential controversy. In recent weeks, Lula has walked back comments criticizing police and supporting abortion rights.

The Lula-Alckmin ticket was designed to attract centrist and center-right voters, but it is still too early to tell how undecided Brazilians will respond to it. Between December 2021—when Lula and Alckmin were seen dining together—and last week, the polling gap between Lula and Bolsonaro in simulations of a runoff election fell from 20 to 11 points, according to PoderData. Lula’s approach to choosing a running mate is markedly different than that of Colombian presidential frontrunner Gustavo Petro, who emphasized his progressive credentials by choosing Black environmental activist Fráncia Márquez.

An additional uncertainty hanging over Brazil’s election is how Bolsonaro would react to a loss—and how both Brazilian and international actors would respond if he alleges election fraud in an attempt to stay in office. Bolsonaro and his military allies have sowed this possibility for months by criticizing Brazil’s electronic voting machines. If this sounds familiar, it may be because Bolsonaro is an admirer of former U.S. President Donald Trump and his political tactics.

Indeed, writing in Foreign Policy in March, the Getulio Vargas Foundation’s Oliver Stuenkel argued that Bolsonaro could be inspired by the enduring strength of the U.S. Republican Party’s Trumpist wing despite its role in the U.S. Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021.

“Now, the second coming of Trump’s party may lead Bolsonaro and his advisors to believe that rejecting electoral results—even if futile where maintaining power is concerned—could provide him with long-term benefits,” Stuenkel wrote.

The potential for crisis has caught the attention of some U.S. diplomats. In an April 30 op-ed in the Brazilian newspaper O Globo, Scott Hamilton, a former U.S. consul general in Rio de Janeiro, criticized both Bolsonaro’s election threats and the Biden administration’s “passive” response. He wrote that Washington should threaten Bolsonaro with sanctions if he attempts to interfere with the electoral process.

Hamilton also told NPR that “we are risking sleepwalking to disaster as Brazil prepares to hold these elections.”

In an interview with the BBC Brasil published Wednesday, U.S. Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland did not respond directly to a question about what Washington would do in the case of an attempt at subverting electoral results but said that the United States “want[s] to see, for the Brazilian people, free and fair elections.” She also voiced confidence in Brazil’s electoral system.

If Lula and Alckmin defeat Bolsonaro by a wide margin, as polls currently predict, it would be far more difficult for Bolsonaro to contest the results. But plenty of time and possible new developments still lie between now and Oct. 2.


Upcoming Events

Monday, May 16: The first draft of Chile’s new constitution will be ready for internal review.

Sunday, May 29: Colombia holds the first round of its presidential election.


What We’re Following

Wavering summit. A string of leaks and warnings this week suggested that several Latin American and Caribbean countries—including the two largest, Mexico and Brazil—might boycott next month’s Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, the flagship semi-regular gathering of Western Hemisphere heads of state.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador threatened not to attend the summit if Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela were not also invited. Antigua and Barbuda’s ambassador in Washington warned of a possible boycott by the 15 member states of CARICOM, the Caribbean Community, for the same reason. Bolsonaro also reportedly plans to skip the summit, though he hasn’t given a reason.

As this year’s host, the Biden administration controls the guest list. It had previously signaled it planned to exclude Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela from the summit, saying it would invite the “democratically elected leaders” of the region. As of Thursday afternoon, it had not yet issued any invitations.

If these no-shows come to pass, they would throw a symbolic wrench in the idea of Western Hemispheric unity that the Biden White House has emphasized in its preparations for the event. The Los Angeles police chief has already described the event’s estimated $15.7 million security cost as a “burden” on the city’s budget; leader boycotts could make it a bitter one.

Already, U.S. claims that it is committed to strengthening relations with Latin America are belied by a lack of ambassadors posted to the region, Chatham House’s Christopher Sabatini argued in Foreign Policy last week. “For the summit to make [the] leap into relevance … the Biden administration must first define a sufficiently detailed, enticing agenda to attract the heads of state to travel to Los Angeles,” he wrote.

Trade troubles. In a Sunday speech taking stock of her first 100 days in office, Honduran President Xiomara Castro said she planned to review Honduras’s participation in a 2004 trade deal between Central American countries and the United States known as CAFTA-DR.

The deal “seriously limits our freedom to reach sovereignty” in the agriculture sector, she said.

CAFTA-DR reduced Honduras’s authority to tax subsidized agriculture products from the United States, which then flooded the Honduran market and made it more difficult for local agriculture to compete.

U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai alluded to this dynamic in May 2021, when she said that some agricultural aspects of CAFTA-DR “have prevented the agreements from generating the greatest benefits for the region.” Tai’s comments suggest that Washington, too, might be open to reviewing the deal.

The Sotheby’s New Bond Street exhibition of Diego Maradona’s historic 1986 World Cup match-worn shirt opens to the public at Sotheby’s in London on April 20.

The Sotheby’s New Bond Street exhibition of Diego Maradona’s historic 1986 World Cup match-worn shirt opens to the public at Sotheby’s in London on April 20.Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Sotheby’s

Maradona’s new record. Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona has broken a record from the grave. On May 4, the jersey Maradona wore when he netted an iconic goal against England in the 1986 World Cup was sold at an online auction for $9.3 million. That’s more than the $5.6 million paid for a Babe Ruth jersey in 2019—which at the time set the record for the most expensive sports jersey and most expensive piece of sports memorabilia ever sold.

Maradona’s 1986 goal was known as the “hand of God” because he scored it with his hand. This is, of course, illegal under international soccer rules, but referees did not revoke the goal at the time because they had not seen it properly. (Video revision of alleged soccer rule violations began only in 2018.) Maradona later said his goal was revenge against England for its victory in the 1982 Falklands War.


Question of the Week

Chile is trying to get Ecuador kicked out of this year’s World Cup in Qatar (and then take its place, as Chile just missed the qualifying cutoff) by alleging that one of the country’s players is not an Ecuadorian citizen. Where does Chile claim that defender Byron Castillo was born?

Chile’s national soccer association turned in paperwork to soccer governing body FIFA that says Castillo was born in Colombia three years earlier than his self-reported birthdate in Ecuador. If FIFA accepts the claim, it could strip Ecuador of some of its victories in World Cup qualifying games, potentially bumping it off the roster for the tournament.


In Focus: The Gulf Clan’s “Armed Strike”

Soldiers stand guard next to a truck burned by members of the Gulf Clan drug cartel on a road near Yarumal, Colombia, on May 6.

Soldiers stand guard next to a truck burned by members of the Gulf Clan drug cartel on a road near Yarumal, Colombia, on May 6.Joaquin Sarmiento/AFP via Getty Images

Between May 5 and May 10, members of Colombian drug cartel the Gulf Clan ordered transportation and commerce to halt in much of the northern half of the country, where they have a strong presence. The group enforced the order by carrying out patrols and burning vehicles in the middle of roads; in many municipalities, residents stayed indoors.

The group has decreed a so-called armed strike before. This time, they aimed to voice objection to their former leader Dario Antonio Úsuga David’s May 4 extradition to the United States and to demonstrate their considerable power over much of Colombian territory.

After civil society organizations appealed to both the gang and Colombia’s national government to put a stop to the situation, saying the gang was carrying out “violent acts against civil society,” Colombia’s government said it reinforced troops in the affected regions. But residents criticized it for acting too late. The events appeared to contradict Colombian President Iván Duque Márquez’s declaration that Úsuga’s October 2021 capture marked the “end of the Gulf Clan.”

Colombia’s presidential candidates commented on the strike, offering a preview of how each would approach security policy if elected. Conservative Federico Gutiérrez tweeted he would “arrive with authority” in gang-controlled areas, consistent with his hard-line tough-on-crime stance. Petro said he would focus on rooting out the social causes of crime—such as a lack of decently paying jobs—rather than addressing it with military force.

Petro has also spoken of being open to making a demilitarization deal with the Gulf Clan, though its members have few incentives to take such a deal with their territorial expansion and rising drug profits, Universidad del Norte’s Luis Fernando Trejos Rosero told Caracol Radio.

Quelling the Gulf Clan’s power will be a major challenge for Colombia’s next leader. Duque launched a program to offer economic alternatives to crime in gang-dominated territories called Zonas Futuro, but the strategy failed to deliver, both Trejos and former national police intelligence director Juan Carlos Buitrago told La Silla Vacía.

“The clearest indicator is that [the program] is located in those regions where there is now more violence,” Trejos said.

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

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

Oleg Salyukov salutes to soldiers during Russia’s Victory Day parade.
Oleg Salyukov salutes to soldiers during Russia’s Victory Day parade.

Stop Falling for Russia’s Delusions of Perpetual Victory

The best sources on the war are the Ukrainians on the ground.

A fire rages at the Central Research Institute of the Aerospace Defense Forces in Tver, Russia
A fire rages at the Central Research Institute of the Aerospace Defense Forces in Tver, Russia

Could Sabotage Stop Putin From Using the Nuclear Option?

If the West is behind mysterious fires in Russia, the ongoing—but deniable—threat could deter Putin from escalating.

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi is received by his Kenyan counterpart, Raychelle Omamo, in Mombasa, Kenya.
China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi is received by his Kenyan counterpart, Raychelle Omamo, in Mombasa, Kenya.

While America Slept, China Became Indispensable

Washington has long ignored much of the world. Beijing hasn’t.

A bulldozer demolishes an illegal structure during a joint anti-encroachment drive conducted by North Delhi Municipal Corporation
A bulldozer demolishes an illegal structure during a joint anti-encroachment drive conducted by North Delhi Municipal Corporation

The World Ignored Russia’s Delusions. It Shouldn’t Make the Same Mistake With India.

Hindu nationalist ideologues in New Delhi are flirting with a dangerous revisionist history of South Asia.