Latin America and the New Nonalignment
Hit by economic shocks and the threat of a new Cold War, the region spent this year recalibrating its place in the world.
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief, and happy holidays.
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief, and happy holidays.
The highlights this week: We recap some of the year’s biggest stories, including how several Latin American leaders adopted a nonaligned position amid geopolitical tensions between the United States, Russia, and China. And we’d be remiss if we didn’t also celebrate Argentina’s World Cup victory last Sunday.
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Cold War Meets Climate Crisis
Many Latin American policymakers started 2022 hoping they could spend the year overcoming the economic challenges of the pandemic. But Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine and the unprecedented Western sanctions campaign that followed introduced major new economic strains on the region. Energy prices shot up, and as the U.S. Federal Reserve raised interest rates, so did the cost of paying off dollar-denominated foreign debt.
Meanwhile, new U.S. bans on semiconductor-related exports to China—a top trade partner for many countries in the region—have escalated what some analysts call a de facto economic Cold War between Washington and Beijing. Since at least 2018, Latin American countries have suffered the negative consequences of U.S.-China economic tensions as Washington has pressured them to block infrastructure deals with Chinese companies even when comparable U.S. alternative deals were not available. Regional policymakers face a choice between trying not to cross Washington—which could weaponize its own economic sway in the region—and rejecting deals with Chinese firms that they believe make financial sense.
Though several Latin American governments opted to side with the United States in the original Cold War, many leaders and leaders-elect in the region have moved toward nonaligned positions amid this year’s tensions. This changed positioning reflects increased economic integration with China and diminished U.S. influence in Latin America compared to previous decades. Washington’s waning authority was on display ahead of June’s U.S.-hosted Summit of the Americas, when planning was held up over some Latin American leaders’ threats of a boycott. Furthermore, while Latin American countries were shunned by wealthy ones during the scramble for vaccines at the height of the pandemic, China was quick to ship shots. (A Russian effort at vaccine diplomacy in Latin America was underwhelming.)
Though most Latin American countries voted repeatedly to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at the United Nations General Assembly, they did not join the sanctions campaign against Moscow. While working to deepen trade and commerce links to the United States, Ecuador and Uruguay also started free trade talks with China, and Argentina joined its Belt and Road Initiative.
The new nonaligned position being staked both in Latin America and elsewhere in the world—such as in India—is an echo of the nonaligned movement of the original Cold War. That campaign of mostly developing countries aimed to shield its members from the risks of great-power war while also pushing for measures that would support their economic and socioeconomic growth via trade, finance, and technology transfers. In 1974, for example, nonaligned states called for more influence on the board of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), where they could ease members’ access to lending.
Today’s nonaligned countries have many of the same goals as 50 years ago but are voicing them through a new framework for action: the climate crisis. Accessible financing for infrastructure projects is no longer simply a wish list item for developing countries—it’s a necessity to reengineer energy grids and adaptation systems to keep global warming under control.
Several Latin American and Caribbean leaders amplified this connection between development and climate policy on the global stage this year. At the U.N. climate change conference in Egypt, Barbados pushed a plan for dramatically expanding IMF climate financing that is being workshopped ahead of the fund’s next major policy meeting in early 2023. Brazil’s new pact with Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo aims to ensure that the countries receive just monetary compensation for keeping their tropical forests intact. And in a memorable U.N. General Assembly speech, Colombian President Gustavo Petro called for Colombia’s foreign debt to be written down so state resources could instead be used for environmental goals.
Some Latin American countries took significant steps backward on climate policy this year. Mexico revived a dangerous form of coal mining, and Brazil’s Amazon deforestation rate hit a 15-year high under outgoing President Jair Bolsonaro. But overall, the region remains home to enough green achievements to give its democratic leaders the credibility to steer global foreign-policy debates toward their own climate demands. The portion of Latin America’s primary energy generated by renewables is twice the global average—and its sway on climate policy likewise has the potential for an outsized impact.
More Stories We Followed in 2022
Human potential dazzles. It was impossible to look at Argentina’s dramatic World Cup victory against France last Sunday and not appreciate the potential of Latin Americans at their most dedicated, passionate, creative, and even mystical—with some fans casting spells and writing songs to propel their team. For Argentinians, the victory was a respite from political divisions and economic woes that include an over 90 percent annual inflation rate.
While soccer player Lionel Messi was the Argentine squad’s star and anchor, the win was a collective effort, ensured through the support of teammates, such as winger Ángel Di María, who played alongside Messi for years and scored in the match. Coach Lionel Scaloni also showed tactical flexibility and a commitment to teambuilding off the field.
“This is a happiness of such great size that we are sharing it on the streets with people who we usually don’t even want to greet,” Argentine sociologist Pablo Alabarces writes in El Diario. So many fans swarmed Buenos Aires to greet the victory bus on Tuesday that the team had to be airlifted out of their tour route rather than complete it.
While Alabarces writes that the victory doesn’t bring political reconciliation, it appears to have boosted the country’s international profile. Messi’s victory post on Instagram became the most-liked post in the social media platform’s history, and National University of Rosario political scientist Esteban Actis tweeted, “Argentina is without a doubt experiencing its highest level of international visibility in the 21st century so far, surpassing even the installation of Pope Francis in March 2013.”
The wins didn’t stop at sports. Latin American genres again dominated global music charts this year. Puerto Rican reggaeton artist Bad Bunny was the top artist of the year for Billboard, Spotify Music, and Apple Music. While his compatriot Daddy Yankee retired from his genre-defining career, reggaeton flourished in Colombia and Chile—where pandemic lockdowns gave a new generation of artists the time to record new samples and tracks. Audiences for Chilean reggaetón are booming in cities as far as Mexico City and Madrid, according to Spotify.
If reggaetón was born of Latin Americans’ struggle to be heard, it’s now what the whole world is listening to.
Old-school politics triumph. One of the most high-profile efforts at dramatic political change in Latin America this year was Chile’s attempt to draft a new constitution. Although Chileans had voted to start the process of replacing their dictatorship-era charter after nationwide demonstrations in 2019, a September referendum ultimately rejected the new document in part because its progressive backers did not sufficiently dialogue with moderates and adjust their positions accordingly. The drafting committee elected in 2021 embraced “maximalist” positions, one analyst who was a former student organizer with left-wing President Gabriel Boric writes.
While Chile’s experience in 2021 showed how the energy of street protests can transform politics from the outside, key Latin American elections in 2022 delivered change through coalition-building toward the center via established political parties. Leftists like Petro in Colombia and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil won presidential contests through early and deliberative alliance-building with centrist parties.
While Lula will take office on Jan. 1, 2023, Petro has already governed for four months. His alliances with centrist and center-right parties have secured congressional buy-in for big changes, such as a sweeping tax reform and government talks with guerrilla groups.
A new migration normal. Levels of human migration in the Western Hemisphere continued to set records this year. The surge was due to a mix of causes, including poor job prospects, violence, political persecution, and the easing of COVID-19 concerns and restrictions.
One important metric for migration throughout the Americas—not just at the U.S.-Mexico border—is how many people are detected passing through the dangerous jungle border between Colombia and Panama known as the Darién Gap. Between January and October, more than 204,000 undocumented migrants crossed through the area, a 50 percent increase from the number who crossed in the entirety of 2021, according to Panamanian authorities.
At June’s Summit of the Americas, regional officials agreed they needed to cooperate better on addressing these flows. They signed onto a nonbinding document called the Los Angeles Declaration, which pledged to keep migrants safe, provide them legal pathways to migrate, and tackle the root causes of migration.
In the months that followed, Ecuador echoed a previous move by Colombia and announced plans to ensure that hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan migrants in the country can live and work legally. Venezuelans account for some 7 million of the region’s migrants since 2015, yet international donors have provided them with a fraction of the support that the similarly sized group of Ukrainians have received this year alone.
For now, many of the goals in the Los Angeles Declaration remain more statements of intent than comprehensive road maps and targets. Nowhere is this disconnect more evident than in the United States’ erosion of the right to seek asylum and the southward creep of U.S. border enforcement through deals with Mexican and Central American authorities.
In return for Mexico’s cooperation on migration policing, media reports suggest that Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has earned protection from U.S. criticism on other key bilateral issues, such as Mexico’s shunning of anti-narcotics cooperation.
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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