Climate Change Looms Behind South America’s Heat Wave
The dry heat has worsened deadly forest fires in Chile and caused expensive droughts in Argentina’s and Uruguay’s agriculture sectors.
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
The highlights this week: How an ongoing heat wave is interrupting life and business in South America, four countries launch a joint bid to host the 2030 World Cup, and the region shrugs off a Chinese balloon in its airspace.
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The Toll of a Triple La Niña
Forest fires burning through south-central Chile is a regular summer phenomenon that has grown more dramatic with the mass planting of non-native eucalyptus trees and as temperatures rise. This week, the blazes became the deadliest in a decade, killing at least 26 people as of Monday. The heat index in Rio de Janeiro a few days earlier had topped 122 degrees Fahrenheit, prompting zookeepers to feed some carnivorous animals blood-laced blocks of ice to ensure they remained hydrated. And Argentina in the coming days is forecast to experience some of the hottest temperatures in the world—exacerbating a drought that an agricultural research group estimates will cause up to $15 billion in lost export earnings this year.
Scientists say the culprit for these extended hot and dry conditions is a mix of climate change and a Pacific Ocean weather pattern known as La Niña, during which stronger-than-usual winds blow warm water away from the South American zone of the Pacific. This is the third consecutive year the phenomenon has taken place. So-called triple-dip La Niñas have occurred before, but never since the globe has warmed to its current temperature of around 1.1 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. (The last triple-dip La Niña ended in 2001.)
The results have shaken up South American agriculture and energy markets—and prompted reflections about how climate change will increasingly affect the region’s economies.
In addition to Argentina’s potential $15 billion agricultural export losses, neighboring Uruguay has projected $1.1 billion in lost revenue from its own ranching and farming sectors due to drought, officials estimate. Both the Argentine and Uruguayan governments have lent financial aid to farmers in recent weeks. Argentina is still deep in economic crisis, so the lost export revenues and increased state support will be another blow to public finances.
Uruguay draws much of its electricity from hydropower dams, which are now running at low capacity due to the drought. Officials considered upping their use of thermal energy, but because it costs more than hydroelectric, they instead resolved to buy electricity from across the border in Brazil.
Many Argentine farmers had already altered their planting strategies in anticipation of this third consecutive dry season, delaying the date they plant seeds to wait for more rain, Pablo Mercuri of Argentina’s National Institute of Agricultural Technology told Diálogo Chino in October 2022. In recent years, both Argentina and Brazil have experienced a boom in agricultural startups that use technology to help farmers better plan their harvests. And the demand for a more stable electricity supply in the region is one reason governments have invested in research into green hydrogen, which can be used for electricity storage.
Still, the dramatic events of recent weeks have prompted criticism that the agriculture sector—and governments—are not doing enough to mitigate the effects of and adapt to a warming planet. Latin America and the Caribbean is the region with the world’s highest portion of greenhouse gas emissions that come from agriculture, forestry, and other land use, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
In Uruguay, former President José Mujica, who is also a former agriculture minister, called for cattle ranchers to use breeds that are more heat resistant and create special paddocks for animals to endure hot weather. Chilean President Gabriel Boric cited climate change when speaking about wildfire response efforts, pledging to “build back differently.”
In Argentina, an activist group led by former officials close to Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner called last week for both the state and private sector to reforest areas where trees had been cut down and better manage water resources near planting areas. The current government has earned criticism from environmentalists for everything from expanding natural gas extraction to allegedly not doing enough to decarbonize the agriculture sector.
“You lose hope when you think about how the environmental agenda, totally and absolutely urgent, is conspicuously absent in the discourse of all possible contenders in this year’s elections.”
Friday, Feb. 10: Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva meets with U.S. President Joe Biden in Washington.
Friday, Feb. 10: U.K. Business and Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch visits Mexico City for talks on a bilateral Mexico-U.K. trade deal.
What We’re Following
Nicaragua’s surprise release. On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that 222 people previously imprisoned by the Nicaraguan government had flown to the United States. The former detainees included opposition politicians and students who helped lead anti-government demonstrations in 2018.
Blinken said they had been jailed for “exercising their fundamental freedoms” and that their release was the “product of concerted American diplomacy.” The Nicaraguans will be granted two years of humanitarian parole and will be allowed to apply for asylum, a State Department spokesperson said.
A Nicaraguan judge announced Thursday that 222 “traitors” to the country had been “deported,” and Nicaragua’s legislature then approved a constitutional change allowing “traitors” to be stripped of their nationality, The Associated Press reported. It would require a second vote later this year to be enacted.
Few other details were made public about the talks behind the announcement, but the Biden administration said that the Nicaraguan government decided “unilaterally” to release the prisoners. Blinken said the move is a step toward addressing human rights abuses in Nicaragua and opens the door to future bilateral dialogue. Washington had previously increased sanctions on Nicaragua as the government of Daniel Ortega cracked down on dissent in recent years.
“In public, Ortega may bluff with bluster and insult the U.S., but he understands the need to improve the relations with Nicaragua’s biggest economic trade partner,” Nicaraguan journalist Cindy Regidor wrote in Americas Quarterly. “This move indicates the regime is weaker than it seems, and felt it necessary to make a concession.”
Balloon restraint. Latin American countries exhibited much more restraint toward a Chinese balloon flying over their territory this past week than did the United States, which on Saturday shot down a suspected surveillance balloon with a fighter jet. A Chinese balloon was also confirmed to be flying over Colombia and Costa Rica.
On Saturday, Colombia’s air force said it had detected a balloon-like object in its airspace but that it did not represent a security threat to the nation. Costa Rica did not take any immediate public action in response to a balloon, saying on Monday that China had apologized for the incident. (Any attempts to shoot down a balloon in Costa Rica may be difficult as the country does not have a military.)
The countries’ friendlier relations with China partially explain their more muted responses. But they also have different priorities in identifying security threats than the United States. Colombian President Gustavo Petro has often said that the biggest threats to Colombia include global warming and the war on drugs, not geopolitical rivalries.
Still, it’s not unprecedented for a spy scandal to upend diplomatic ties in Latin America. When media reports in 2013 cited National Security Agency records saying Washington had been tapping then-Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s phone calls and spying on state oil company Petrobras, Rousseff postponed a trip to the White House.
Lasso down. Ecuadorians rejected all eight items on a constitutional referendum backed by President Guillermo Lasso in elections last Sunday, despite the fact that one of the changes would have allowed harsher penalties for criminal offenders amid a towering crime wave. Opposition mayors also won control in the country’s two largest cities.
The results show that anti-incumbent sentiment is alive and well in the region. So, too, are Ecuador’s opposition political forces of Correísmo—supporters of former leftist President Rafael Correa—and the country’s Indigenous movement.
Bid on the table. On Tuesday, it became official: Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay submitted their bid to jointly host the 2030 FIFA World Cup, bringing the tournament back to where it was born.
The first-ever World Cup was held in Uruguay in 1930 after U.K. immigrants introduced the sport to the region in prior decades. That year, European players were reluctant to make the long trip across the ocean amid an economic crisis, and a total of four European teams competed alongside eight Latin American squads, together with a handful of teams from other regions.
Competition to host the 2030 tournament may be fierce. The four South American nations are vying against a similar joint bid from Spain, Portugal, and Ukraine, as well as a bid by Saudi Arabia. On Tuesday, Politico reported that Riyadh offered to finance stadiums in Egypt and Greece if those two countries agreed to join the Saudi effort.
The tussling at FIFA may also put Argentine soccer star Lionel Messi in a bind: The newly minted world champion recently signed a deal with Saudi Arabia to promote tourism in the country. It is not clear whether and how this may conflict with his ability to support Argentina’s 2030 bid.
Question of the Week
Uruguay was the champion of the 1930 World Cup. Whom did they beat?
The third-place team was the United States, which defeated Yugoslavia.
FP’s Most Read This Week
• Britain Is Much Worse Off Than It Understands by Simon Tilford
• How a Chinese Spy Balloon Blew Up a Key U.S. Diplomatic Trip by James Palmer
• Ukraine Braces for Grisly Russian Offensive in the East by Amy Mackinnon and Jack Detsch
In Focus: Bukele’s Crackdown, One Year On
Last week, the government of Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele inaugurated what it touted as one of the largest prisons in the Americas, with space for 40,000 detainees. The facility is both an emblem and an instrument of Bukele’s harsh crackdown on El Salvador’s street gangs.
Since March 2022, the country has been under a state of emergency to address gang violence. Police have been given wide powers to detain anyone they suspect of a crime, often rounding up people simply because they “look suspicious,” El Faro reported.
The policy has triggered harsh criticism from human rights advocates, who say Salvadorans swept up in the raids are being denied due process—and that some have been tortured by security forces. A December 2022 report from Human Rights Watch and Salvadoran organization Cristosal cited hundreds of arbitrary arrests and at least 86 deaths in police custody since the policy was enacted.
Last week, El Faro published an in-depth look at the dramatic results of Bukele’s policy outside prison walls. After reporters scoured the neighborhoods that had been most tightly controlled by gangs to interview local business owners and other residents—and later conducted further interviews with police officers, nongovernmental organizations, and a veteran gang leader no longer in the country—they wrote that gangs’ presence in areas they used to control had been severely diminished.
The gangs “are no longer there” in their previous turfs, the gang leader told El Faro. Locals said they are no longer being extorted in many places and that gang-imposed bans on using public facilities have been lifted. The head of a national organization of police officers said the police force had changed, too: a witness protection unit had been dismantled because police “are condemning everyone and don’t need witnesses as they did before.”
Drugs are still sold on the streets in some parts of the capital city of San Salvador, El Faro reported. But the gang leader said that other leaders who are in prison no longer communicate as easily with foot soldiers outside of the prison walls as before the state of emergency. He suspected that leaders had been isolated from other gang members inside detention facilities. Homicides in El Salvador fell almost 57 percent in 2022 compared to the previous year, officials said.
Yet while residents of areas once dominated by gangs celebrate the newfound safety, El Faro in an editorial sharply critiqued the policy, writing that in order for the gangs to be dismantled, “we’ve had to give up our imperfect democracy.” As just one metric, El Salvador’s ranking fell on the Economist’s latest democracy index, which called the country one of the year’s “worst performers.”
For now, Bukele’s policies remain highly popular with the Salvadoran public. That’s in contrast to neighboring Colombia, which is open about its strategy of trying to reduce violence by holding talks with gangs. (Bukele reportedly held such talks in secret before his March 2022 crackdown.) Petro, the figurehead of Colombia’s talks, has seen his approval rating fall recently. Other Latin American officials, meanwhile, have considered imitating Bukele’s tactics to fight crime.
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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