The varied reactions of Latin American countries to the conflict in Ukraine reflect the deep ideological fissures that run through the region.
As much as many insist on calling Latin America the “backyard” of the United States, the truth is that the multiplicity of positions of these nations in the face of the Russian invasion of Ukraine shows that Washington is far from exercising absolute hegemony in the conduct of the Western Hemisphere in the face of this crisis.
Furthermore, the positions of the countries in the region are not written in stone. In a development reminiscent of the height of the Cold War , rival US and Russian foreign ministries have launched diplomatic offensives to seek to attract allies in what appears to be a resurgence of global conflict between the White House and the Kremlin.
Washington courts Moscow’s allies
A small but relevant group of Latin American countries has shown its direct and open sympathy with Russia’s position in the conflict.
The alliance between Cuba and Russia has, of course, deep historical roots. But these days the link between Caracas and Moscow is also attracting attention inside and outside the region.
Venezuela has in Russia one of its central pillars of political and military support.
Putin’s nation plays a key role in the South American country’s ailing economy. And the Venezuelan air force’s Russian Sukhoi fighter-bombers are perhaps the most tangible symbol of military cooperation between those nations. So the condemnation of the government of Nicolas Maduro to the United States and NATO for the situation in Ukraine did not surprise anyone.
On the other hand, the announcement about the meeting on March 5 in Caracas between the Venezuelan government and envoys of the US government has caused great surprise , in an apparent 180-degree turn in the face of Washington’s policy of not recognizing Nicolás Maduro as president of Venezuela.
Many describe that meeting as a risky move by Washington to try to guarantee a greater flow of Venezuelan oil to the West at a time when the United States announced its decision to suspend purchases of Russian crude.
“The Bolivarian Revolution is pragmatic,” Venezuelan academic Jose Manuel Puente tells BBC Mundo.
“They have already accepted a process of de facto dollarization of the economy, accepting the ‘currency of the empire,'” he recalls and assures that in the same way Maduro would be potentially willing to “reduce his economic relations with Russia in exchange for somewhat normalizing his relations with United States”.
However, Puente doubts that, given the weak Venezuelan oil production, this could compensate in the short term for the eventual exit of the world market of Russian crude.
The unconditional ones?
Whether the United States pulls off the diplomatic coup of a realignment of Venezuela to its side remains to be seen.
But Russian diplomacy is not standing still. Almost as the US envoys arrived in Caracas, a video circulated on social media showing the visit of Russian Ambassador Sergey Mélik-Bagdasárov to an assembly of the ruling Unified Socialist Party of Venezuela, and a crowd celebrating his arrival with chants of ” Russia, friend, Venezuela is with you .”
It is also foreseeable that the Russian envoys will look with interest at the situation in Colombia, a country that has been among the unconditional supporters of the United States so far in the current crisis.
Iván Duque’s government has been clear from the start about where its loyalties lie. On February 24, the president tweeted almost immediately after the invasion began, condemning the Russian actions and expressing his support for the Ukrainian government.
But as the crisis in Eastern Europe continues, it is not clear that this alignment will last intact.
Colombia is in the midst of an electoral campaign and on May 29 it elects a new president.
Among the most preferred is the leftist leader Gustavo Petro, from whom many expect a more distant position from Washington.
” What Ukraine or what eight quarters .. !” was the sonorous expression that Petro used when asked about his position in the face of the crisis. The presidential candidate insists that Colombia has too many internal problems to interfere in any way in the European conflict. And so far he has not explicitly condemned the invasion.
Instead, several right-wing candidates warn that Colombia faces a direct risk to its national sovereignty due to Venezuela’s proximity to Russia in the context of the current crisis.
Other governments in Latin America are seen as close to Washington’s position.
The condemnation of Russia by the Ecuadorian government led by Guillermo Lasso was clear and explicit.
Similarly, Uruguay was among the first to condemn the aggression in Ukraine.
And to the surprise of some , Chilean President-elect Gabriel Boric has been among those expressing rejection of Moscow’s position, despite the reluctance of some members of his leftist coalition, traditionally wary of being seen as close to Washington.
sentences with chiaroscuro
In a strict sense, almost all Latin American governments have laid down their reproach , at least formally, of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In the recent vote of the United Nations general assembly, most of them supported a resolution calling for the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops.
Nicaragua and Cuba abstained, as did El Salvador and Bolivia. Venezuela did not participate because it was late in its quota payments to the international organization.
This vote would superficially imply that many of the “heavyweights”, the largest nations in the region such as Brazil, Mexico or Argentina, have established their position. However, analysts in the region warn that there are shadows in the alleged general condemnation of Moscow.
In Mexico, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has refused to impose economic sanctions on Russia, insisting that he wants to maintain good relations with “all the governments of the world.” Mexico maintains a trade exchange with Russia that reached US$2.1 billion in 2019.
In Brazil, meanwhile, President Jair Bolsonaro, who was visiting Russian leader Vladimir Putin days before the conflict broke out and has on other occasions hinted at some sympathy for the Russian leader, said on February 27 that his country would stay ” neutral” in the conflict.
Some Brazilian commentators have discussed the apparent contradiction between career Brazilian diplomats and the president .
An editorial published on February 26 in UOL, one of the main Brazilian media, assured that “both Americans and Europeans think that there is a focus of resistance to Bolsonarist ideas in the Brazilian Foreign Ministry, and that this could be an important way of build a relationship [with the West] based on the principles of international law.
Some Argentine media have made similar objections to the position of their government regarding the conflict.
As in Brazil, the Argentine foreign ministry has also sent formal expressions of disapproval of the invasion, but critics of President Alberto Fernández believe they see some hesitation in his opposition to Russia.
On February 23, just before the invasion, columnist Joaquín Morales Sola wrote a column in the Argentine newspaper La Nación talking about what he called “Kirchnerist fascination” [referring to the followers of the influential vice president and former head of state Cristina Fernández de Kirchner] in the current Argentine government by the figure of Vladimir Putin.
And on February 28, another columnist, this time Héctor Gambini in the newspaper Clarín, spoke of the ambivalence in President Fernández’s foreign policy towards Russia.
Back to the past ?
Not since the 20th century Cold War has there been such competition between Moscow and Washington to secure loyalties in the region.
Some will say that the Latin American countries can take the opportunity to seek concessions from each other on political, economic and military issues.
The most pessimistic warn that dividing Latin America into two geopolitical factions will only increase the risks of conflict on the continent.
Both sides agree that, for better or for worse, a war in the distant Ukraine has the potential to substantially change the Latin American reality.
- Louis Fajardo
- BBC Monitoring