From the 1970s to the 1990s, when Latin America’s military dictatorships slaughtered tens of thousands, it was right to ask the world to intervene and stop the carnage. Today, Vladimir Putin is doing the same thing in Ukraine, yet Latin American governments blabber on about “neutrality.”
By Andrés Velazco
MONTEVIDEO – From the 1970s to the 1990s, when Latin America’s military dictatorships slaughtered tens of thousands of civilians, it was both right and necessary to call on the world to intervene and stop the carnage. Today, Russian President Vladimir Putin does what Argentina’s Jorge Rafael Videla, Peru’s Alberto Fujimori, and Chile’s Augusto Pinochet did, and on a much vaster scale. Yet Latin American governments, most of them belonging to the same left that was persecuted in decades past, blabber on about “neutrality” and “non-intervention.” It is a moral failure of appalling proportions.
In a recent commentary, Slavoj Žižek puts it starkly: if you see a man relentlessly beating a child on a street corner, the only moral response is to try to stop him. Blaming the child makes as much sense as blaming a rape victim. But that is exactly what President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil did, announcing to Time Magazine that Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky bear equal responsibility for the war in Ukraine. Repeating the word “peace” ad nauseam will not help the child, either, despite what Colombia’s president, Gustavo Petro, seems to think. Any similarities to the film Miss Congeniality, in which Sandra Bullock’s character must call for “world peace” to win the title, are surely unintended.
But the prize goes to Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, widely known as AMLO, who claimed that Germany’s government decided to give Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine because of pressure from German media. “Media power is used by oligarchies around the world to subdue governments,” he added, puzzlingly. Perhaps he meant that oligarchies use government to subdue the media, as often happens in Mexico. In any case, his words did not go unheeded: the Russian embassy in Mexico City promptly issued a thank-you note.
None of the arguments used to justify these leaders’ cowering response to Russia’s aggression makes much sense. It is sometimes claimed that giving support to Ukraine would mean taking sides in a new cold war. But Russia is not China. It is not a superpower. It is a regional bully with an economy the size of Spain’s.
Nor would Latin America risk getting caught up in an ideological struggle. The old Soviet Union was oppressive, but at least it could claim to offer the world a new model of society. Putin offers only neo-czarist imperialism. By condemning him, leftists like Lula, Petro, and AMLO would not be giving capitalism a clean bill of health. On the contrary, Russia’s brand of crony capitalism is precisely the kind that Latin American progressives are supposed to dislike.
The riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma is Chile’s Communist Party. The party is as orthodox as they come, and avowedly Marxist-Leninist, yet its old-time leaders refuse to utter a critical word about the man who buried Marxist-Leninism in Russia. Yes, Chilean communists in exile received support from the Soviets, but that was a different government, in a different country, in a different century. Today, the party is looking ever more uncomfortable in the coalition that supports Chilean President Gabriel Boric, the one leftist leader in the region who has clearly denounced the invasion.
The claim that Latin America cannot afford to support Ukraine is also absurd. No one is asking Latin American countries to write a check (although per capita GDP in some, like Brazil, Mexico, and Colombia, is higher than in Ukraine). The only material request has been for old and nearly worthless Russian-made equipment and ammunition, which the United States would have replaced with superior American weaponry. It was a win-win offer, morally and financially. Yet the region’s governments said no.
Nor are there key commercial or strategic interests at stake in the relationship between Putin and Latin America. Mexico is not India, which needs Russia to counterbalance the influence of neighboring China. Brazil buys a lot of fertilizer from Russia, but ammonia, phosphorus, and potassium are commodities that can be purchased in more than one place. And yes, Argentina’s government does need Chinese cash (no one else will lend to it), but to mince words on Russia for fear of upsetting Xi Jinping would suggest the kind of over-prudent foresight few would expect from the current Peronist administration.
Finally, there is Europe’s alleged “geographic privilege.” Events there, the argument goes, automatically trigger the world’s attention, whereas strife, poverty, and pestilence in Africa or Latin America barely cause the rich countries of the North to bat an eyelash. There is of course a kernel of truth to this. “Benign neglect” would be too generous to describe US policy toward its neighbors to the south. But what follows from this observation? Should Latin American countries sit on their hands and let Ukrainians be butchered just to make the point and get more attention? That looks like adolescent petulance, not statesmanship.
So, if there are no moral reasons for supporting Putin, and no pocketbook reasons, either, why are so many Latin American governments refusing to support Ukraine? One possible explanation is Pavlovian anti-Americanism: if the US is backing Zelensky, that is not a family photograph in which they wish to appear.
For a more fundamental explanation, dig into recent history. The Latin American politicians who refuse to condemn Putin’s aggression are the same who will not acknowledge that Cuba and Venezuela have long been dictatorships and Nicaragua is fast becoming one (here, too, Boric is the exception among the region’s leftist leaders). The authorities in all three countries routinely violate human rights, but Presidents Lula, Petro, and AMLO, plus Argentina’s Alberto Fernández and Bolivia’s Luis Arce, will not come out and say it.
Even worse: last month, AMLO gave Cuban dictator Miguel Díaz-Canel a medal. Human Rights Watch reports that Cuba uses “arbitrary detention to harass and intimidate critics, independent activists, political opponents, and others,” yet in his speech AMLO praised Cuba’s “profoundly humane government.” Those who refuse to acknowledge abuses next door are unlikely to acknowledge atrocities elsewhere.
In 1939, US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt supposedly said of the late Nicaraguan dictator, “Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” Who would have imagined that in 2023, Latin American presidents would say the same about Putin?
Andrés Velasco, a former presidential candidate and finance minister of Chile, is Dean of the School of Public Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Energiesnet.com does not necessarily share these views.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by Project Syndicate on March 2, 2023. EnergiesNet.com reproduces this article in the interest of our readers. All comments posted and published on EnergiesNet.com, do not reflect either for or against the opinion expressed in the comment as an endorsement of EnergiesNet.com or Petroleumworld.
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EnergiesNet.com 03 06 2023