Especially for its leaders, ancient grievances and ideological fixations mostly trump the facts about Vladimir Putin’s invasion.
By Eduardo Porter
How much do people in Latin America hate the US?
The question is hardly new, but the war in Ukraine brings it up again: How can Latin American countries loudly committed to the principle of non-intervention shrug off the decision by an autocratic oligarch to send in the tanks to take over a smaller neighbor whose land and resources his country has coveted for centuries? The answer has little to do with what’s going on in the Donbas or Kyiv.
Who cares what Zelenskiy is saying about Russian war crimes? As Andrés Velasco, a former minister of finance and presidential candidate in Chile who is now at the London School of Economics, suggested: “One possible explanation is Pavlovian anti-Americanism: if the US is backing Zelenskiy, that is not a family photograph in which they wish to appear.”
From Buenos Aires to Mexico City, left-leaning governments are falling along predictable lines drawn from 20th-century struggles in which Washington mostly played the bad guy.
Latin American positions are not monolithic. They range from that of Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who blasted Germany’s decision to send Leopard tanks to Ukraine, garnering heartfelt thanks from the Russian embassy, to that of Chile’s Gabriel Boric who, alone in the region, emphatically condemned Russia’s invasion from the beginning.
In the middle, Brazil is working to walk back President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s statement in the spring of 2022 that Zelenskiy “is as responsible as Putin for the war.” It signed onto the United Nations resolution last month placing responsibility for the conflict on Russia and offered to be a mediator. (In the region only Nicaragua voted against the resolution, while Cuba, Bolivia and El Salvador abstained.)
Anti-gringo bile may not be the exclusive motivation of their reluctance to take a stronger stance. The Cold War idea of non-alignment runs strong in Latin American foreign policy circles, not least for the protection it offers against being railroaded into uncomfortable positions.
What if Xi Jinping jumps in on Putin’s side? China, unlike Russia, is a critical investor and trading partner. Best to stay outside the fray as long as possible, to see what happens. “Maintaining optionality is worth something,” said Alejandro Werner, former head for the Western Hemisphere at the International Monetary Fund and now at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
The war may be in the headlines, but it is far away. It has had limited impact on access to energy and food security in Latin America. People in the region “don’t have a dog in that fight,” said José Miguel Vivanco, former head of the Americas at Human Rights Watch now at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Given the widespread belief, in the region and elsewhere, that neither side will win this war outright and a negotiated settlement is inevitable, something approximating neutrality may be a promising position. “Ukraine cannot lose the war and Russia cannot lose face,” said Carlos Ominami, a former Chilean senator and economics minister. “We can converge on a common position of calling for ceasing hostilities and promoting a process towards peace.”
And yet, pragmatic though Latin America may hope to appear, the stance of some of its countries, and perhaps that of other countries of the Global South, does indeed rest on deep-seated hostility toward the United States.
As Mexican writer Enrique Serna recounts in his book, The Merchant of Silence, during the Second World War, Mexican movie audiences showed their anti-yanqui fervor by applauding whenever Hitler or Mussolini appeared on the newsreel.
The hostility is not undeserved. The US did take a chunk of Mexico. From toppling governments to funding insurgencies, its overt and covert interventions to install regimes to its liking in Latin America during the Cold War are hard to square with the honest hegemon image it hopes to project today. Pointing out that Putin’s intervention in Ukraine was unprovoked is more than likely to evoke recollections of George W. Bush playing regime change in Iraq.
“You don’t want the US to completely get away with it,” Ominami noted, about the endgame in Ukraine. “Because an out-of-control US is very dangerous.”
And the Russian embassy in Mexico City has taken to trolling Washington on Twitter, explaining US support of Zelenskiy with the quote attributed either to FDR or Harry Truman about either Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo or Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza: “he is a bastard but he is our bastard.”
Maybe asking Latin America to take Ukraine’s side is wrong. Brazil and other Latin American nations might yet emerge from this conflict as level-headed, far-sighted peace-seekers.
What seems certain is that they will come out of this looking a little historically incoherent. The left-leaning governments so reluctant to help Zelenskiy may think they are on the side of that old Cold War friend, the USSR. Instead, they are abetting a corrupt, neo-czarist oligarch who includes Tucker Carlson and a bunch of European white supremacists among his best friends.
As Werner noted, “Putin is not Brezhnev.”
There is a final irony in the anachronistic maneuvers so reminiscent of the Cold War. Latin American political elites might still harbor deep resentment toward the US. But most Latin American voters don’t seem to share it. In 2020, two years before Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, 59% of Latin Americans had a good or very good opinion of both Russia and China, according to the Latinobarómetro polls. But 72% had a good or very good opinion of the US.
Eduardo Porter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin America, US economic policy and immigration. He is the author of “American Poison: How Racial Hostility Destroyed Our Promise” and “The Price of Everything: Finding Method in the Madness of What Things Cost.” Energiesnet.com does not necessarily share these views.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by Bloomberg Opinion, on December 14, 2022. 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 15 2022