By Arturo Sarukhan
WASHINGTON, DC – Individual and collective limits are being tested around the world in 2023, and the Americas are no exception. Inflation is high and persistent. Supply chains are being disrupted. Food and energy insecurity are on the rise. Great-power competition is back. Non-state actors are challenging the rule of law and eroding the state’s monopoly on violence. International security and governance systems are deteriorating. Democracy is under threat. And amid this gathering storm, a fundamental transformation is unfolding across Latin America, though its trajectory remains far from certain.
Democracy in the region has shown considerable resilience in recent decades, and Latin America still represents the world’s most democratic developing region. But many countries across the Americas, including the United States, have experienced a kind of political recession over the past decade or so, characterized by the erosion of democratic institutions, norms, and practices.
In fact, democratic backsliding in the US may well be a driver of the trend elsewhere in the region. When it comes to democracy, unlike Las Vegas, what happens in the US does not stay in the US. The storming of Brazil’s government buildings in January is a case in point: almost exactly two years after an insurrection unfolded at the US Capitol to overturn the result of the 2020 presidential election, supporters of the defeated Jair Bolsonaro adopted the same tactic.
But Latin America’s democratic deterioration also has important internal sources. Though many countries have built world-class institutions, like independent courts and central banks, and devised creative tools to support the population, such as cash-transfer programs, governments have largely failed to combat structural issues like slow or stagnating growth, corruption, inequality, and insecurity. This has eroded public trust in political leaders and in democratic governance more broadly – a trend that the COVID-19 pandemic reinforced.
This loss of trust has fueled the rise of extremist forces in many countries, as polarization and tribalization sharply narrow the scope for dialogue, negotiation, compromise, and consensus-building. Pressure to bypass democratic institutions and circumvent – or even eliminate – constitutional checks and balances has intensified.
Making matters worse, in some countries, such as Brazil and Mexico, civilian leaders have called on the military to take on public-policy functions beyond security and defense, expanding their influence over government agencies, state-owned enterprises, and key infrastructure projects.
The Americas Without America
As these trends have taken hold, the US has been largely missing in action. Inter-American relations reached a nadir during Donald Trump’s administration. With his anti-immigrant rhetoric, attacks on trade agreements, and populist demagoguery and xenophobia, Trump managed, in a single four-year term, to upend decades of efforts to nurture rules-based cooperation among likeminded governments and NGOs across the Americas.
Trump’s successor, Joe Biden, entered office with a far more respectful tone and constructive agenda. But, after more than two years, his administration has yet to deliver the engagement that many anticipated. Skepticism about the tone and direction of inter-American relations has continued to deepen.
With much of Latin America feeling insulted and abandoned by the US, other powers – in particular, China and Russia – have made considerable diplomatic and economic inroads in the region. As a result, many Latin American countries have avoided aligning themselves too closely with the US on key issues. With a few notable exceptions, such as Chile, many have been indifferent to democracy and human rights in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador boycotted Biden’s Summit of the Americas last year over these countries’ exclusion.
Similarly, Latin American countries have been largely reluctant to condemn Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. Governments in the region have long hewed to the Westphalian view of international relations, with its emphasis on national sovereignty, non-intervention, multilateralism, and respect for international law. But, while one would expect wholehearted denunciation of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of a United Nations member state, it appears that most Latin American countries oppose intervention by an outside power only when that power is the US. The region’s governments have largely maintained a position of studied ambiguity, claiming neutrality – which can only be described as a pro-Russian “neutrality” – and upholding trade and cooperation with Russia, while criticizing the US and NATO.
Latin America’s two biggest diplomatic powerhouses, Mexico and Brazil, typify this feckless approach. López Obrador and his Brazilian counterpart, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, have both equated Ukraine’s efforts to defend its territory – and Western support for that effort – with Russian aggression. López Obrador has called NATO policy in Ukraine “immoral,” and Lula has accused the US of “encouraging” the war.
This is obviously a false equivalence: Russia’s actions violate the UN Charter, whereas Article 51 of the charter recognizes countries’ right to individual or collective self-defense. But it may be rooted partly in realpolitik. Brazil, together with Russia, India, China, and South Africa, is a member of the BRICS grouping, and Lula, seeking to elevate his country’s global status, has attempted to position himself as a potential peacemaker in Ukraine. More broadly, he has expressed a desire to help “balance world geopolitics” by deepening ties with China. López Obrador, for his part, presented his own peace plan – which was roundly condemned by Ukraine – last year, and even went so far as to suggest at one of his daily press conferences that, while Biden is his “partner,” Putin is his “friend.” When it comes to international relations, Latin America’s broken moral compass may well lead the region into a dead end of diplomatic irrelevance.
Latin America’s stance on the war in Ukraine may partly reflect another weakness: the region has become highly vulnerable to disinformation. Most of Latin America simply was not prepared for the political, ideological, and geostrategic disruptions caused by technology and digital platforms, and its social-media and legacy outlets have been overrun with manipulative propaganda and outright lies. Whether Latin America’s political elites acknowledge it or not, some of the contamination of their countries’ information ecosystems is being perpetuated by great powers.2
The challenge ahead is daunting. Latin American countries must preserve the foundations of open societies – including freedom of speech, independent media, and the free flow of information – while protecting themselves from domestic or foreign actors waging cyberattacks, weaponizing data, or spinning false narratives. More broadly, they will have to strengthen institutional accountability and the rule of law. Partnerships with multilateral organizations, relevant private-sector actors, NGOs, traditional and digital news media, and other countries could play an important role here.
At the same time, unless Latin American leaders improve their understanding of great-power dynamics, the region will continue to punch below its weight in the international arena. Many countries would prefer to avoid choosing sides in the US-China competition, and instead seize whatever opportunities their perceived national interests seem to dictate. They will be watching closely as the 2024 US presidential campaign unfolds, in order to determine how much diplomatic capital they should invest in the Biden administration.
The US, for its part, must abandon its one-size-fits-all approach to Latin America. Instead, it should tailor its policies to smaller groups of countries, much as it did with regard to migration at the Summit of the Americas, essentially forming ad hoc coalitions of the willing committed to specific agendas based on common interests.
Latin America is on the cusp of a geopolitical transformation. The coming years should clarify what it will look like – and how it will affect inter-American relations and Latin America’s role in a more fluid and multipolar global system.
Arturo Sarukhan, a consultant based in Washington, DC and non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, was Mexico’s ambassador to the United States from 2007 to 2013. Energiesnet.com does not necessarily share these views.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by Project Syndicate on June 12, 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 19 06 2023