Visiting professor-researcher at the International Studies Division of the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE)
Member of the Mexican Council on International Affairs (Comexi)
The Russian invasion of Ukraine took Latin America by surprise. A region that is more fragmented, impoverished, unequal, violent, ideologized and polarized than before, after a disastrous handling of the pandemic. As with COVID-19, it was caught off guard by this conflict, with its global reach and potential to redefine the world order, and proved itself incapable of facing this challenge with a prompt and coordinated response. This new major international crisis is yet another missed opportunity for a region whose international irrelevance is growing by the day.
Almost four months after the start of the invasion, it is now possible to outline its brutal effects on the region. According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), poverty will soar by almost 35% and 8 million people could end up in situations of food insecurity because of the increase in food prices and the lack of fertilisers.
Growth levels will remain low, while unemployment will increase. Although certain economies that produce energy and food, such as Brazil and Argentina, have benefitted from the invasion, the inflation caused by the war will ensure these effects are short-lived.
Inflation directly affects the population and this, in turn, will heighten social tension and discontent in an already politically and socially polarized region. The rise in interest rates to try to curb inflation has made investments in less risky, developed economies more attractive. What is worse, it has increased the cost of debt servicing, a strategy many Latin American governments resorted to during the pandemic.
As to Russia’s invasion of Ukrainian territory, Latin America, internationally recognized for its contributions to the defence of International Law, was incapable of forcefully and unanimously condemning Russia’s actions. There are many explanations for this, but none of them can justify the region’s position.
One explanation is the efforts made by Russia to increasingly influence the countries of the region, at the expense of Washington’s former hegemonic presence. It is worth noting the role of Russian media, RT and Sputnik in particular, which are both very popular. With supposed objectivity, they have managed to rekindle the everlasting anti-American sentiment and make authoritarian regimes seem acceptable to Latin Americans.
Disenchantment with democracy and globalization in Latin America are of such magnitude that illiberal democracies and authoritarian regimes are considered appropriate and even preferable. The failure of the great democratic transformation and economic opening shows that it has been impossible to transform an authoritarian political culture that dates to the colonial past.
At the same time, there is great unease around globalization because the promises that were supposed to justify the structural transformation were not kept. In the end, the methods used by Putin to govern are the same as those used by Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, or Miguel Díaz Canel in Cuba, as well as other Latin American leaders who are on the same path, despite having been elected at the ballot box. On the other hand, economic openness and effective regional integration are pending.
So, the region is facing this complex time of geopolitical change from a fragmented stance, with no common positions. The main actors are focused on the internal political strife, neglecting the international arena. There are even divergences between the positions of presidents and the actions of foreign ministries and missions to the OAS or the UN.
Several governments, though, have played their cards. When US intelligence had already warned that the invasion was imminent, presidents Jair Bolsonaro and Alberto Fernández travelled to Moscow. Bolsonaro and Andrés Manuel López Obrador feign ‘neutrality’. The first does it to ensure access to Russian fertilisers; López Obrador’s behaviour is hard to explain, considering that Mexico is hugely dependent on the United States in every aspect. For his part, Fernández offered Argentina as an gateway to Moscow. Overall, most Latin American countries refused to implement sanctions against Russia, despite not coming at a significant cost to their economies.
Latin American governments seem to have remained stuck in the Cold War and do not understand that the world is living in different times. The issue is that they have miscalculated in thinking they can take advantage of both Washington and Moscow, without realising that this game only weakens the region further. Nor are they considering that, should this conflict continue, their main partners (the United States, the European Union and China, in differing order depending on the case) will be affected by it, and that this will ultimately undermine their economies.
Avoiding reality or feigning neutrality are not viable options, but they are costly. If this is, in fact, a change of era, the political elites of the region seem unaware of it, and are unprepared to face the turbulence to come. The decline of the United States, so much longed for by certain sectors of the Latin American political class, may come true, but the alternative is at best uncertain and at worst hostile. Latin America has no voice, no vote and no allies to help shape a new world order that responds to its needs. Furthermore, it is becoming an invisible, isolated region, drowning in its own problems, immersed in its small ideological battles of times past, with no capacity to influence. Latin America has no strategy; which means it will be part of somebody else’s and shall suffer the consequences.
 ECLAC, Repercussions in Latin America and the Caribbean of the war in Ukraine: how should the region face this new crisis?, June 2022, available at: https://www.cepal.org/en/publications/47913-repercussions-latin-america-and-caribbean-war-ukraine-how-should-region-face-new
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