By Jean-Jacques Kourliandsky
In 2022, Colombia and Honduras shifted towards the left, and some believe Brazil may be soon to follow. Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Mexico, and Peru had moved before in the same direction. Some may add Panama and the Dominican Republic to this list. Additionally, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela are among the world’s long-standing leftist countries.
It remains to be seen whether Latin America will witness the emergence of a strong and coherent leftist block, or if these countries will unite under the same ideological umbrella and run away from the international order.
Revisiting the international – liberal – order?
Before progressive alternations began in Latin America, the conservative rulers in place leaned towards the liberal international order. As soon as they were in power, conservative leaders used to leave behind the commitments that had been undertaken by their progressive predecessors. Some Latin American intergovernmental organizations, such as the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), have been weakened by the departure of some of their members – Brazil, in this case, in 2019. Other organizations vanished completely, such as the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), an organization created by late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, and the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), an organization created based on ideas from former Presidents Lula (Brazil) and Chavez (Venezuela).
Alternative collective organizations with a liberal economic agenda had been created, such as the Pacific Alliance (2011) and the Forum for the Progress and Integration of South America (PROSUR, 2019). In 2017, the Lima group was established, with the intention of overthrowing the government of President Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela. These countries strengthened their relations with the United States, the European Union and their Asian partners. Many of them also joined the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). In 2018, Mexico renewed its commitment to T-MEC, formerly known as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
From a diplomatic point of view, acting similarly to the Europeans, all these countries followed the USA and adhered to its stance on Venezuela. President Nicolas Maduro’s government was expelled from the Organization of American States (OAS), while Juan Guaido, a self-proclaimed president that represented a part of Maduro’s opponents, was chosen to replace him. Colombia, a member of the OECD, the Pacific Alliance, and the Lima Group, went even further in aligning itself with the United States: in the name of its “pro-Western” commitment, it signed an agreement with NATO.
Now that alternations have emerged in Latin America, what stances can we expect diplomatically speaking? Will ideological changes come together with diplomatic reorientations?
Between ideology and pragmatism
Back in the years 2000-2016, the leftist governments that were elected distanced themselves from the USA and its allies. In contrast, right-wing governments shifted towards a rapprochement with “the West”. Now, we can expect a return to the 2000-2016 era.
Signs of this return have been shown by Argentina (ruled by Alberto Fernández), Colombia (Gustavo Petro) and even Mexico (Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador, AMLO). Fernández refused to condemn Russia after it invaded Ukraine. Colombia resumed its diplomatic relations with Venezuela. In June 2022, Mexico refused to participate to the Summit of the Americas, hosted by President Joe Biden in Los Angeles, because Cuba had not been invited.
Despite these examples, it is still too early to affirm that we would be witnessing the emergence of an alternative leftist block today in Latin America.
Is it realistic to think that, in times of alternance, radical diplomatic shifts guarantee the defense of Latin America’s interests? It is apparent that drastic and rapid changes on the political spectrum can weaken countries and their diplomatic capacities. Radical shifts imply that the incoming governments try to reverse the work of their predecessors and implement policies of their own. However, the current situation does not reflect this. Regional intergovernmental organizations have lost a big part of their creditability: therefore, they can hardly be drivers for convergence between Latin American countries, even though the latter share some foreign policy principles and orientations. For example, all Latin American governments view China as a country that brings advantages at the economic, commercial, and technological levels. Despite US pressures, all Latin America countries have China as a key partner. Also, at the international level, there is no Latin American country that applied sanctions against Russia following its invasion of Ukraine.
The quest of convergence
As soon as they came into office, Chilean “leftist” President Gabriel Boric Font and his minister of Foreign Affairs acknowledged this reality. According to them, at the international level, Latin American governments must put priority on identifying their factors of convergence. Chile and Mexico decided to remain committed to the Pacific Alliance, despite its “neo-liberal” orientations. Chile, Colombia, and Ecuador participated to the Summit of the Andean Community of Nations (CAN) in Lima to try and revive it. Colombia suggested the organization of an international conference with the objective of creating a fund for the conservation of the Amazon rainforest. It also proposed a Latin American conference to evaluate anti-drug policies and the reasons for their failure. In contrast, Mexican President AMLO decided to remain in T-MEC, stating that his country couldn’t afford to risk worsening its relations with the USA. Nonetheless, while Mexico is keen on favoring economic integration with North America, it keeps independent from a diplomatic point of view. Mexico doggedly defends the principles of national sovereignties, non-interference, and multilateralism. AMLO welcomes talks between Venezuelan counterparts on his soil to try to facilitate compromise. He also sent a military plane to exfiltrate former President Evo Morales, whose life was threatened, from Bolivia. AMLO also reaffirmed his cooperation with the governments of Central America, independently from the nature of their ideological trends, to help them solve their migration issues.
All Latin American countries have constraints that determine the directions that they are taking. Argentina is prisoner of its external debt. President Alberto Fernandez tried to get financial backing from Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, and was unsuccessful, so he was forced to knock at the IMF’s door. Colombia recognized the election of Gustavo Petro, but has stayed silent on the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Bogota is paying economic and financial consequences for this conflict, without any success in facilitating its resolution. Colombian president stated that his priority was to preserve his country’s food security: a view that Argentinian, Bolivian and Ecuadorian leaders also share. As for Mexico, it is prisoner of its own geography, which leaves the country with no choice but to orient its economic policies with the United States.
That being said, evolutions in the coming months may bring important changes at the diplomatic level in Latin America. Let us remember Simon Bolivar here, and his famous quote: “Independence is the only benefit we have acquired, to the detriment of all the rest. All who served the revolution have plowed the sea”.
Jean-Jacques Kourliandsky is a researcher on the Iberic world at the Paris-based Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS). He is also the director of the Observatory of Latin America at the Jean Jaurès Foundation.
This article was originally published in French on the website of IRIS (The Institute for International and Strategic Relations), one of France’s leading think tanks: https://www.iris-france.org/169605-amerique-latine-alternances-electorales-et-changements-diplomatiques/
To quote this article, please use the following reference: J. Kourliandsky (2022). “Latin America: electoral alternations and diplomatic changes”. Observatory on contemporary crises, September 27, 2022, URL: https://crisesobservatory.es/latin-america-electoral-alternations-and-diplomatic-changes/
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