Above photo: Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Ursula von der Leyen in Brussels, on July 17. Simon Wohlfahrt/Bloomberg.
Another attempt by the Collective West to isolate Russia from the rest of the world — or the “Jungle,” as the EU’s chief “diplomat” Josep Borrell calls it — fails spectacularly.
Volodymyr Zelensky is accustomed to being the star guest, whether in person or on-screen, at just about every Western international summit, though his shine does appear to be fading. But at the summit that took place in Brussels early this week between the European Union and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), the president of Ukraine was nowhere to be seen. This was despite the best efforts of Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who is current holder of the EU Council’s rotating president, to get his name on the guest list.
At a bare minimum, Zelensky’s participation would have required the endorsement of the governments of Latin America’s three largest economies, Brazil, Mexico and Argentina, all of which have taken a largely neutral stance on the war in Ukraine. Which is why it came as little surprise that the EU’s dogged attempts, not just during the two days of the summit but in the preceding weeks, to include in the final declaration a paragraph condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine also come to nothing. The move faced opposition from a host of CELAC members including Brazil, Bolivia, Honduras, Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua.
Another Failure By Collective West
European Union and Latin American leaders concluded a summit that was supposed to be a love-in after eight years of separation, but instead ended Tuesday with aggravation over the failure to unanimously support even a bland statement on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Europe’s fervent support of Ukraine clashed with the more distant or neutral approach pervasive in the 33-nation Community of Latin American and Caribbean States. What should have been a mere detail in a landmark summit celebrating economic ties and fresh investment became its encompassing theme.
In the end, the heavily diluted paragraph (#15) not only did not mention Russia but merely expressed “deep concern” about — as opposed to “condemnation” of — the “ongoing war…, which continues to cause immense human suffering and is exacerbating existing fragilities in the global economy, constraining growth, increasing inflation, disrupting supply chains, heightening energy and food insecurity and elevating financial stability risks.” And even then, Nicaragua, a close ally of Russia, refused to join the 59 other nations, including Cuba and Venezuela, in signing the statement.
In his closing statement at the Summit of the Peoples, a parallel event taking place in Brussels, Gustavo Petro, the president of Colombia, which will be hosting the next EU-CELAC summit, in 2025, pilloried the EU’s obsession with the war in Ukraine, which he described as “a far-removed issue” for Latin America and the Caribbean:
“The EU has basically focused on a topic that was of fundamental interest to itself, but which is far-removed for us: the war in Ukraine. [It wanted] to point to the construction of a block in the world, Latin America and the European Union, coalescing around Zelensky and support for a political, economic and military strategy, obviously. That was its priority.”
The President of Brazil Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva also blasted the EU’s position on the conflict and lamented that “resources that are essential for the economy and social programs” are being channelled toward sustaining the war in Ukraine. He also suggested that both the EU and US sanctions against Russia contravene international law:
“Brazil supports all the initiatives proposed by the different countries and regions, demands a ceasefire, an end to hostilities and a negotiated peace. Using sanctions and blockades without the support of international law is something that merely serves to punish the most vulnerable segments of the populace.”
No Signs of Peace
At the beginning of this year, in his first month back in office, Lula laid out his government’s core positions on the NATO-Russia proxy in a phone conversation with Macron:
- Brazil acknowledges that Vladimir Putin’s Russia violated Ukrainian territory and this is illegal.
- But NATO’s behavior in recent years has not contributed to guaranteeing a relationship of trust with the Kremlin.
- Brazil defends the establishment of negotiations with Russia so that a ceasefire can be reached.
- Brazil will help to bring about peace, but will not contribute in any way to military operations.
- Brazil’s war is against an entirely different foe: poverty.
In her speech at the summit, the President of Honduras Xiomari Castro underscored the opportunities offered by the newly emerging multipolar world. Castro is the wife of Manuel Zelaya, who was removed in a Washington-sponsored military coup in 2009 that set in motion not only a decade of brutal political repression in the country but also, as Castro outlined, “a continent-wide persecution of our leaders, Lula Da Silva, Rafael Correa, Dilma Rousseff, Cristina Kirchner, Evo Morales, among others.”
As readers may recall, Castro’s government in March officially established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China after formally breaking ties with Taiwan. Like Lula, Castro also lamented the lack of progress toward peace in Ukraine:
The Ukrainian war must come to an end. The European Union-CELAC, we must find a way to achieve peace, we cannot live with the nightmare that hell could be unleashed upon all of us any day. Trillions of dollars in weapons are sent for war, but we are not capable of contributing to the integral development of humanity with the objectives of sustainable development, proposed by the UN.
Boric the Outlier
There were a few dissenting voices among the visiting delegates, most notably Chile’s President Gabriel Boric, who is the only head of state in Latin America to have invited Zelensky to address the nation’s parliament. In his speech at the summit, Boric pilloried his fellow CELAC members for refusing to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or acknowledge that the war was “against” Ukraine, not just “in” Ukraine:
“In this place, the situation in Ukraine has been under discussion. I think it is important that those of us from Latin America say clearly: what is happening in Ukraine is an unacceptable war of imperial aggression where international law is being violated… I understand that the joint declaration is blocked today because some do not want to say that the war is against Ukraine. Dear colleagues, today it is Ukraine, but tomorrow it could be any of us.
Of course, Boric’s words were music to the ears of EU leaders but elicited a subtle put-down from Lula. During his parting speech on Wednesday, Brazil’s three-time president attributed Boric’s impatient zeal to youth and inexperience. “I was once in a big rush like Boric,” he said, recalling that when he was invited to the G7 summit during his first year in office, he also wanted everything to be decided there and then.
On the topic of Ukraine, Lula said: “we all know what Europe thinks, we know what is happening between Ukraine and Russia and we know what Latin America thinks.” Lula described the summit’s final declaration as “extremely reasonable,” reiterating that Brazil wants peace, which is why he is talking not only to other countries in the region but also to China and Indonesia, with a view to building a coalition of countries “capable of convincing Russia and Ukraine that peace is the best way forward.”
People are “growing tired of the war,” Lula said. Interestingly, he also described the EU-CELAC summit, as a whole, as “extremely successful.” From the English language edition of El País:
“Of all the meetings in which I’ve participated with the EU, this has been the most successful of all,” said the politician. Lula is clear about the reason: “I have rarely seen so much political and economic interest from the EU countries towards Latin America.”
The appreciation of the president of Brazil, the main political and economic player in the region, leaves no doubt about the outcome of the summit. Nor is the Brazilian deceived about what took Europe from a very recent apathy to an utmost interest in the region: “Possibly due to the dispute between the United States and China, possibly due to China’s investments in Africa and Latin America, possibly due to the new Silk Road [the Chinese investment program], possibly due to the war [in Ukraine].” Regardless, Lula recognizes the concrete result: “The European Union showed great interest in investing by announcing an investment of €45 billion [$50.2 billion].”
Staying Neutral on Ukraine
EU leaders are probably somewhat less enthused, due to the refusal of Latin American countries to fall in line on Ukraine. Only one country in the region is actually applying the sanctions against Russia, according to the Spanish daily La Vanguardia. That country is Costa Rica.
Three countries voted in favour of Russia in the UN resolutions on the Ukraine conflict: Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. Bolivia and El Salvador have abstained in some UN votes. Most other governments in the region have tried to maintain a largely neutral stance on the conflict, initially condemning the war while refusing to endorse sanctions on Russia. They include the region’s four largest economies, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina and Colombia, which earlier this year categorically rejected US and EU requests to send weapons to Ukraine.
There are many reasons why most governments in the region are determined to maintain neutrality in the conflict. They include those outlined in an article by Krishen Mehta, “5 Reasons Why Much of the Global South Isn’t Automatically Supporting the West in Ukraine,” cross-posted on this site back in February:
- The Global South does not believe that the West understands or empathises with their problems.
- History Matters: Who stood where during colonialism and after independence? NC: This was a major bone of contention at the EU-CELAC summit. For example, the Spanish government has volunteered as a mediator between Europe and Latin America, but for many Latin American countries Spain was their colonial master for hundreds of years, acquiring vast wealth by plundering their resources and exploiting their lands and people. The European slave trade also forcibly transported millions of Africans into slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean. Then, of course, there’s the more recent role of the US, which has sponsored or organised dozens of hard and soft coups and military interventions over the past century or so.
- The war in Ukraine is seen by the Global South as mainly about the future of Europe rather than the future of the entire world. NC: This is just what Petro said.
- The world economy is no longer US-dominated or Western-led and the Global South does have other options. NC: This is particularly true of Latin America. Brazil, of course, is a founding member of the BRICS group and its former President Dilma Rousseff is the new head of the BRICS Bank. The region’s trade with China has increased more than 26-fold so far this century. In fact, as Reuters reported in June last year, if you take Mexico’s huge trade balance with the US out of the equation, China has already overtaken the US as Latin America’s largest trading partner. And even Mexico is beginning to see a sharp increase in Chinese trade and investment.
- The “rule based international order” is lacking in credibility and is in decline. NC: Indeed, the rise of CELAC itself is arguably a symptom of this decline. It was founded on December 3, 2011, in Caracas, by the “Pink Tide” leaders with the implicit goal of deepening Latin American integration while reducing the influence of the US on the politics and economics of the region. Mexico’s AMLO picked up the baton at the 2021 summit, expressing hopes that CELAC would eventually supplant the Washington-based Organization of American States (OAS) as the main institution for intra-regional relations. A year later, AMLO led a boycott of the OAS’ flagship biennial event, the Summit of the Americas, in response to Washington’s decision to exclude from the guest list the “antidemocratic” governments of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela.
There are other reasons why Latin America, as a whole, isn’t falling in line with the Collective West on Ukraine. For instance, Mexico has a long, albeit interrupted, history of neutrality dating all the way back to the early 1930s. Mexico’s constitution even includes a list of foreign policy principles such as a commitment to non-intervention in the domestic affairs of other countries, peaceful resolution of conflicts, and promotion of collective security through active participation in international organisations. And AMLO is determined to honour those principles.
There are also stark economic considerations at play. As previously discussed here, Russia produces many of the fertilisers on which the huge agricultural industries of Brazil, Mexico and Argentina depend. Latin America was already in the grip of a major food crisis before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, largely but not only due to the economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic and resulting supply chain crisis.
Another consideration is the goodwill Russia was able to cultivate during the pandemic. Moscow’s vaccine diplomacy, like Beijing’s, helped to expand its role and influence in the region, while Pfizer was shaking down governments left, right and centre.
Lastly, fear has also played a part. Two of the region’s countries, Venezuela and Cuba, have already had their economies eviscerated by US sanctions and blockades. Like their counterparts in many other parts of the world, the governments of Latin America were justifiably terrified by the precedent the US and the EU tried to set by attempting to banish Russia, one of the world’s largest commodity producers and exporters, from the entire global financial system. If the ploy had worked, they knew they could be next in line. Thankfully, it didn’t.