Latin America walks a fine line between East and West amidst Ukrainian conflict and China-U.S. tensions

Illustration by Erick Retana

This article was written by Leonardo Oliva, a member of the CONNECTAS editorial board, and republished in Global Voices under a media partnership.

When U.S. Air Force jets shot down three “unidentified flying objects” in February, the term UFO trended on Twitter before being swept up by the Super Bowl. These strange UFOs fueled conspiracy and supernatural theories about aliens coming to conquer Earth. However, as White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre had to clarify, “there is no indication of alien or extraterrestrial activity” in the detected objects.

These mysterious episodes came after the U.S. shot down the 60-meter Chinese balloon on Feb. 4 after flying at 18,000 meters over much of the U.S. territory. The event sparked Washington's anger with Beijing, accused of using these balloons as part of an espionage program. In response, China claimed that the United States has violated its airspace with balloons more than ten times in a year, fueling a diplomatic escalation that has generated the biggest crisis between the two powers in the last decade.

The Sino-U.S. escalation comes as Feb. 24 marks the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which put Eastern Europe at war and the world on the brink of catastrophe.

While bombs continue to explode in the Ukrainian region of Donbass, and amidst the prospect of a “Cold War” between the United States, China, and Russia, Latin America is watching these armed, diplomatic, and commercial confrontations from afar. This distance from which Latin American countries view the conflict led to Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba's recent call for them to abandon their “neutrality.”

“We call on all the leaders of the Latin American and Caribbean region to put aside this so-called neutrality and get on the right side of history,” he said from the Ukrainian capital in a videoconference with journalists from the region.

Latin American leaders’ stance

This distant, or rather ambiguous, position was evident in the meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on Feb. 11 in Washington. There, far from agreeing to join the U.S. president's leadership in uniting the world community against the Russian invasion, the newly elected Brazilian president offered himself as the leader of a “peace club” that would include countries such as India and China to resolve the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

Two weeks earlier, Lula had rejected a request from German Prime Minister Olaf Scholz, who was on an official visit to Brazil, to send ammunition to Ukraine. He said he did not want to “provoke the Russians” and added that “Russia has made a crass mistake by invading the territory of another country. But I believe that when one doesn't want to [discuss], neither of us can [talk].”

Lula's non-interventionism coincides with the position of most Latin American countries since Russia attacked Ukraine a year ago. Apart from Nicaragua, Cuba, and Venezuela, and to a lesser extent Bolivia, which have condoned the invasion, the rest of the governments have preferred to remain as aloof as possible. They have not joined in the trade sanctions against Moscow nor sent arms to the Ukrainian forces. “It's a bit along the same lines as in Africa,” analyzes Ignacio Hutin, an Argentine journalist and expert on Eastern Europe, who has covered some of the fighting in Ukraine.

Latin America needs investments and it does not matter if they come from Russia, China, the United States, the European Union or whoever. You cannot have a fight with anyone.

For his part, international analyst Vanni Pettinà agrees that there is a “certain coldness” in Latin America regarding the war in Ukraine. And he explains it in a historical aspect: that of seeing Russia as a counterweight to the North American hegemony. Pettinà, who is a researcher at the Center for Historical Studies at the College of Mexico, affirms:

This anti-imperialism is automatically activated in the presence of a U.S. intervention, but not when another power violates international law.

Until Russia decided to invade Ukrainian territory, Vladimir Putin's government maintained some presence in Latin America, which some see as relevant and others minimize. The former Chilean ambassador to Moscow, Pablo Cabrera, says: “I have never considered Russia to have a very incisive influence beyond the sale of military supplies to some countries. It had perhaps a greater influence during the Cold War, but after its exit from Cuba and its relative involvement in Venezuela, it lost it.” Hutin, on the other hand, does value the Russian presence in the region, although he admits that at the diplomatic level, it lost influence after the invasion of Ukraine. He adds:

But in commercial terms, I would say that Latin America continues to have a good relationship with Russia. The case of fertilizers that Moscow sells to Brazil is quite famous, and it will not stop selling it to Brazil.

Adapting to a shifting geopolitical reality

It seems that Latin America maintains this difficult political balance to avoid alienating any power. But after a year of a war that seemed short-lived and now is threatening to spread in time (and space?), the world turns its eyes to the mysterious Chinese balloons that, reportedly, also flew over other countries such as Colombia.

Can Latin American governments continue to look through binoculars at these conflicts between powers without being drawn into one position or the other, as they have done in the face of bombs in Eastern Europe? “It is in everyone's interest that the decade-long competition between the United States and China does not escalate, as has happened at least since the Trump presidency, into a path of increasingly open hostility,” Pettinà responds.

A return to a global segmentation into blocs that reduce the space for autonomy and force countries to align themselves with one option or another is a scenario that has historically not favored Latin America.

Former Ambassador Cabrera believes that in the face of the Russian invasion, Latin America exhibited “ideological divisions that do not correspond to a humanitarian catastrophe such as this one.” And that “in accordance with its tradition, it should have had a common position in the face of war, of adherence to international peace and security.” Cabrera bets that in 2023 the region will adopt this attitude in the face of the possible extension of a conflict whose end, however, he does not see so far away.

For the time being, as Hutin anticipates, “there will probably be a major military escalation by Russian troops in the coming weeks,” just on the first anniversary of an attack that only the United States and the European Union immediately and unequivocally condemned. For its part, China initially adopted a distant position, which today is increasingly close to Moscow, while sending spy balloons (that are of meteorological nature, according to Beijing) to fly over U.S. skies, carrying out threatening military exercises in Taiwan and waging a trade war with the United States with no winner in sight.

There are, as the scholar Enrique Gomáriz Moraga wrote, the signs of a global transformation toward a bipolar world. One where a new Eurasian center of power, based on authoritarianism, seeks to displace the old one, centered on the Atlantic alliance and Western-style democracy. In this context, Latin American governments must decide whether to continue to walk the tightrope of ambiguity, with the danger of being swept away by the winds of a new cold war.

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