Twitter wars: Latin American presidents’ feuds threaten regional unity

Illustration by Connectas

This article was written by Cristian Ascencio for CONNECTAS and republished by Global Voices under a media agreement.

In the sixties, singers and songwriters would appeal to the dream of Latin American brotherhood in their lyrics. Countries that share a common past and language could have a common, prosperous future and would no longer be pawns in the world powers’ games. But in the 21st century, this idealized Latin American unity barely appears in the occasional university lecture and in some academic forums — not that there have been no concrete attempts, such as the South American trade bloc Mercosur established in the 1990s and still active today. However, the loss of ideological affinities, the arrival of new authoritarian governments, and increasing mistrust have kept this type of initiative at a standstill.

The year 2023 seemed to be an ideal time for the region to face, together, the shared problems of this polarized world — a world that also needs Latin America. Several of the planet's most important green lungs, such as the Amazon, and key resources for the energy transition, such as lithium, are located here. But little has emerged in terms of common projects. Instead, tensions and disputes have been rife on Twitter, with international relations resembling the dynamics of a Roman coliseum.

Argentina and Ecuador have just withdrawn their respective ambassadors in each country after a minister of Ecuador's former government of Rafael Correa escaped from the Argentinian embassy in Quito. She was there seeking refuge while the Ecuadorian justice system was investigating her. She then turned up in Venezuela. Current Ecuadorian president Guillermo Lasso wrote on Twitter: “I am very sad that Alberto Fernández, president of Argentina, has put his personal friendship and political affinity with Rafael Correa before the fraternal relationship between the peoples of Argentina and Ecuador.”

Fernandez responded on Twitter:

President @LassoGuillermo, receive these words with the sincere affection of always. Try not to mix this incident, the product of the imperfection of Ecuadorian State officials, with the love that binds our peoples.

This is not Fernández's first diplomatic trouble. He had already been involved in a controversy with his Chilean counterpart Gabriel Boric, with whom he shares ideological views. The issue began because the Argentinian president, as part of the Puebla Group, signed a letter criticizing Chile's justice system due to the postponement of the trial against a Chilean politician and friend, the former parliamentarian and presidential candidate Marco Enríquez Ominami.

Boric responds to Puebla Group: “I respect institutions, I expect the same from my colleagues.”

Chile, on the other hand, has just become embroiled in a controversy with Bolivia and Venezuela due to the migratory crisis. Chile claimed that these countries are hindering the return of their irregular migrants, to which the Venezuelan Foreign Minister, Yván Gil, demanded Chile respect the human rights of this population. Most of them are Venezuelans escaping from the social and political crisis created by the government that Gil represents.

The government of Dina Boluarte in Peru, who assumed office in December after former president Pedro Castillo was removed by Congress and has since presided over a deadly crackdown on protesters, has had tensions with almost all leftist leaders in Latin America. So much so that the Peruvian Congress even declared Colombian President Gustavo Petro persona non grata. Almost at the same time, the Peruvian government withdrew its ambassador to Mexico after President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) said he would continue to support Castillo.

AMLO, who on other occasions has appealed to the traditional principle of “non-interference” of Mexican diplomacy, even maintained in one of his morning conferences that Castillo's dismissal was a farce. “Democracy was trampled on and a great injustice was committed by removing him and imprisoning him, and then establishing a de facto authoritarian and repressive government,” he said.

Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele and his Colombian counterpart Gustavo Petro are fighting the fiercest fight, which has been raging for months in the Twitter ring. In the most heated part of this exchange, Petro cited a CNN tweet reporting that New York prosecutors accused Bukele government officials of colluding with gang members. Petro wrote on the social network: “Instead of making government pacts under the table, it is better that the justice system can make them on top of the table without deceit and in search of peace.”

Bukele, a constant Twitter user, was quick to respond. Bukele confronted Petro with the fact that the Colombian Prosecutor's Office is investigating his son Nicolás Petro for allegedly bribing businessmen and prisoners in exchange of presidential favors.

Work it out. First you accuse me of inhumane treatment and now you talk about “better conditions”.

Besides, I don't understand your obsession with El Salvador.

Isn't your son the one who makes pacts under the table and also for money?

Is everything okay at home? 🙃

Colombian analyst Nury Gómez argues that politicians no longer seek to engage in debate and have become confrontational:

They do not adopt a national outlook, they govern according to the ‘ranking’ they get in popularity polls. They govern to capture the attention of citizens who are connected on Twitter, with orders rather than dialogues and with national agendas frozen in time.

In the specific case of Bukele and Petro's Twitter conflict, Gómez claims that both want to be seen as the leaders of their respective political spheres:

Bukele, with maximum approval in his country, undertakes the archetype of the ‘authoritarian father,’ speaking of ‘eradicating evil at its roots’ in order to save his citizens from criminals. No matter the transgression of human rights. Petro, for his part, has wanted to be the symbol and voice of the Latin American left. His 2022 inauguration speech made it clear. Both need an enemy to place them in the international public opinion. They need each other, in attack and in defense, to build an idyllic narrative of their achievements and to be considered heroes. Petro does not have the approval rates or the results of Bukele, but he does have a fan base that defends him.

Jeanne Simon, political analyst and academic at the University of Concepción, Chile, adds that what was seen between Bukele and Petro “has to do with the presidents’ new style, which comes from Donald Trump, in which they use [Twitter] as almost an official means of communication (…) It has to do with new styles of rulers, especially of a populist kind.”

Sebastian Grundberger, director of the Political Parties and Democracy in Latin America Program of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, told CONNECTAS:

Twitter displays the ability to immediately set the agenda. We see people like Rafael Correa, the former Ecuadorian president convicted of corruption, who from Belgium is sending a barrage of tweets all the time. Or this argument between Petro and Bukele, two people who have a lot of ideological differences, but have something in common: a very big ego and a conviction that they play some historical role.

In the absence of regional leaders and with more and more presidents flirting with authoritarianism, it will be difficult for Latin America to make progress in its integration. As Francis Espinoza, a Chilean political scientist, says: “Autocracies do not believe in multilateralism.”

Moreover, democratic governments also find their relationship with authoritarian governments problematic. Questions arise: Is it ethical to form a common front with authoritarian allies? Would it not give international backing to anti-democratic regimes such as Ortega's in Nicaragua, which expels and strips opponents of their nationality, or Maduro's in Venezuela, which represses its opposition? Perhaps we can only aspire to a true Latin American brotherhood when all countries share something basic: full democracy.

Every week, the Latin American media CONNECTAS publishes analyses on current events in the Americas. If you are interested in reading more information like this (in Spanish), please click on this link.

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