Ukraine Crisis and Latin America: Welcome to Rightist-Leftist Convergence

To be sure, Latin America has plenty of reason to criticize Washington given the region’s long experience with U.S. interventionism.  However, the tendency to excuse Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, while blaming the U.S. for all nefarious misdeeds, has led many “south of the border” to commit a serious error in judgement.  The Ukraine crisis has resulted in a leftist-rightist convergence in Latin America which has exposed a disturbing affinity for authoritarian politics.  Perversely, the lines have been blurred, as authoritarian leftist states such as Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua join with authoritarian rightist states such as Brazil and El Salvador to head off criticism of Putin.

Meanwhile, Mexico seems to be ominously teetering into authoritarian leftist territory.  President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or AMLO, is a politician who is fond of making cheeky jokes about Russia.  Facing accusations on the campaign trail of having ties to the Kremlin, AMLO recorded a video of himself in the port of Veracruz, wistfully awaiting the arrival of a supposed Russian submarine which would deliver “Moscow’s gold.”  More recently, Mexico voted to “deplore” Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at the United Nations General Assembly, though AMLO’s government abstained on another vote to boot Russia from the Human Rights Council, and has been vague in its criticisms of the Kremlin while refusing to impose economic sanctions.

AMLO’s ambivalence is mystifying, since volume of trade isn’t very significant between Russia and Mexico.  Indeed, “given that Mexico trades in two days with the United States what it trades in a whole year with Russia, ideology seems to be paramount,” notes Brookings Institute.  Dubiously, AMLO has said he has “a lot of respect” for Putin, which needless to say hasn’t ingratiated the president with Mexico’s local Ukrainian community: indeed, the latter has staged protests at the Russian Embassy in Mexico City.  Hardly deterred, AMLO maintains his country is “pacifist” in nature, and must adhere to the principle of non-interference in foreign policy.  Some observers, however, say AMLO is being disingenuous, since Mexico fought alongside the U.S. and allied forces in World War II, while also supporting Republican forces during the Spanish Civil War and later the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua.

There are troubling affinities between AMLO’s increasingly authoritarian leanings on domestic policy, and the president’s soft-pedaling on Ukraine.  AMLO has sought to enhance his authority by monkeying with the Supreme Court; harassed Mexico’s National Election Institute and the Electoral Tribunal of the Federal Judiciary; weeded out career civil servants; attacked civil society movements and non-governmental organizations, and lashed out against journalists.  Like Trump, who is fond of “alternative facts,” AMLO responds to unfavorable coverage by saying he has “other figures.”  AMLO himself is a populist leftist, and his followers may conflate Wall Street, the U.S. media, George Soros and liberalism as common foes.  The Mexican president maintained friendly relations with the Trump White House, and AMLO’s partisans even supported the former U.S. president.  Like Trump, who was famously deferential to Putin, AMLO’s party MORENA helped to create a “Mexico-Russia Friendship Committee” in Congress.

Will MORENA actually pay a price for its position on Russia?  During an Easter celebration, onlookers were recently greeted to an unusual spectacle at a public square in Mexico City: against the backdrop of dramatic fireworks, a military tank made out of cardboard was set ablaze.  The effigy, which drew raucous cheers from Catholics celebrating a tradition known as the burning of Judas, was meant to blame Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.  Despite such anecdotal reporting, polling reveals that only twenty percent of Mexicans hold a favorable view of Putin, as opposed to sixty percent unfavorable.  “Putin’s appeal,” notes Deutsche Welle, “is limited to a small, albeit very active, group of left-wing intellectuals on social networks.”

AMLO is limited to one six-year term, and it’s unclear whether foreign policy will figure prominently in the 2024 election.  Thus far, it has been the traditional business-friendly right-wing opposition which has pounced by claiming the government has turned “pro-Russian.”  It remains to be seen, however, whether we shall see dissident rumblings from the left.  Mexico does not have a historic tradition of far-right populism, though it’s not inconceivable that an extremist candidate could emerge.  Despite the historic legacy of U.S. interventionism, it would appear the public is more wary of Moscow than Washington.  Indeed, A Latinobarómetro poll conducted prior to Putin’s invasion found that Russia had only a seventeen percent favorable rating amongst Latin Americans, as opposed to forty seven percent favorable for the U.S.

In contrast to Mexico, the political script is flipped in Brazil, since the authoritarian right is in power as opposed to the populist left.  And yet, when it comes to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, there are distinct parallels.  Like AMLO, president Jair Bolsonaro hides behind the need to stay “impartial” while supposedly seeking “world peace.”  Taking sides, Bolsonaro adds, would be dangerous, since this would jeopardize Russian oil imports and fertilizer provided to agribusiness.  To be sure, the political culture in Brazil differs from Mexico in certain respects.: the South American country has more of a historical tradition of far-right movements, as evidenced by integralist green shirts of the 1930s, for example.  Yet again, however, there are disturbing parallels between AMLO and Bolsonaro.  In addition to their foreign policy leanings on Russia, both leaders have harassed the media and clashed with the judiciary, while picking fights with civil society and non-governmental organizations.

Prior to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Bolsonaro visited Russia and declared that he was “in solidarity” with the Kremlin.  Though Brazil united with Mexico at the United Nations Security Council and called for a Russian withdrawal and ceasefire, Bolsonaro conducted a “bizarre performance” by getting into a spat with his own Vice President who had supported arming Ukraine.  Bolsonaro, like AMLO, pursued cordial ties with Trump, and a portion of the Brazilian right sees Putin as a virile and masculine leader worthy of respect.  Needless to say, such sentiments aren’t shared by Brazil’s substantial Ukrainian Diaspora, which numbers some 600,000.  Bolsonaro’s backing of Russia has furthermore alienated some of the president’s staunchest right-wing allies and military reservists, who have chosen to sign up with the Ukrainian military in its fight with the Kremlin.

It’s not clear that Bolsonaro’s stance on Ukraine will work to the candidate’s advantage.  Experts note that foreign policy is poised to play a central role in Brazil’s upcoming presidential election in October, amidst growing fears the war could spread.  A recent poll found that fifty six percent of Brazilians supported Ukraine, with only eight percent siding with Putin.  There were divisions, however, when it came to what the precise position of the government should be, with a majority advocating neutrality, and one third expressing criticism of Bolsonaro for not backing Ukraine more openly.  Bolsonaro hasn’t displayed firm allegiances to any political party himself, and his movement lacks ideological consistency, with some rightists backing Putin, and others backing the Ukrainian far right and extremist paramilitary factions such as Right Sektor.

Paradoxically, or perhaps not so paradoxically, the hard left has also backed Putin and therefore overlaps politically with Bolsonaro.  Indeed, the Workers’ Party (or PT) posted a tweet “condemn[ing] the U.S.’s long-term policy of aggression against Russia and of continuous expansion of NATO toward Russian borders.”  During a protest held at the Russian Consulate in Rio de Janeiro, pro-Putin Marxists faced off against the pro-Ukrainian far right, thus revealing how traditional conceptions of right and left have broken down.  Former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of the PT, who is leading in polls for the upcoming presidential election, criticized Bolsonaro’s visit to Russia.  However, like AMLO, Lula has been flippant, asking rhetorically “who cares about this war?”  For good measure, the politician added that he would settle the conflict “at a table drinking beer.”  The former Ukrainian ambassador to Brazil roundly criticized Lula as being disrespectful, adding that “freedom, democracy and lives are not resolved at a bar table.”

Observers believe that if Lula wins the election, the PT leader could be pressured to resist international sanctions since several parties likely to join his coalition are sympathetic to Putin.  By contrast, if Bolsonaro is elected, Brazil would be even less likely to join international efforts to castigate Russia.  Needless to say, with both right and left compromised on Ukraine, centrist candidates have filled the vacuum by coming out more forcefully against Putin.  For progressive leftists, or anyone with humanitarian inclinations for that matter, the political milieu does not offer encouraging signs when it comes to foreign policy.  Speaking with BBC Mundo, one Ukrainian leftist remarked that he was disillusioned with his Latin American colleagues.  “Ideology, disgracefully, has played a role in steering the western left to defend Putin’s imperialism against Ukraine,” he said, adding that his peers “are closed off in their traditional beliefs, which have very little to do with leftism and socialist thought, but rather with simple anti-Americanism.”



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