Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
The highlights this week: A top Brazilian envoy travels to Moscow for talks on the war in Ukraine, Bogotá struggles to negotiate “total peace,” and remittances sent to Mexico hit record highs.
Since taking office on Jan. 1, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and his foreign minister, Mauro Vieira, have publicly advocated for a negotiated end to Russia’s war in Ukraine. Brazil has taken a middle road on the conflict, frustrating some Western leaders: While Brasília has condemned Russia’s invasion at the United Nations, it has sidestepped U.S.-led sanctions against Moscow and declined a U.S. request to send arms to Ukraine. Instead, Brazil says it wants to be part of a group of nations that pushes for peace.
Rhetoric is one thing. Brazil went a step further last week when Lula’s top foreign affairs advisor, Celso Amorim, flew to Moscow and met personally with Russian President Vladimir Putin to pitch him on peace talks. The men sat at opposite ends of Putin’s infamous long oval table for foreign dignitaries.
Amorim spoke to CNN Brasil after the talks but offered only a cryptic takeaway: “Saying that the doors to [negotiation] are open would be an exaggeration,” he said. “But saying that they are totally closed is not true either.”
Amorim’s travels also included a stop in Paris, where he met with policymakers ahead of French President Emmanuel Macron’s trip to China. Unlike most EU leaders, Macron has continued to talk with Putin during the war, and in Beijing, he emphatically urged Chinese President Xi Jinping to push for peace talks.
Amorim acknowledged to CNN Brasil that both parties in the war preferred to keep fighting rather than strike a truce now, especially with Ukraine gearing up for a spring offensive against Russia.
“Lula is playing on his political capital,” former Chilean diplomat and Boston University professor Jorge Heine told Foreign Policy. “If this doesn’t work out, he loses some of it.” Lula’s administration has plenty of other diplomatic challenges that demand attention, from re-establishing credibility on climate change initiatives to diversifying trade with China and dealing with the crisis in Venezuela.
Rubens Barbosa, a former Brazilian diplomat and the president of the São Paulo-based Institute of International Relations and Foreign Trade, told Foreign Policy that he viewed the possibility of peace talks at the moment with “skepticism.” There is “no margin for negotiation” between Russia and Ukraine right now, he said. The visit was “an important political gesture,” but “it doesn’t have a practical effect.”
Still, Barbosa added, Amorim’s trip showed one thing: “Russia values its relationship with Brazil. Celso [Amorim] was not supposed to be able to get a meeting with Putin. Celso is an advisor, and Putin is the president of a nuclear power.” The two countries have cooperated for years through the BRICS grouping, which also includes India, China, and South Africa. Lula has spoken positively of BRICS even as he aims to maintain good relations with Europe and the United States.
If Brazil continues to remain nonaligned in the conflict, it could act as a credible interlocutor in the war, Barbosa said. Lula, for his part, held a call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky last month about efforts to bring peace to the country. On Thursday, Lula told journalists in Brasília that “Putin cannot keep the Ukrainian territory” that he has invaded since early 2022.
Eventual negotiations could be far in the future, but if Brazil and other countries can convey a message “that the global south wants peace—it does not want permanent war in Ukraine—it might move things forward,” Heine said. Developing countries have shied away from sending weapons to Russia or Ukraine for a variety of reasons, including bloody consequences of great-power conflict during the Cold War.
Brazil’s wager is that its continued public and private calls for peace could generate momentum for other countries—including both those seen as nonaligned and those closer to one party, such as France and China—to work toward an end to the conflict. Lula himself will visit China later this month and says he plans to urge Xi toward negotiations in person.
Brazil has tried and failed to steward ambitious global negotiations before. In 2010, when Lula was president, Brazil and Turkey jointly brokered an agreement that aimed to assuage international concerns over Iran’s nuclear program by shipping enriched Iranian uranium to Turkey rather than eradicating the program entirely.
It appeared to be a breakthrough: “Iran seems to be cooperating for the first time in years,” the Middle East Institute’s Gonul Tol wrote at the time. Trita Parsi of the Iranian American Council noted in Foreign Policy that this might be because “[w]hile Iran has been suspicious of European and U.S. maneuvers and proposals … that suspicion is unlikely to arise in a Brazilian-sponsored deal.”
Just as the United States torpedoed Brazil’s negotiating efforts in Iran, it could do so again in Ukraine. Washington is Ukraine’s biggest benefactor in the conflict and has thus far resisted efforts to negotiate its end. But Brasília still has a voice in the world arena—and appears determined to use it.
Thursday, April 13: The U.N. Security Council discusses Colombia.
Tuesday, April 11, to Friday, April 14: Brazilian President Lula visits China.
Wednesday, April 26: The U.N. Security Council discusses Haiti.
Sunday, April 30: Paraguay holds general elections.
Resurgent remittances. Flows of money sent to Mexico from abroad are at historic highs. This February, total remittances to the country accounted for 11 percent more than they did in February 2022, according to Mexico’s central bank. In 2021, Mexico surpassed China to become the country that receives the second-largest amount of remittances in the world. (India is no. 1.)
The high tallies may reflect the post-pandemic economic recovery in the United States, where the bulk of the Mexican diaspora lives, the Economist reported. The Inter-American Development Bank’s Miguel Orozco said that Mexican policymakers should try to encourage remittance recipients to open bank accounts if they do not already have them to save and gain better access to credit.
In both countries, Tsai visited hospitals built with Taiwanese funding, and local leaders pledged their ties to the island. With an election approaching in Guatemala this June, no top candidate has foreshadowed a potential switch to Beijing. Paraguay, which holds elections later this month, is a different story: A leading opposition candidate in the South American country has campaigned on ditching Taiwan for China, a proposal motivated largely by economic concerns.
Unpredictable soft power. The American musician Jay-Z rapped in 2009 that he had “made the Yankee hat more famous than a Yankee can.” But in Brazil, local celebrities and influencers have also played a role in giving the cap a tremendous following, the New York Times’s Jack Nicas wrote last week.
The cap has become so ubiquitous in the country that many Brazilians cannot explain what the letters “NY” mean, Nicas found in interviews. Some think they stand for a basketball team, while others say it’s just a pretty design. But the hat remains “a classic piece of Americana, a status symbol, or a generic—perhaps chic—emblem of the West.”
Another beloved cap in Brazil depicts the logo of the country’s most popular soccer club. What is it called?
That’s according to a 2022 survey of fans by pollster Ipec. The club is based in Rio de Janeiro. Brazil’s second-most-popular club, Corinthians, hails from São Paulo, and counts Lula among its supporters.
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• DoD’s Making a List—and Checking It Twice by Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer
• Get Out of Russia by Natalia Antonova
In Focus: “Total Peace” Hits Road Bumps
Since Colombian President Gustavo Petro took office last August, he has sought to de-escalate armed conflict in the country through a process he calls “total peace.” So far, the measures have included exploratory talks on cease-fire agreements between the Colombian government and different armed groups, including the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Gulf Clan. In these talks, the government has urged the groups to reduce murders as a confidence-building measure while the parties negotiate what would ideally be lasting peace agreements.
But “total peace” is still far off. Watchdogs—such as local press and conflict researchers—have noted that even where gangs have dialed down killings, they have continued low-level repression, such as forcibly recruiting minors into their ranks. Bogotá has not clarified what kind of consequences it will impose on the gangs for those actions.
“[The government’s] security policy was suspended while the conversations about peace began,” Razon Pública editor Hernando Gómez Buendía said in a recent webinar. “We’re in limbo about what the security policy is.”
Last week, the ELN dramatically threatened peace efforts by directly attacking Colombian soldiers and killing nine of them. Petro’s representatives held emergency meetings after the attack with ELN members. Colombian officials pledged they would demand an end to gang hostilities—a broader demand than an end to murders.
As the ELN and Bogotá begin to outline the details of an actual peace deal, Petro’s challenge will be to identify goals that are both wide-reaching enough to protect Colombian civilians from low-level repression and specific enough to be verified and measured. Government documents outlining the goals of the ELN talks deal included a sweeping, nonspecific pledge to “identify the causes of the fundamental problems of the country and propose solutions that lead to transformations of peace.”
By “wanting to negotiate everything,” UNCaribe political scientists Luis Fernando Trejos Rosero and Reynell Badillo Sarmiento wrote in Contexto, the government “risks not negotiating anything.”