Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
The highlights this week: Mexico’s president lays out the preliminary rules for his succession race, Brazil’s conservative Congress takes aim at Lula’s environmental agenda, and leaked audio causes a political scandal in Colombia.
Mexico held gubernatorial elections last weekend in two states: the northern state of Coahuila and the State of Mexico, the latter being the country’s most populous and home to its capital. Both states are governed by the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which managed to hold on to power in Coahuila. But in the State of Mexico, a race more closely watched due to its size, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s nationalist Morena party swept to victory, ending nearly a century of PRI rule.
Morena’s triumph is the latest evidence of its strong position ahead of general elections in July 2024. López Obrador maintains an approval rating of more than 60 percent after more than four years in office, and the victory puts Morena in control of over two-thirds of Mexico’s states.
López Obrador cannot run for reelection due to term limits and has said Morena’s candidate for 2024 will be determined by a primary vote. Still, he is playing a mediating role in that contest—which became the subject of fierce public attention after last weekend’s elections ended.
On Monday night, López Obrador held a private dinner with the top hopefuls for Morena’s nomination at a restaurant in Mexico City’s historic center. While the dinner’s official purpose was to celebrate the electoral victory in the State of Mexico, multiple news outlets reported that attendees discussed draft ground rules for choosing Morena’s next presidential candidate. The rules are due to be officially decided at a party meeting this Sunday. (Morena was founded by López Obrador explicitly so that he could run for president and does not have a long-standing tradition of presidential primaries.)
Outlets including Reforma and El País reported that at least one of the draft rules appeared to respond to concerns about the candidate selection process raised by Foreign Secretary (and presidential hopeful) Marcelo Ebrard. Ebrard led some polls for Morena’s nomination in early 2022, though in recent months he has been surpassed by Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum. In December, Ebrard sent a letter to party leadership calling for presidential hopefuls to be required to resign from their current jobs and debate each other publicly on their policy proposals before a primary vote. That would create “equal conditions for competition,” he said.
As Mexico City’s mayor, Sheinbaum has many speaking opportunities at public events, which “they don’t call campaigning, but it is campaigning,” political analyst José Antonio Crespo said in an interview to journalist Ana Paula Ordorica last month. Ebrard has similar benefits in his foreign ministry position, but he can’t use them “at the same speed” due to the different nature of the job, Crespo added.
In a press conference on Monday, Sheinbaum said she did not plan to resign unless she had already won a vote to become Morena’s presidential candidate. But Reforma and El País reported that in Monday night’s meeting, López Obrador spoke favorably about the requirement of stepping down. Less than 24 hours later, Ebrard announced his resignation, effective June 12.
No media organization published a full document outlining López Obrador’s positions at the Monday night meeting, but some reports said he laid out a plan in which top runners-up in presidential primaries would be required to serve in senior positions in a potential next Morena government—a sort of protection clause against party infighting.
Crespo noted that as president, both Ebrard and Sheinbaum would be likely to diverge from some of López Obrador’s political positions. This sets them apart from a third contender, Interior Secretary Adán Augusto López Hernández. López Hernández—who is polling well behind Ebrard and Sheinbaum—has effectively mirrored the president’s political positions during his tenure.
On paper, Sheinbaum perhaps looks the most different from López Obrador: She is an environmental scientist, whereas he has prioritized fossil fuels over environmental projects during his tenure. While López Obrador at times appealed to mystical cures during the COVID-19 pandemic, Sheinbaum pushed for more testing in Mexico City. Her governing style is “much more based on evidence,” political scientist Marcela Bravo Araujo told the Associated Press.
Ebrard’s recent political record includes managing Mexico’s relationship with the United States during both the Trump and Biden administrations, when Mexico renegotiated its free trade deal with the United States and Canada. He has touted his record of defeating former U.S. President Donald Trump’s proposal to put tariffs on Mexico, but his foreign ministry also bent to U.S. pressure on immigration, the National Autonomous University’s Silvia Núñez García told the AP. Like Sheinbaum and López Obrador, Ebrard says he would focus on lifting up Mexico’s poor.
At the Monday night meeting, López Obrador reportedly told attendees that they will be required to support whoever emerges as the winner of Morena’s nomination contest. But until the party’s presidential candidate is decided, they are preparing to spar.
Friday, June 9 to Wednesday, June 14: Honduran President Xiomara Castro visits China.
Monday, June 12: European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is expected to begin a trip to Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Mexico.
Sunday, June 25: Guatemala holds general elections.
Scandal in Colombia. Colombian magazine Semana published a series of reports in recent days that led to the departures of two top officials in leftist President Gustavo Petro’s government and prompted opposition lawmakers to call for a congressional probe into his campaign financing. Amid public outcry, a lawmaker in Petro’s coalition said they would temporarily suspend attempts to move ambitious reforms to Colombia’s health care and pension systems through Congress.
The most damaging of the reports was based on leaked audio messages sent by Petro’s former campaign manager, Armando Benedetti, to Petro’s chief of staff, Laura Sarabia. Benedetti was named ambassador to Venezuela after last year’s election, but Petro announced last Friday that both Benedetti and Sarabia had stepped down. Benedetti and Petro’s relationship had grown strained in recent months; in the audio messages, Benedetti threatened to reveal damaging information about how Petro’s campaign had been financed.
After the report’s publication, Petro denied that his campaign was illegally financed. But the questions raised in the report were still a hit to his coalition’s credibility.
Petro’s campaign alliance with Benedetti was a move of realpolitik, as Benedetti was an opportunist who had worked with several different Colombian political camps over the years, political scientist Will Freeman wrote in Foreign Policy in May 2022. Now, allegations of under-the-table cash should not be so surprising, Freeman tweeted.
Southern Mexico’s industrial dreams. Over the past two decades, the government of Mexico’s northern Nuevo León state has transformed the city of Monterrey into an industrial hub, in part by offering companies incentives to move there and investing in research institutions. López Obrador says he aims to similarly industrialize Mexico’s impoverished south, though his efforts have so far hit roadblocks: His flagship investment in the region, a new train line, has prompted pushback due to concerns about environmental harms and economic viability.
Still, López Obrador pushed ahead with his efforts this week and announced a federal rule saying that companies that invest in a business corridor in the southern states of Oaxaca and Veracrúz will earn an income tax exemption for three years and up to 90 percent tax exemption for the three subsequent years if they meet the government’s employment goals. Mexican officials traveled to Persian Gulf countries over the past two weeks to seek investment for the region.
“Tall and tan and young and lovely.” Brazilian singer Astrud Gilberto, who sang these words on the 1963 track “The Girl From Ipanema” and went on to a career of bossa nova stardom, died this week at age 83. “The Girl From Ipanema” was the first song Gilberto ever recorded; she had traveled to New York with her then-husband João Gilberto, where they taped with U.S. jazz saxophonist Stan Getz.
Gilberto’s track helped make bossa nova—a jazz-inflected descendent of samba—a hit in the United States, and the song became one of the most covered pop songs in history. Gilberto was born in Brazil’s northern state of Bahia and moved to Rio de Janeiro, where she became involved in the burgeoning bossa nova scene in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
After a series of congressional haggling sessions and executive actions, left-wing Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s climate and forest protection efforts are coming into focus.
Lula’s pledges to strengthen Brazil’s environmental protections won him a key ally during last year’s presidential campaign—conservationist icon Marina Silva, who is now his environment minister—and early international goodwill after he was elected. But the October 2022 election also showed that the Brazilian right remains strong: Conservative lawmakers unfriendly to environmental measures were voted into Congress in large numbers. They include the powerful agribusiness caucus, which generally opposes rainforest protections.
In mid-May, the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), an arm of the environmental ministry, denied state oil company Petrobras a license to drill in an offshore area where the Amazon River meets the Atlantic Ocean. Conservative lawmakers vowed to retaliate by threatening to block what usually is a procedural vote on the formation of Lula’s government unless certain powers were stripped from the ministries of agriculture and Indigenous people, among other concessions. (As is standard in Brazil, Lula created the structure of his ministries via a temporary decree when he was first inaugurated in January.)
The law that eventually passed last Thursday allowed Lula to establish his ministries but stripped the environment ministry of its authority over agencies that regulate water and rural properties, and removed the Indigenous people ministry’s authority to define new protected Indigenous territories. Silva lamented the changes.
Separately, late last month, Congress advanced bills that would reduce protections in the Atlantic Forest in Brazil’s southeast and block the creation of Indigenous land reserves legally protected from commercial development. Lula vetoed part of the former bill, and the country’s Supreme Court is currently considering a lawsuit by a southern Brazilian Indigenous group that challenges the legal foundation of the latter.
On Monday, Lula and Silva flexed their own federal authority by presenting a roadmap to end illegal deforestation in the Amazon by 2030. That deadline is three years after Lula’s term ends, but the plan includes a host of intermediary targets and strategies that environmental analysts celebrated. It is a modified version of a plan that helped reduce annual Amazon deforestation by 83 percent over an eight year time span that began in the middle of Lula’s first term, in 2004.
Notably, the new plan corrects what environmentalists called a deficit in its previous version by including projects to provide alternative sources of income for people who engage in illegal deforestation to farm. Activities such as managed fishing of the giant pirarucu fish and production of açaí berries will earn producers an “Amazon seal” to attract sustainable shoppers.
The plan announced Monday can be carried out using powers that have not been stripped from Silva. Her forest protection secretary, André Lima, told Agência Pública that after the congressional setbacks, the environment ministry also planned to partner with local governments to achieve its targets. There might “be a little more bureaucracy, but that’s not to say [the mission] is lost.”