South American Presidents Come to Lula’s Party, but Check His Leadership

Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.

The highlights this week: Brazil’s Lula draws pushback from guests at a South American unity summit, the United States targets fentanyl’s supply chain, and a Colombian cyclist wins in Italy.

South Americanism in Limbo

On Tuesday in Brasília, South American heads of state met for the first time since 2014 to discuss their visions for continent-wide cooperation.

The idea that the continent should meet and cooperate as a group—separate from forums of Latin American or American nations, the latter of which include the United States and Canada—is over 30 years old; former Brazilian presidents encouraged the idea in the 1990s, around the time that North American countries were negotiating their free trade deal, the North American Free Trade Agreement.

While South American engagement did not yield a continent-wide free trade bloc, in 1991, four countries created what became the customs union Mercosur, and in 2008, 12 countries created an organization called the Union of South American Nations (Unasur), which undertook activities such as planning cross-border infrastructure projects and conducting joint disease surveillance. A spirit of South American integration also paved the way for a deal expanding permissions to live and work across the continent.

Unasur’s biggest boosters dreamed that it could strengthen South America on the global stage, akin to what the European Union achieved. Leftist presidents wary of U.S. influence in South America governed most of Unasur’s countries when it was founded, and they hoped to carve out a space independent of Washington.

Despite Unasur’s charter requiring support for democracy, it remained silent as Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro government began repressing protesters, opposition politicians, and critical media in the mid-2010s. When a string of right-wing presidents were elected in South America beginning in 2015, disagreements over how to respond to increasing autocracy in Venezuela led to many countries pulling out by 2018. That included Brazil, under the administration of Jair Bolsonaro. South American cooperation during the Bolsonaro years slowed dramatically.

Now that Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has replaced Bolsonaro, Lula is calling for renewed regional cooperation alongside other new leaders of South America’s big economies, such as Colombia’s Gustavo Petro and Chile’s Gabriel Boric. But since Lula took office in January, it has been unclear exactly what kind of regional cooperation Brazil would throw its weight behind—and how other countries would respond.

Tuesday’s event in Brasília reflected Brazil’s ambitions to reactivate a South American political forum without falling into the pitfalls of the past. “We let ideologies divide us,” Lula said in a speech. He called for strategies to facilitate trade among South American countries, investments by the countries’ national development banks, and a reactivation of Unasur.

Then leaders entered several hours of private meetings and produced a joint statement in support of general efforts to cooperate further and one specific action item: South American foreign ministries will jointly study the pros and cons of past mechanisms for integration and draft a road map for the new phase of cooperation for presidents.

The Brasília summit showed Lula’s capacity to convene diverse ideological actors in the region—from Venezuela’s Maduro to center-right Uruguayan President Luis Lacalle Pou—as well as those actors’ willingness to entertain the idea of renewed South American regionalism. But it also displayed pushback to some aspects of Lula’s stab at regional leadership. In his public comments, Lacalle Pou slammed the idea of reviving Unasur, saying, “We need to stop with this trend of creating organizations. Let’s act.” No mention of Unasur appeared in the final communique.

Another source of major discord at the Brasília event was a comment made by Lula the previous day while welcoming Maduro to the country. Like several other Latin American countries, as well as the European Union and the United States, the Lula administration has recently reversed a previous policy of diplomatically isolating Maduro over his anti-democratic crackdown. The new wave of engagement—which varies in degree by country—generally aims to coax Maduro toward a deal with the Venezuelan opposition that would allow for competitive elections next year.

Most countries’ new engagement with Venezuela has been cautious, in part due to ongoing violations in the country. As recently as November, the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor sought to reactivate a stalled probe of alleged crimes against humanity committed by Maduro’s government. As of May 29, Venezuelan human rights group Foro Penal estimated that the Venezuelan government was detaining more than 200 political prisoners. But Lula threw caution to the wind on Monday, calling it “absurd” that anyone would question the legitimacy of Maduro’s presidency and saying that “a narrative” of “anti-democracy and authoritarianism” had been built against Venezuela. Caracas should “show its narrative so people can change their minds,” he added.

Lula was castigated for his comments by other South American presidents, Brazilians on the left and right, human rights organizations, and Venezuelan opposition figures, among others. Prominent Venezuelan opposition figure Henrique Capriles called the comments “a smack in the face.”

What’s happening in Venezuela “is not a narrative construction, it’s a reality, it’s serious,” Chilean President Boric said. “I had the opportunity to see it in the eyes and the pain of thousands of Venezuelans that today are in our country, and who also demand a firm and clear position that human rights should be respected.”

O Globo foreign affairs reporter Janaina Figueiredo tweeted Tuesday that Lula’s comments should be understood in the context that behind the scenes, Brazil is advocating for clean Venezuelan elections in 2024. “I told [Maduro] that it’s his obligation to correct the narrative with the true facts,” Lula told reporters.

Still, Figueredo wrote, the way Lula chose to describe Venezuelan affairs was “lamentable” and “very bad.”

For a political transition in Venezuela to be successful, Human Rights Watch’s Tamara Taraciuk Broner tweeted Wednesday, “it should come from an adequate diagnosis of the reality in the country, and that includes recognizing the abuses committed.”

Tuesday’s rocky summit does not mean a new era of South American integration is a nonstarter, though. Left- and right-wing leaders voiced enthusiasm about the possibilities of working together on issues such as environmental protection and green energy. But it does show that regional leaders are comfortable questioning Lula’s presumed leadership—and that whitewashing Venezuela’s crisis comes with costs.

Friday, June 2: Brazil’s foreign minister concludes a meeting of foreign ministers of the BRICS grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.

Sunday, June 25: Guatemala holds presidential elections.

Buitrago rides a bicycle and raises his hands in the air in celebration as people cheer on both sides of the path.

Buitrago rides a bicycle and raises his hands in the air in celebration as people cheer on both sides of the path.

Colombian cyclist Santiago Buitrago celebrates as he crosses the finish line to win the 19th stage of the Giro d’Italia 2023 cycling race, 183 km between Longarone and Tre Cime di Lavaredo (rifugio Auronzo) on May 26.Roberto Bettini/AFP via Getty Images

Europe’s approach to Cuba. European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell visited Cuba last week and pledged continued European support for the country’s private sector, which has operated with more freedom on the island since the Cuban government began allowing small and medium private companies to formally establish themselves in 2021.

Brussels has a policy of closer engagement with Cuba’s government than does Washington. University of Miami historian Michael Bustamante observed on Twitter that even though the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has pledged its own support for Cuban private businesses—part of a step-down from harsh sanctions applied by the administration of former President Donald Trump—U.S. private sector engagement is still nowhere near that of European countries such as Spain.

In a meeting with Cuban business leaders, Borrell noted that the European Union is Cuba’s largest trading partner, surpassing others such as Russia and China, and urged the country to further develop economic ties with the bloc. He also met directly with Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel. Cuba has hosted a stream of Russian officials in recent months, and just last week pledged its “unconditional support” for Moscow in its “confrontation with the West.”

Massa in Beijing. Argentina’s finance minister, Sergio Massa, traveled to China this week to request an expansion of a currency swap deal as Buenos Aires struggles to repay its foreign debt. It’s the latest example of how Argentina is leaning on both Chinese and Western lenders amid a bout of painful inflation.

Massa is also seeking new Chinese infrastructure investments in Argentina. On Friday, he is due to announce details of a new deal that will allow Chinese investors in the country to conduct business in yuan. Though Argentina had also sought financing from the BRICS development bank, the bank turned down the request, as Argentina is not a member.

Colombian cycling prowess. Colombian cycling fans this week celebrated the victory of their own Santiago Buitrago in one of the most difficult stages of the Tour d’Italia international bike race. The 23-year-old won the so-called “queen stage” of the race, known for its steep mountain ascent.

Colombian riders have won the entirety of all three “Grand Tour” major European cycling races in the past: the Tour de France, the Tour d’Italia, and the Vuelta a España. In 2019, Egan Bernal became the first Latin American to win the famous French race, and in 2021 he repeated the victory at the Giro d’Italia. Colombians cite their country’s mountainous terrain as good training ground.

Which of the following countries was not a founding member of Unasur?

Belize is in Central America.

FP’s Most Read This Week

Photographs of fentanyl pills and pill press machines seized by authorities are displayed during a news conference outside the Roybal Federal Building in Los Angeles on Feb. 24, 2021.

Photographs of fentanyl pills and pill press machines seized by authorities are displayed during a news conference outside the Roybal Federal Building in Los Angeles on Feb. 24, 2021.

Photographs of fentanyl pills and pill press machines seized by authorities are displayed during a news conference outside the Roybal Federal Building in Los Angeles on Feb. 24, 2021.Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

On Tuesday, the U.S. Treasury Department announced sanctions on 13 Chinese and four Mexican entities for enabling the production of fentanyl-laced counterfeit pills that are often sold in the United States. Fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid, has contributed to soaring U.S. drug overdose deaths: Overdoses killed more than 100,000 Americans in the year preceding August 2022, with synthetic opioids such as fentanyl causing two-thirds of those deaths; fentanyl is increasingly responsible for overdoses in Mexico as well.

Fentanyl is harder to track and control than other illicit drugs, in part because its ingredients are also part of legal supply chains. Much of the precursor materials for fentanyl come from China and are trafficked through Mexico, the Brookings Institution’s Vanda Felbab-Brown wrote for Foreign Affairs.

Adding to the difficulty, Washington has strained or frozen cooperation on law enforcement with both countries. The last time China carried out a high-profile prosecution related to fentanyl precursor materials was in 2019, Felbab-Brown wrote. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, meanwhile, has restricted law enforcement cooperation with the United States during his administration, citing concerns over national sovereignty. Still, Washington’s relations with Mexico are far friendlier than with China, and after repeated prodding from U.S. officials, López Obrador said last Friday that he would soon announce a deal with China in an attempt to better control the drug.

In a new report last month, investigative site InSight Crime recommended that governments concerned about fentanyl trafficking also engage the private sector about stopping its reach. Private companies have “a relatively significant (and unprecedented) role in the supply chain of precursor chemicals, challenging the traditional paradigm of drug trafficking in Mexico,” the watchdog’s report said. Compliance measures on fentanyl could be woven into trade agreements and new regulations on cross-border commerce.

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