This article was originally published by the UCLA Latin America Institute.
The weeks since the Russian invasion of Ukraine have witnessed an astonishing unity of purpose among the world’s democracies, as leaders from Wellington to Washington to Warsaw have set aside their differences to stand against Russian aggression. Or so the story goes. What this narrative leaves out, however, is that this unity is a unity of the Global North. Some of the world’s largest democracies, such as Brazil, Mexico, India, and Indonesia, have remained far more tepid, even ambivalent, in their support for Ukraine. This has occasioned little comment in U.S. and European media (who are only fuzzily aware to begin with that the world extends beyond North America and Europe), other than an occasional scolding of these countries’ leaders for shirking their democratic duty. (Naturally, the Washington Post blames former U.S. President Donald Trump and his failure to maintain global American “leadership,” not the legacy of colonialism and imperialism.) But the Global South’s failure to uncritically accept Northern narratives about the war in Ukraine is vastly significant, as it may herald a geopolitical reconfiguration that has echoes of the Cold War’s non-aligned movement.
Take Latin America as an example. Considering the fact that their countries spent three centuries as European colonies, followed by another two of U.S. military interventions and coup-mongering, Latin Americans can be forgiven for their skepticism about discourses of democracy and territorial integrity emanating from their one-time imperial overlords. The strongest opposition to the Global North consensus has come from Cuba and Nicaragua, both of whom have alliances with Moscow dating to the Cold War. Both—along with Venezuela, Bolivia, and El Salvador—abstained from condemning the Russian invasion at the United Nations, and Cuban media has repeated Russian justifications for the war, while blaming the United States and NATO for sparking the crisis. For his part, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has refused to condemn the invasion, while also astutely recognizing that the sanctions on Russian oil and gas offer a unique opportunity to extract concessions from the United States and Europe.
Mexico has also proved reluctant to join the Global North chorus. Its President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has refused to sanction Russia and declined to provide weapons to Ukraine. Mexico, of course, has a history of non-intervention in international affairs dating to the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution and has been the destination of choice for exiled revolutionaries from Leon Trotsky to Evo Morales. But current disagreements also loom large. AMLO has expressed resentment that the U.S. Congress approved a massive aid package for Ukraine in a matter of days, while aid for Central America, whose security and migration crisis directly and adversely impact Mexico, has languished for four years. And in response to U.S. President Joe Biden’s claim that Mexico has more Russian spies than any other country, AMLO pointedly retorted, “Mexico isn’t a colony of Russia, China, or the United States.”
At the other end of the ideological spectrum, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro has maintained that Brazil will remain neutral in the conflict, while using it as a justification to propose expanding potassium mining on Indigenous lands—potassium is a key agricultural fertilizer, and Brazil’s soybean industry is heavily dependent on sanctioned Russian fertilizers. In addition, Bolsonaro’s admiration for right-wing authoritarians was on display in his years-long “bromance” with Trump, and he appears to hold Vladimir Putin in similarly high regard. In his desire to remain neutral, Bolsonaro has an unexpected ally: former left-wing president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who argued that Brazil should avoid getting dragged into a new Cold War between superpowers and placed blame for the war equally upon the United States, for building military bases so close to Russia, and Russia, for reacting with military force. Like Mexico, Brazil’s foreign policy has long been guided by principles of non-interference; Lula’s government (2003-2010) took this further by explicitly aligning Brazil with the up-and-coming economies of the BRICS nations and by strengthening ties to the rest of Latin America and to Africa.
Argentina’s position has been more equivocal. President Alberto Fernández visited Russia in early February, signing trade agreements with Moscow and proclaiming that Argentina’s economic dependence on the United States and International Monetary Fund must end. After the invasion began, foreign minister Santiago Cafiero explained, “Argentina does not consider that [sanctions] are a mechanism to generate peace and harmony, or generate a frank dialogue that serves to save lives.” On the other hand, Argentina is home to the world’s second-largest Ukrainian immigrant community, and after his initial cautious criticisms of Russia were met with public outcry, President Alberto Fernández issued more forceful denunciations of the invasion, while still refusing to impose economic sanctions on Moscow.
A few major Latin American countries have been more willing to align themselves with the United States and Europe. U.S. ally Colombia—a long-time foe of Russia-backed Venezuela—immediately and unequivocally condemned the Russian invasion, and President Iván Duque promised his country’s support to Ukraine’s ambassador to Washington. Barely two weeks later, Biden rewarded Colombia by designating it a “major non-NATO ally.” Chile’s position was complicated by the fact that the crisis in Europe came two weeks before leftist Gabriel Boric was inaugurated to replace outgoing center-right president Sebastián Piñera. Yet even before taking office, Boric stated that Chile “strongly condemn[ed] the invasion of Ukraine, the violation of its sovereignty and the illegitimate use of force.” Still, he wondered why a world so concerned about the atrocities committed against Ukrainians was unable to muster the same indignation for the plight of Palestinians and other oppressed peoples.
To those who see the war in Ukraine as a Manichean conflict between good and evil, light and darkness, civilization and barbarism, Latin America’s disparate responses—and indeed those of the rest of the Global South—have been puzzling. Nor do they fit neatly into right-left dichotomies, with the leftist Boric joining U.S. ally Colombia in condemning Russia, while the far-right Bolsonaro finds himself aligned with AMLO and even his archrival Lula in advocating for Latin American neutrality. Nor are they necessarily based on the closeness of a country’s relationship to the United States, as the United States’ other two “major non-NATO allies” in the region, Brazil and Argentina, have balked at joining the “global” consensus against Russia.
Why, then, have so many Latin American governments been reluctant to take sides in a conflict with a clear aggressor in Russia, whose unprovoked invasion has produced heart-wrenching images of suffering in a smaller and weaker neighbor? The causes are rooted not only in contemporary realpolitik, but also in longstanding national values and the legacy of colonialism. The most immediate explanations are economic, most clearly in the cases of Nicaragua and Cuba, who depend heavily upon Moscow in the face of relentless U.S. efforts to destabilize their own economies and governments. Yet this also applies to countries such as Brazil and Argentina, who in recent decades have prioritized reducing their economic dependence on the United States and Western Europe by diversifying their trade relationships.
Countries such as Mexico and Brazil have also been guided by longstanding diplomatic values that have prioritized non-interference in global affairs. Despite a brief lapse between 2002-2018, Mexico has for nearly a century applied the Estrada Doctrine to its foreign policy. Developed in the 1930s by foreign minister Genaro Estrada, the doctrine states that Mexico recognizes foreign governments as legitimate by virtue of their holding de facto power. Taken to its logical conclusion, the Estrada Doctrine prevents Mexico from endorsing or opposing the governments of other nations, or the actions they take to defend their interests. Similarly, Brazil’s foreign policy has for over a century prioritized sovereignty and neutrality. While some presidents have, for reasons of ideology or realpolitik, aligned Brazil more directly with the United States (most famously when Brazil joined the Allied cause during World War II), governments as diverse as the 1964-1985 right-wing military dictatorship and the 2003-2016 left-wing Workers’ Party administrations have doggedly pursued an independent foreign policy. In the mid-1970s the military regime signed a nuclear accord with West Germany against U.S. wishes, and in the early 2000s, Brazil was instrumental in torpedoing the Free Trade Area of the Americas. Both countries' insistence upon neutrality in the Russia-Ukraine conflict are faithful to these histories.
In addition, Latin Americans have strong historical reasons to be skeptical of U.S. and European discourses extolling territorial integrity, human rights, and democracy. Every Latin American and Caribbean country is the product of European colonialism, and two centuries of nationalist discourse have highlighted the destruction wrought on the Americas by their colonizers. Since independence Latin America has had to reckon with near-constant political and military interventions, particularly from their “democratic” neighbor to the North, the United States. After stealing half of Mexico’s territory in 1848, hijacking Cuban sovereignty at the turn of the 20th century, occupying much of the Caribbean between 1900 and 1930, and helping topple democratically-elected governments across the region during the Cold War, the United States has as little credibility in the region as its English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese colonizers. Thus, when the United States and Western Europe paint their opposition to Russian aggression in terms of high-minded ideals, Latin Americans have every reason to be skeptical, particularly when the Global North pays little attention the plight of Central America, Palestine, Yemen, South Sudan, or innumerable other global hotspots filled with suffering Black and Brown people. At the same time, it could be argued that Latin Americans should be particularly sympathetic to the plight of a smaller, weaker country invaded by a neighbor who seeks to impose regime change.
All three of these motivations—economic, diplomatic, and historical—speak to a larger reason that many Latin American governments have avoided taking sides in Ukraine: a conviction that Latin American interests are not tied to conflicts in the Global North. In many respects this is a throwback to the Non-Aligned Movement of the Cold War era, in which Latin American republics, along with newly-independent post-colonial states in Africa and Asia, refused to take sides in a geopolitical struggle that did not concern them. As David Adler has pointed out in The Guardian, today the developing world is again called upon to take sides in a geopolitical conflict among the nations of the Global North, with China added. Once again, Latin Americans are refusing to play ball. Why should Nicaragua wreck its economy to satisfy the United States, which has twice invaded or intervened in its politics? Why should Mexico abandon its principle of neutrality to align itself with former invaders such as the United States and France? Why should Latin Americans defend Ukraine when the Global North has stood aside while Palestinians, Yemenis, and other people in the Global South have died from war and famine?
Say what you will about the war in Ukraine and the motivations of the United States and Europe for opposing Russian aggression: the time in which Latin America would blindly followed the lead of its former colonial overlords is over.
Bryan Pitts is a historian of 20th century Brazil, and author of the nearly-completed book manuscript, Until the Storm Passes: Politicians, Democracy, and the Demise of Brazil’s Military Dictatorship. He has also recently published articles or book chapters on representations of race in Brazilian gay media, the sexual and romantic experiences of gay Brazilian men who travel abroad as tourists, the relationship between the United States and Brazil under the presidencies of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, and the use of audio recordings as historical sources. He has written on contemporary Brazilian politics for media outlets like O Estado de S. Paulo, El País, and Brasil Wire.