Brian Winter, vice president of policy at Americas Society and Council of the Americas and editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly, leads the conversation on U.S. relations with South America.
CASA: Welcome to today’s session of the Winter/Spring 2023 CFR Academic Webinar Series. I’m Maria Casa, director of the National Program and Outreach at CFR. Thank you all for joining us.
Today’s discussion is on the record and the video and transcript will be available on our website, CFR.org/Academic, if you would like to share it with your colleagues or classmates. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.
We are delighted to have Brian Winter with us to discuss U.S. relations with South America. Mr. Winter is the vice president of policy for the America Society and Council of the Americas and editor in chief of Americas Quarterly. An influential political analyst, he has followed South America for more than twenty years and has served as a correspondent for Reuters in Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico. Mr. Winter is the author of several books including Why Soccer Matters, a New York Times bestseller he wrote with the Brazilian soccer legend Pelé. He is a regular contributor to television and radio and host of the Americas Quarterly podcast.
Welcome, Brian. Thank you very much for being with us.
WINTER: Thank you, Maria. Thanks for the invitation.
CASA: Can you begin with a general overview of current U.S. relations with South American countries?
WINTER: I can try and actually, as a matter of fact, today is an extremely fortuitous day to be doing this and let me tell you why.
A couple of weeks ago on February 10, Brazil’s new president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, made a one-day trip to Washington. He met with President Biden while he was here. He brought his foreign minister with him as well as his chief foreign policy adviser, his finance minister, a couple other members of his Cabinet.
One of the biggest sort of concrete results of this trip that Lula made up here was a U.S. donation to the Amazon Fund of $50 million. That is million with an M.
Well, today, Lula leaves for China with about half of his Cabinet and a delegation of approximately two hundred and thirty leaders from Brazil’s private sector in what Brazilian media are calling the biggest foreign delegation ever to leave Brazil for another country.
They will be in China for six days and there is a whole roster of deals on the table ranging from financing to infrastructure to education, environmental, and so on.
So the point I’m trying to get across here is one of clear asymmetry and it really reflects kind of the new moment for U.S. relations with South America overall.
As Maria mentioned, I started my career in the region as a reporter a little more than twenty years ago. I was in Argentina for four years. I was in Mexico for one year and Brazil for five, and in the course of that relatively short period of time we’ve seen kind of the power balance in how we think about Latin America but specifically South America. We’ve seen a significant change in how we think about that region.
Back the early 2000s, certainly, during the 1990s, these were the final years of the so-called Washington Consensus, a period characterized by kind of the unipolar moment that came with the end of the Cold War, a certain consensus not only around democracy but around a certain set of liberalizing economic policies as well, and that ran its course.
But really, it was around 2003 when everything started to change for a variety of reasons. The biggest one is the one that I’ve already referenced, which is the growth of China as a trading partner for the region.
China had always had a presence in Latin America. In fact, for the magazine that I run, Americas Quarterly, we ran a piece two years ago about the Chinese presence in Mexico going all the way back to the 1600s when they operated barber shops and other sort of forms of commerce.
But what’s happened over the last twenty years is really remarkable. In numbers, Chinese trade with Latin America and the Caribbean overall went from 18 billion (dollars) in 2002 to a stunning 450 billion (dollars) in 2021.
China is now the largest trading partner for Brazil, Chile, Peru, and Uruguay, and for South America as a whole if you take all those countries in the aggregate China now outranks the United States. When you look at Latin America, by the way, that includes Mexico. If you take that grouping then the U.S. is still the number-one trading partner but, again, that’s almost entirely because of that relationship—that trading relationship as a result of the former NAFTA and now USMCA.
Along with that big growth in Chinese trade have come other changes. We’ve had a lot of talk in the U.S. media in recent days about the twentieth anniversary of the Iraq war. That was something—and I was living in Argentina at the time and you could really feel how that even then carried a cost for the U.S. reputation in some of these countries.
I think that with the failure of the—the failures of the war over time I think that that only accentuated the view that—not only a long-standing view that the U.S. was an unwelcome, meddling, and in many cases imperialist presence but it also accelerated this narrative that the United States was in relative decline.
More recent years we’ve seen kind of other things contribute to this diminished reputation of the United States and throughout many countries in the region—everything ranging from not just the election of Donald Trump, who, of course, was not popular in most of the region; but also specific decisions that were made by his government, such as the withdrawal from the TPP—the Trans-Pacific Partnership—that, of course, is the trade deal that was negotiated under the Obama administration that included several Latin American countries, including Chile and Peru—but also the weaponization of tariffs; and, you know, Trump’s repeated threats to even cut off Mexican imports. They did—those threats did have the effect of kind of forcing, first, President Peña Nieto in Mexico and then his successor, Andrés Manuel Lόpez Obrador, to cooperate with initiatives like management of migration policy. So in the short term, they, quote/unquote, “worked” but in the longer term it showed Mexico as well as other countries in the region that the U.S. was not a particularly reliable partner.
Some of you may be listening to all this and thinking, well, this sounds like the viewpoints espoused by governments in the region that are leftist and have never really cared for the United States in the first place. But another interesting thing about this latest trend and the way that things have changed over the last ten years is that this desire to forge a middle path between China and the United States as their strategic competition escalates is shared by leaders across the ideological spectrum.
South American countries in particular are not unlike the United States when it seems like virtually everything is polarized, and yet in this area and specifically the need—the perceived need to have closer relations with—I’m sorry, closer relations with China while maintaining a civil relationship but not siding too much with United States, some of the most enthusiastic proponents of that view in recent years have actually been governments on the center right and right such as Sebastián Piñera, the former president of Chile, Iván Duque, the former president of Colombia, Guillermo Lasso, the current president of Ecuador, who has worked extensively with China, and even Jair Bolsonaro, who was until recently the right-wing president of Brazil, ended up essentially going along with Beijing and allowing Huawei to participate in the recent auction of 5G mobile communications technology there.
And so what we end up with as a result is a policy in many countries across the region that some are calling active nonalignment, the idea that governments in the region, regardless of their ideological stripe, need to seek an equidistant or middle path between Washington and Beijing, essentially taking advantage of their relative distance from not only potential conflicts between the U.S. and China but also looking at what’s happening in Ukraine right now and saying, look, we need to maintain our independence, not side too strongly with either of these emerging blocs, and see if we can benefit from this by selling our commodities to everybody, keeping in mind that these are economies, especially in South America, that rely extremely heavily on the sale of commodities exports to drive their economic growth.
So, you know, in conclusion for these initial remarks that is a huge change in the course of a generation. We’ve gone in a little more than twenty years from this assumption that most Latin American countries are in the U.S. sphere of influence, to use a very outdated term, which I detest, that they were part of our, quote/unquote, “backyard” to an increasing realization in DC, and I think people are still getting their heads around that, that automatic support, automatic alignment, can no longer be expected whether it is in Mexico, Guatemala, Panama, and then on down into South America, which I know is our focus today, governments like Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, another country where we’ve seen a lot of change on this front even in the last couple years and, again, not just because there’s a leftist president in Colombia now because his predecessor, who I’ve already mentioned, Iván Duque, was one of the main people pushing this change.
So that’s a lot to digest. I’m happy to take any questions and hear from you. So thank you.
CASA: Thanks, Brian, for that comprehensive introduction. Now let’s open it up to questions.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
Our first question is a written question and it comes from Andrea Cuervo Prados, who is an adjunct instructor at Dickinson State University, and asks, what is your perspective regarding the new leftist president of Colombia and U.S. relations? What is the risk that Colombia could turn into another Venezuela?
WINTER: Right. It’s a good question. I think that we are still figuring out exactly what Gustavo—not only who Gustavo Petro is but what his ambitions are for both Colombia and for his relationships with the rest of the region and the rest of the world.
There is some distance between what he has said he wants to do and what he may be able to do. This is a president who, you know, talks in these grand sweeping terms but ultimately has to get things through congress, and to just cite a result or an example of this that doesn’t directly have to do with Colombia’s foreign relationships, he said—he gave a very dramatic speech at the UN General Assembly last September in which he talked about the need to legalize narcotics across the board, including cocaine.
But then—it was a speech that generated a lot of attention in capitals all over the world and all over the region. But then in ensuing weeks when he was pressed on this he didn’t really have a lot of detail and admitted that it was not something that Colombia could do unilaterally, which is all to say that, again, there’s this gap where I think it’s important to pay careful attention to the gap between the rhetoric and what’s actually possible with Petro.
I don’t personally—you know, the question of could X country become another Venezuela it’s a question that people have been asking all over Latin America for the last ten years. I think—I understand why people ask it because what happened in Venezuela was so awful and dramatic, not only with the country becoming a full-fledged dictatorship that represses political opposition but also the humanitarian crisis that has forced some 7 million people or about a quarter of the country’s population to leave the country.
But, look, Petro is Colombia’s first president on the left and I don’t think it necessarily follows that—in fact, I’m certain that it doesn’t follow that every person on the left wants to go down the path of Venezuela.
So I suppose I’m a little more optimistic not only that Petro is a pragmatist in areas like the economy—for example, his finance minister is a quite pragmatic figure, a Columbia University professor who is well respected by markets—and I’m also somewhat optimistic about Colombian institutions and their ability to stand in the way of any truly radical change.
CASA: Thank you. Our next question comes from Morton Holbrook, who is an adjunct professor at Kentucky Wesleyan College.
Q: Hello. Yes, I’m here. Morton Holbrook, Kentucky Wesleyan College. University of Louisville also.
Thanks for your really interesting comments, especially about China’s relationship with Latin and South America.
Can I turn north a little bit to Russia? Considering particularly the Brazilian president’s upcoming visit to China do you think he might want to go to Russia, too? Bearing in mind that the International Criminal Court just issued an arrest warrant for President Putin, how might that affect Latin American relations with Russia?
Do you think some of them might now have second thoughts about Russia or inviting Putin to visit their countries? Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Venezuela have all signed the ICC statute promising to cooperate in the carrying out of arrest warrants.
WINTER: That’s a great question and one that is—I can tell you is very front of mind for Brazilian officials and I think others around the region right now. I was just in Brazil two weeks ago working on our—our next issue of Americas Quarterly will be on Brazil’s foreign policy and what it means for the rest of Latin America. This is a question that’s very front and center.
Brazil’s foreign minister did say in the last couple of days—he did explicitly almost word for word repeat what you just said, which is that Brazil is a signatory to that treaty. That would seem to eliminate any possibility of Vladimir Putin visiting Brazil. I’m not sure that that was really on his list of things to do anyway. But it was not only a practical signal but a diplomatic one as well.
Lula’s position on Russia and the Ukraine war has been inconsistent. He said during his campaign last year that Zelensky and Putin bear equal responsibility for the conflict. My understanding is that after that statement, you know, nobody wants to contradict the boss openly and sometimes not even in private.
My sense personally based on conversations with others in Brasilia is that at the very least his foreign policy team regretted that he made that statement. Brazil has, in other form, condemned the Russian invasion. Other governments including Chile, Argentina, Colombia, and others have done the same.
However, these are countries that, like most of the Global South, are firmly opposed to any sanctions and so their position, again, ends up being I suppose you could call it nuanced. They believe it’s important in part because of their own experience as nations to condemn invasions of one country by another.
I, personally, think that it’s fair to think of what Putin is doing is a kind of imperialist aggression, which these are countries that have certainly objected to that when it’s the U.S. over the last, you know, 200-plus years and so you would think that it would be in their DNA to do so in the Ukrainian case as well, and in fairness most of them have.
I would just add that, you know, the Brazilian position, I think, though, gets influenced also by two other things. One is, again, this notion of nonalignment. Most people talk about nonalignment in Brazil and Argentina, in Chile and Colombia, and they think about the U.S.-China relationship, as I noted during my introductory remarks.
But they also think of it as a helpful guide to thinking about the conflict, the war in Ukraine, as well for reasons that are not firmly rooted in morals or values, let’s say, but in interests as, you know, foreign policy often is.
To say it in a different way, I had a conversation a couple of years ago with former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who I helped him write his memoir in English back in 2006. He was president during the 1990s, and in talking with him about the China question he said, we have to take advantage of our greatest strategic asset, which is that Brazil is far. (Laughs.)
And to just unpack that a little bit, I think the meaning of that is clear to all of you. But these are countries that really see an opportunity right now just by virtue of their geographic distance from these conflict zones to avoid being dragged in and also to potentially, at some level, benefit from it through strategic superpower competition for their support as well as through higher prices for some of the commodities that they produce.
There’s one added element in the case of Brazil, which is that Lula, I’m told by people close to him, sees himself as almost a Nelson Mandela-type figure. He’s back now for his third term in the presidency twenty years after he was president the first time.
Of course, I’m sure people on this call know that he went through some real struggles in the intervening years including nearly two years in prison over—on corruption charges that were later thrown out and, you know, he may see his presidency as an opportunity to kind of write the last chapter or two in his biography, and there’s talk that he wants a Nobel Peace Prize and that he sees potentially helping negotiate a peace deal for the Ukraine war as the best opportunity to do that.
I actually think that that idea, which is—tends to be dismissed in Washington as well as in European capitals, I personally think that idea is not as crazy as some people here in Washington think. But maybe I can go into that a little bit later if anybody wants.
CASA: Thank you.
Next, we have two written questions from the same university that we can take together. They’re from Marisa Perez and Trevor Collier, who are undergraduate students at Lewis University. They would like to know what world leaders such as the United States can do to prevent deforestation of the Amazon rainforest and how they can do so without compromising Brazil’s sovereignty.
WINTER: Well, it’s a really great question, in part because it mentions an issue that Americans don’t often think about, which is precisely the sensitivity on the sovereignty issue. Brazil, and specifically not only Brazil’s military but Brazil’s foreign policy establishment, have a long-standing concern that is part of their doctrine, I suppose you could say, that is concerned always about the possibility of territorial loss and about foreigners gaining influence or, in some cases, even control over the Amazon.
And I have to say, you know, this is another one of those ideas that I think—I wish we were all together in a room. This Zoom is kind of the next best thing. I could see your faces that way. But sometimes when I talk about this I see people kind of roll their eyes as if it was some sort of imagined conspiracy.
But the truth is that as recently as 2019 when the—the first year of Jair Bolsonaro’s government when the fires in the Amazon really became a huge controversy, driven in large part by social media and tweets from people like Justin Bieber and Cher, who, to be clear, were, I think, justifiably and quite heroically shining light on what was happening there.
In the midst of all that Emmanuel Macron actually proposed that perhaps some sort of international force in the Amazon was necessary, that that deployment of that would be a good idea if Brazil was not capable of taking care of the Amazon itself.
That proposal was disastrous because it just reinforced this long-standing fear that so much of the establishment in Brazil has always had, and it’s true that Bolsonaro was on the right but you, certainly, in conversations, I think, with people across the ideological spectrum this is something that people think about.
So OK. So back to the original question, how can the U.S. help. Well, the U.S. could help by providing both logistical and financial resources beyond the $50 million, which is, you know, the equivalent of about seven seconds of what we’re spending in terms of supporting Ukraine right now. I don’t know—Norway is the biggest sponsor of the Amazon Fund. I don’t have that number in front of me but I think that their contribution is upwards of at least a billion dollars, probably more.
Ultimately, though, I do believe that the Amazon is a local challenge and I know that can be unsatisfying to hear in forums like this where we’re sort of designed—you know, this is a CFR event. We’re supposed to be thinking of ways that the international community can get involved. But it’s going to be a big challenge.
The good news is that Brazil has shown that it is capable of getting its hands around this problem before. During Lula’s first terms in office from 2003 to 2010 his government was able to reduce the level of deforestation by upwards of 75 percent. It was a very dramatic difference in a very short period of time.
This was done through a variety of means, both things like satellite monitoring and new technology that let the authorities follow this in real time. They were also able to step up environmental enforcement agencies like IBAMA, whose inspectors are necessary. It’s necessary to have them on the ground in order to, you know, stop—actually stop illegal loggers from setting the fires that are the main driver of deforestation.
They were also able to build political consensus around the need to reduce deforestation during those years. I don’t think it’s going to be—in fact, I’m certain it will not be as “easy,” quote/unquote, this time around. A lot has changed.
The upwards of 60 percent increase that we saw in deforestation during the Bolsonaro years had the support, unfortunately, in my view, of local populations who believe essentially that slashing and burning will lead their day-to-day economic lives to improve.
In the election that happened in October where Lula won and Bolsonaro lost but by a very small margin—the closest margin in Brazil’s modern democratic history—the strongest support nationally for Bolsonaro was in areas that have seen the most illegal deforestation over the last four years and what that tells you is that, again, these are local populations that believe that this will lead to greater wealth and greater well-being for all of them, this being deforestation.
So that’s a big challenge for Lula with a—you know, at a time when resources are fairly scarce. It’s not like it was during his first presidency when all of this increase in Chinese trade was really boosting the amount of money in Brazil’s coffers. So he’s going to have to figure out a way to dedicate financial resources as well as convince local populations that this is in their interest to do it. It’s not going to be an easy road.
CASA: Our next question comes from Mike Nelson, an affiliate adjunct professor at Georgetown University.
Q: Thank you very much for an outstanding overview of what’s going on in U.S. relations to South America.
I study international technology policy and data governance but my question is about corruption. You mentioned corruption in Brazil but it’s a problem throughout South America, and my three-part question, is it getting worse or better; are there any countries who have really done the right thing and have taken serious measures to address it; and how can the internet and some of the technologies for citizen journalism help expose corruption and make leaders less likely to dip into the public fund?
WINTER: OK. Yeah. No, great questions, and reflective of if you look at opinion polling and remember that these are countries that many of them have been dealing with rising crime, rising homicide levels, economic stagnation, the pandemic, which hit Latin America by many measures harder than in any other region in the world at one point—I haven’t seen updated numbers on this but it was fairly consistently throughout the pandemic Latin America, which is about 8 percent of the world’s population, was accounting for about 30 percent of the world’s confirmed COVID deaths.
Anyway, amid all of that, and the economic stagnation that has been such a problem over the last ten years, in a lot of countries and in public opinion surveys, the thing that people identified as the number-one problem in their country is corruption. That was not always true. If you look back at public polling twenty years ago, people tended to identify kind of more, what’s the word, basic needs—think, like, unemployment, hunger, misery, which often is kind of asked as a separate—that’s one of the boxes you can check. Twenty years ago, those were the issues.
And as the region became more middle class, especially in the 2000s because of this China-driven economic growth that described during my introduction, a lot of people were able to move beyond their basic needs and focus on essentially what was happening to the money that they paid in taxes, keeping in mind that many people were paying taxes for the first time. Some of it surely was also driven by these things, as you mentioned, mobile phones that not only things like videos of people carrying suitcases of cash, but also the attention that was given to big corruption scandals. Previously in a lot of countries, governments were able to make pacts with newspapers and TV channels, and kind of tamp things down a little bit, and lower the temperature. In an era of Facebook and Twitter, that was no longer as easy for them to do.
All of this culminated in several corruption scandals at once in the mid-2010s, the most emblematic of which was the so-called Lava Jato, or car wash, scandal, which originated in Brazil, but eventually had franchises, if you will, in almost a dozen countries throughout Latin America and the world. That story is complicated. Politicians all over the region went to jail. Business leaders did too. Lula was one of them. That was the case that put him in jail. In intervening years, we’ve discovered that there were abuses and procedural violations, both things on behalf of the prosecutors and the judge involved, who the Brazilian Supreme Court decided, I think in 2021, they ruled—maybe it was earlier than that—that the judge overseeing Lula’s conviction had not been—or, rather, it’s easier to say—had been partial in his rulings.
And so that’s left us in a place today where populations are still angry about corruption, as I mentioned, but it is no longer driving conversation in most countries, like it did before. I still believe—and you can probably tell, this is something I’ve thought about a lot over the years and continue to watch. The first question you asked, in some ways, is the most important one. Is corruption getting worse or better? It’s impossible to know for sure. My hypothesis is actually corruption is about the same, and may in fact be getting better, which flies in the face of all of these headlines that we’ve seen.
But to me, the operative question over these last ten years or so has been, you know, not why—I’ve heard people say, well, why are these—why are these countries so corrupt? And to me, the real question is, why are we suddenly seeing these cases of corruption? Because I think it speaks to not only the technological changes that I referenced, but also the improvement—(audio break)—these are countries many of which transitioned from dictatorship to democracy in the 1980s and early 1990s. And therefore, it really took a generation for independent prosecutors to show up, to have the training and political support that they needed to go after some very powerful people.
So, in sum, I am a believer in the story of rule of law improving in many countries in Latin America. I would recognize, again, that it’s a very complex story, in part because of some of the problems around not just Lava Jato but in other countries, such as Peru and Guatemala. But progress is rarely linear. (Laughs.) And I still think that this is something that is likely to get better with time.
CASA: Our next question is a written one from Mary Beth Altier at New York University.
She asks: What role do you think misinformation and disinformation play in citizens’ perceptions of the U.S. versus China and Russia in Latin America? What could the U.S. do better from a strategic communications perspective, if anything? And then—I can repeat this other question later, which is kind of a follow up. So you think—
WINTER: Yeah, maybe. Well, that first one—that first one is worthy of a book. All of these are—these are great questions. They’re difficult to answer in pithy fashion in three minutes. I am continually impressed by the quality of Russian propaganda in Latin America. Those guys are really good. You look at RT en Español—(changes pronunciation)—RT en Español—it has one of the biggest social media followings of any “media company,” quote/unquote, in the region. Even people who I know are—who I know to not be pro-Russia, let’s put it that way, I see sharing content and videos from RT, which, of course, is just as pure a propaganda arm as you can get of the Russian government.
But also, you know, have a whole network of sites that are more subtle and that push very sophisticated and sometimes, you know, not particularly obvious narratives that are designed to undermine the United States or promote the views of China and Russia. I would recognize at the same time that—I referenced this during my introduction remarks, sometimes the United States does not need any help with it comes to undermining its reputation in the region. I mentioned some of the, quote/unquote “own goals” that we’ve seen over the last five to ten, even twenty years, going all the way back to the Iraq War.
As far as actively pushing back, all I can say is this: You know, I think that they’re—on the one hand, I think there are concrete steps that are being used. We’re still trying to get our heads around this problem to fight misinformation. But I was just in a different forum this morning where I was asked, what—how can the U.S. help the cause of democracy in Latin America. And my answer to that is that the best thing the United States can do to help democracy in Latin America is to get its own house in order, to move past the polarization, the misinformation, and the scorched earth politics that have put our own democracy at risk over the last several years, and try to, you know, recapture some of the consensus, at least around basic democratic rules of the game and how we hold elections that characterized most of the previous two-hundred-plus years of our history.
Because I do think that while—you know, look, I lived ten years in Latin America. I know that people roll their eyes at the notion of the United States as being kind of the shining city on the hill. And I understand why. And that was always true, in part because of the long history of U.S. intervention in Latin America often showing, you know, some of our worst behaviors. On the other hand, as a Brazil specialist, I’ve seen how some of the tactics and even some of the same people that were behind our own democratic decay of the last five years, some of those same tactics were repackaged and exported to open arms in Brazil.
So I do think that it makes a difference on the ground in places like Brazil, potentially, and other countries as well, when a strong democratic example is being set in the United States. And I think that’s the most powerful thing we can do. Some of the other stuff, like what’s happening on RT and Telesur and some of these other outlets is relatively outside our control.
CASA: We have a complementary question from—
WINTER: There was a second part of that question.
CASA: Oh, no, you did end up answering, I think, what could the U.S. do better from a strategic communications perspective. I think you kind of covered that.
We have another question from Gursimran Padda, a student at Stony Brook University, who asks: Does China’s strategy of gaining influence in Latin America differ from its tactics in Africa? And if so, why?
WINTER: Gosh, all these great questions. China—I have to start from the beginning. I am not an African specialist. But I can tell you kind of the narrative of what happened in Africa through Latin American eyes, if that makes any sense, because this is a conversation I’ve had a lot over the years. The perception is that China went into some of these countries in sub-Saharan Africa, and engaged in infrastructure projects and other things that had abusive terms. In many cases, China imported its own labor to do some of these projects. They also engaged in some predatory lending practices. And that was all—essentially the takeaway from actions like that in places like Buenos Aires, Bogota, certainly Brasilia, was that the Chinese would not be allowed to come and engage in those same behaviors in Latin America.
And I think, in practice, it seems that the Chinese have realized that. There have been examples, such as the construction of a dam in Ecuador, where the terms ended up being perceived as something of a debt trap. But my sense—again, and this is not so much my sense; it’s repeating what I’ve heard in numerous conversations about this subject with leaders across the ideological spectrum and throughout the region—is that they understand the risks involved in working with China, in part because of the experience throughout parts of sub-Saharan Africa. And they’re determined to not let those things happen in their home countries.
You know, I know that that’s a view that, in places like where I am today—I’m on in the road in Washington, participated in this other conference this morning. That’s why my Zoom background is not quite as put together as it sometimes is, by the way. I know people roll their eyes at that notion here, and are constantly warning—you know, kind of wagging their finger a little bit at governments throughout South America, and saying that they need to be eyes wide open about the risks of engagement with the Chinese. The problem is that here in the U.S., I think they’re underestimating, in some cases, the sophistication of foreign ministries and trade ministries in places like Peru and Chile when they make those comments. Which is to say, I think that there’s something both visually and in terms of the context a bit paternalistic about it, that everybody picks up on and tends to make people in the region justifiably crazy. (Laughs.)
And then, the other part is that the U.S. is not really offering much in the way of alternatives. We’re at a pretty unique moment in the history of the United States right now where we have both parties—the Republican and Democratic Parties—are pretty much closed to the idea of new free trade deals. That, in my lifetime, has never happened before. I mentioned the fact that Trump dropped out of TPP. Well, Joe Biden has not picked that back up. I think there are domestic political reasons that explain that, but what it means in practice for our relationships with governments in Latin America is that Washington doesn’t have a whole lot to offer.
Because, unlike the Chinese, we can’t just order our companies to go invest someplace. That’s not how our economy works. It is very much how the Chinese economy works, where they can decide to make these decisions. They are not necessarily for a short-term economic payoff, but for medium-term reasons, or even decisions that have very little to do with dollars and cents or ROI, return on investment, and everything to do with geopolitics. So wanting to have beachheads in terms of, say, ports in places like El Salvador. So, you know, again, without that—without trade and without that ability to kind of dictate investment, there’s not a lot that’s left in Washington’s toolkit for counteracting this kind of influence.
CASA: Our next question comes from Daniel Izquierdo, an undergraduate student at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Daniel.
Q: Good afternoon, sir, ma’am. Thank you for taking the time.
I just had a quick question on the increasing tensions between China and the U.S., and how that will kind of develop itself in Latin and South America. So given the strategic interests of Latin and South America, and the persistent political unrest, along with increasing tensions between China and the U.S., what do you believe the likelihood to be of proxy conflicts or foreign meddling, similar to what occurred during the Cold War, occurring in the region? And if not, how do you foresee the U.S. and China competing for influence in the region?
WINTER: So another very good question. Thank you for that. Look, I think some of this ground we’ve covered already, but I would say that, you know, you’re the first to mention—I had not previously mentioned this idea of a new cold war. And this—you know, this is another reason why so many countries across the ideological spectrum are opting for this policy of nonalignment. Essentially because they believe that the first Cold War went badly, very badly, for Latin America.
It resulted in all kinds of traumas, from the wars in Central America during the 1980s to U.S. support for coups in places like Chile, to, you know, Cuban meddling in places like Bolivia and elsewhere around the region during those years, which led to the rise of guerrilla movements like the FARC, that ended up killing very high numbers of people. And so essentially, you know, not to be glib about it, but the reaction that today’s generation has is: We want no part of this. Because it didn’t go well for us the first time.
I think there are obvious differences between a conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union back in the 1950s and 1960s, and this strategic competition between Washington and Beijing, that thankfully has not quite reached those heights, at least not yet, here in the twenty-first century. But I have to tell you, and again this is based on conversations I’m having all the time, the fear is real. The perception is that the world may be headed back to that kind of conflict, being driven not only by what’s happening in the Ukraine but the increasing speculation of potential war over Taiwan.
So this, again, as far as—as far as how it could play out in practice, I think it’s still early. I think it remains to be seen. Right now there is—you know, there are clear cases where I think the Chinese are, as I alluded to in my previous answer, making investments not for economic reasons but for strategic ones, with a long-term horizon I mind. Things like the, quote/unquote, “space base” that they’ve established in Argentina, which really is deserving of the full air quotes when we say the phrase “space base.” I think everyone senses that—you know, that that conflict—or, that competition, if you will, is likely to define the next twenty to thirty years. And I think there’s a determination in most countries, it makes a lot of sense to me personally, that they don’t want their countries used again as a chessboard amid that larger conflict.
CASA: Our next question comes from Damien Odunze. He’s assistant professor at Delta State University who writes: Ideas in the long run change the world. Do you think a closer educational collaboration between U.S. universities and those in Latin and South America could help shape and strengthen liberal democratic values in those countries?
WINTER: What an interesting question. Look, let me talk first about kind of the—that equation today. There’s already quite a lot of connectivity, especially at the—at, you know, not a word I love to use, but at the elite level, the elites in government and business and U.S. education systems. Which is an unnecessarily wordy way of saying that a large percentage of people in South America come from the elite classes and get educated at universities and sometimes even at high schools in the United States. That is one reason why, again, many of these governments are likely to at least forge a middle path between China and the United States, rather than going full-fledged in the direction of China. I think there’s a cultural affinity, family ties, cultural ties, educational ties, and other things that are probably kind of the strongest connection that the U.S. has with a lot of these countries right now.
As to whether a strengthening of those educational ties would improve dedication and the strength of democracy, whew. It could, but I watched with dismay as poll after poll suggests that younger generations, not just in the United States but across the Western world, are less committed in theory to both democracy and democratic institutions than their predecessors. And so I wonder just—I don’t have an answer to this—but I wonder if even, quote/unquote, “even” within the United States, if we’re properly instilling an appreciation for democracy in today’s generations, which then raises the question of whether we’d be able to do so amongst the youth of other countries as well. I’m not sure. I think this is another area where, you know, in the U.S. we have some work to do at home before we start thinking about what’s possible in other countries.
CASA: Our next question comes from Mary Meyer McAleese, who is a professor of political science at Eckerd College in Florida. Mary.
Q: Yes. Good afternoon and thank you for this opportunity.
I have, well, two questions. I hope they’re quick. The first one is, what do you think the effect will be on Latin America or South America with regard to the failure of the Silicon Valley Bank? I read that a lot of Latin American businesses have had investments in that bank, so I wonder if you could say a bit more about the banking situation and the longer-term effects there. And also, gender violence, of course, is a horrible problem all around the world, but especially in Latin and South America. What do you think the United States and the Americas Society could do to support groups in the region that are fighting against gender violence? Thank you.
WINTER: Well, thank you for both questions. Both very good questions. There’s been a lot of talk about SVB and possible effects in Latin America. What I’ve heard from people who are far more knowledgeable about the financial—excuse me—the financial system than I am, is that as long as it does not spread and become a more systemic risk, it should not pose much of an issue for Latin America. In part because—and this is another area where just like—where we were talking about the courts having, I think, been engaged in a thirty-year long process of improvement—I think the same can be said of banking and financial systems around most of Latin America.
My first job was covering the financial crisis that Argentina went through back in 2001 and 2002. Which, for the uninitiated, that saw five presidents in two weeks, a freeze of bank deposits, and a 70 percent devaluation of the currency. It was quite a traumatic thing to be a part of. And during those years, we saw similar—well, not quite as bad—but at least thematically similar crises in Brazil, Colombia, and elsewhere, following other crises in the 1990s. Which is all to say, Latin America has been curiously quiet this time around in terms of financial contagion. The economies aren’t doing well, for the most part, but at least we’re not talking about a financial meltdown.
And that is because of lessons learned. These are banking systems that now have stricter capital requirements than they did in the past. And the macroeconomic fundamentals, generally speaking, are better than they were twenty years ago. Argentina, of course, is kind of in trouble again with an inflation rate that just passed 100 percent. And that’s terrible. But again, the depth—(laughs)—everything’s relative. And the depth of just financial devastation is, thankfully, nothing compared to what it was when I was there twenty-plus years ago. So, you know, we’ll see. If the bank run spreads and we start seeing other banks come in trouble here in the U.S., then my sense is that, with the whole Credit Suisse thing, and we’re not out of the woods yet. But if it stays more or less contained, then the consensus, at least so far, is that Latin America should be fine.
Your question about femicide is an excellent one. It has driven the political discussion in Brazil in recent years. It’s something that President Lula has spoken movingly about. It has also been, on the other end in Mexico, the feminist movement that has had femicides as one of the main areas of concern, has been one of the most effective opposition groups to President López Obrador, who has often been, sadly in my view, dismissive of the seriousness of that problem. As far as what the United States can do to help, or even what my own organization can do, I think that in a lot of cases these are—you know, like a lot of problems—there are things that the international community can do to help.
And certainly, I see things from a journalist’s perspective, even though I’m more analyst than journalist these days. I think that shining light on these problems, using vehicles like—platforms like Americas Quarterly, which is the small publication about Latin American politics that I run, that’s, you know, my own insufficient contribution to looking at his problem. But it’s certainly one—I mean, we look at the numbers in places like Brazil. I don’t have those numbers on my fingertips, but it is just an incredibly serious problem, and one that deserves more attention.
CASA: Thank you, Brian. We have so many other questions. I’m really sorry, though, we have to cut off now. We’re at the hour. But this has been a very interesting discussion. And you’ve covered an enormous amount of ground. Thank you to all of you participating for your great questions.
I hope you will follow Brian on Twitter at @BrazilBrian. The next Academic Webinar will take place on Wednesday, March 29, at 1:00 Eastern Time. Renee Hobbs, professor of communication studies at the University of Rhode Island, will lead a conversation on media literacy and propaganda. In the meantime, I encourage you to learn about CFR paid internships for students and fellowships for professors at CFR.org/Careers. Follow at @CFR_Academic on Twitter and visit CFR.org, ForeignAffairs.com, and ThinkGlobalHealth.org for research and analysis on global issues.
Thank you, again, for joining us today, and we look forward to you tuning in again for our webinar on March 29. Bye.
WINTER: Bye. Thank you.
with Brian Winter
March 22, 2023
Academic and Higher Education Webinars