Earlier this month, leaders of European, Latin American, and Caribbean nations met in Brussels for a summit of the European Union and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). While EU-CELAC summits are supposed to occur once every two years, postponements led to this being the first meeting between the two blocs since 2015.
Economically, the EU is keen on accessing natural resources in Latin America, including minerals for the “green transition” and oil and gas to replace the Russian energy on which the continent had become unwisely dependent. As such, European nations pledged to pump $50 billion into Latin America by 2027 through the Global Gateway program, its fledgling rival to China’s far more successful Belt and Road Initiative.
Brussels’ investments have “a strong emphasis on green hydrogen, digital infrastructure, and critical raw materials—all priorities for the European Commission.” Chilean President Gabriel Boric, who in April of this year announced plans to nationalize the Chilean lithium industry, nevertheless agreed to deepen trade liberalization between his country and the EU, guaranteeing European access to Chile’s lithium.
Alongside Chile, Argentina and Uruguay signed memoranda of understanding on “renewable energy production” with the EU. Through initiatives such as these, Europe is deepening its involvement in Latin American energy markets at a time when the US and its allies are trying to sideline China and create “Western supply chains,” in which Latin America’s resources are expected to play a significant role. As Alejandro Frenkel explains, EU engagement with Latin American energy markets is:
a policy aimed at neutralising China’s advance in Latin America as an economic and trading partner, as China has moved in where Europe and the United States have left gaps. More than 20 Latin American and Caribbean countries have already formally joined China’s [Belt and] Road Initiative. Trade between China and Latin America also reached €437 [billion] in 2022 (11 percent more than the previous year) and Beijing is now the most important trading partner of Brazil, Chile and Peru.
It is highly unlikely that Europe will succeed in marginalizing China in Latin America. This is not only due to the scale of Chinese investment, but also the fact that there exists a chasm between how European leaders view Beijing (much like the US, as a belligerent and authoritarian power which needs to be challenged) and how Latin American leaders do (as a reliable partner which, unlike the US, has no history of invasion, violence, or subverting democracy in the region). The geopolitical divide between the EU and CELAC was also on display in arguments over a joint declaration on the Ukraine war.
Geopolitically, the EU failed in its efforts to bring Latin America onside for the economic war and proxy military war against Russia in Ukraine. The EU initially planned to invite Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to the summit without consulting the CELAC bloc (ultimately, Zelensky was unable to attend due to CELAC’s insistence on a climate of neutrality). Toward the end of the summit, Europe also failed to gather unanimous support for a statement condemning Russia for the invasion of Ukraine.
Rather than expressing condemnation over the war, the final statement notes “deep concern” amongst EU-CELAC participants over “the ongoing war against Ukraine, which continues to cause immense human suffering and is exacerbating existing fragilities in the global economy, constraining growth, increasing inflation, disrupting supply chains, heightening energy and food insecurity and elevating financial stability risks.” Even then, the Nicaraguan government refused to sign, with a note at the document’s end reading “This Declaration was endorsed by all countries with one exception due to its disagreement with one paragraph”—the paragraph on the Ukraine war.
For the most part, Latin America has remained ardently neutral in the Russia-Ukraine war and the broader conflict between Russia and the West. Despite pressure from the US, for instance, Latin American governments have refused to send Russian-made weapons in their possession to Ukraine.
Colombian President Gustavo Petro stated, “Even if they end up as scrap in Colombia, we will not hand over Russian weapons to be taken to Ukraine to prolong a war.” Brazilian President Lula da Silva declared, “Brazil has no interest in passing on munitions to be used in the war between Ukraine and Russia.” The AMLO government in Mexico said, “We do not send weapons anywhere; we are pacifists,” while a spokesperson for the defense ministry of Argentina stated, “Argentina is not going to co-operate with the war… It is not appropriate to co-operate by sending arms to the conflict in Europe.”
At the same time, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently toured Latin America, stopping in Brazil, Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua, where he was welcomed with respect, and nobody in the host government lecturing him on the need to withdraw from Ukraine. Lavrov used the four-country tour as an opportunity to pitch the benefits of a new “multipolar world,” a concept that is well-received across the Global South.
Simultaneous to the EU-CELAC summit, a coalition of over 100 organizations, parties, unions, and movements from around the world, convened in Brussels for a parallel “People’s Summit,” which among other things called for an end to the US blockade of Cuba and for the nations of Europe to recognize Latin America as “a zone of peace.” The People’s Summit also condemned the European Parliament’s collaboration with the US government in the demonization of Cuba, notably with a July 12 resolution that called on the EU to sanction Cuban officials including President Miguel Díaz-Canel.
In the leadup to the summit, actions such as the European Parliament’s call to sanction Cuba, and the EU’s plan to invite Zelensky without consulting CELAC, led some leaders to express concerns that Europe does not view nations in Latin America and the Caribbean as equal partners.
While in Brussels, Gustavo Petro of Colombia (which will be hosting the next EU-CELAC summit in 2025) took the opportunity to speak to the People’s Summit. He stated that during the summit, the EU prioritized convincing CELAC to abandon its neutral position on Russia-Ukraine over issues more relevant to Latin America and the Caribbean. Petro said that while the war in Ukraine is “of fundamental interest” to the EU, it is “far-removed for us.”
Brazil’s Lula da Silva also criticized the EU’s approach to the conflict. While arguing that weapons shipments to Ukraine divert resources that could be spent on economic and social programs, he laid out Brazil’s position on the war: “Brazil… demands a ceasefire, an end to hostilities and a negotiated peace. Using sanctions and blockades without the support of international law is something that merely serves to punish the most vulnerable segments of the populace.”
One of the few exceptions to CELAC’s non-aligned stance in Brussels was Chile’s Gabriel Boric, who condemned his fellow Latin American leaders for their neutrality. He stated:
[W]hat is happening in Ukraine is an unacceptable war of imperial aggression where international law is being violated… I understand that the joint declaration is blocked today because some do not want to say that the war is against Ukraine. Dear colleagues, today it is Ukraine, but tomorrow it could be any of us.
While on the whole CELAC leaders appear satisfied with Europe’s investment promises, the EU’s prioritization of Ukraine clearly rankled many of the representatives. This points to a divide in the geopolitical thinking between Europe and Latin America. While Europe has enthusiastically enlisted itself in the West’s campaign against Russia (as well as the new Cold War on China), leaders from CELAC countries welcome multipolarity.
"Today it is Ukraine, but tomorrow it could be any one of us," Chilean President Gabriel Boric says at the EU-CELAC Summit. "What is happening in Ukraine is an unacceptable imperialist war of aggresion that violates international law." pic.twitter.com/czHLSqqe3o— Benjamin Alvarez (@BenjAlvarez1) July 18, 2023
The history of Europe in Latin America and the Caribbean is one of looting and carnage, colonization and slavery; the history of the US in the region is one of invasions and coups, military dictatorships and right-wing death squads. Is it any wonder that the nations of the region welcome positive relations with Russia and China, while viewing attempts to pressure them into abandoning these alliances as merely another stage in a long history of hostile foreign intervention?
Until European leaders recognize this, tensions of the sort that cropped up during the discussion of the summit’s joint declaration will continue to occur.
Owen Schalk is a writer from Manitoba. His book on Canada’s role in the war in Afghanistan will be released by Lorimer in September. You can preorder it here. To see more of his work, visit www.owenschalk.com.