Latin America: Moving Toward Active Non-Alignment?

By Jorge Heine*

IV CELAC Summit, Ecuador 2016/ FAOAmericas/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License (modified)

A new Cold War between the “great powers” outside Latin America – the United States and China – has again undermined the region’s ability to defend its own interests and given impetus to new ways of establishing its autonomy. The COVID‑19 pandemic has been a stark reminder of the human cost of playing favorites. Over 400,000 have died in Latin America, triggering what ECLAC has called the region’s worst crisis in a century. There is plenty of blame to go around – starting with China, where the virus originated, and continuing with the region’s incompetent management. But less remarked upon has been the U.S. role in contributing to this tragedy due to its obsession with all things Cuban and, more recently, Chinese.

  • In 2019, Washington strongly pressured the governments of Bolivia, Ecuador, and El Salvador to expel the teams of Cuban doctors working there. They complied just before the onset of the pandemic, leaving themselves without a critical mass of needed health professionals. At the same time, Washington slashed funding to the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), leaving it unable to assist as it did in previous pandemics.
  • Ecuador, with 12,000 deaths, is Exhibit A of the effect, and Bolivia, with 8,000, is not too far behind. Brazilian President Bolsonaro’s agreement to withdraw Cuban doctors from the Amazon contributed to the decimation of Aboriginal tribes. Nonetheless, as the virus was ravaging the region, USAID refused to restore funding to PAHO. In addition to the humanitarian crisis, the region faces a projected negative growth of 8 percent in 2020, the worst performance of any region, and the prospect of yet another lost decade.

Alarm at the cost to Latin American governments of engaging in Cold War games is rising, inspiring support for what my colleagues Carlos Fortín, Carlos Ominami, and I call a policy of Active Non-Alignment for Latin America. Just as in the 1950s, when countries unwilling to choose between Washington and Moscow, between capitalism and socialism, formed the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), the situation today requires some reassessing of international roles.

  • Any new configuration would reflect that the Global South, which represented 20‑30 percent of trade and investment flows in the 1960-70’s, now accounts for 50 percent. The enormous growth of countries from the Global South , particularly of China and India, but also Brazil (under former President Lula), Indonesia and Turkey, does not occur in a vacuum. It has coincided with a growing populism and protectionism in countries of the developed North, which have dismantled the very Liberal International Order they once created, and are now turning inwards.
  • In this emerging Global South, old platforms like the NAM are being replaced by new ones like the BRICS. The old diplomacy of the Cahiers des doleances has been overtaken by the collective financial statecraft of entities such as the Asian Investment and Infrastructure Bank (AIIB) and the New Development Bank (the so-called “BRICS Bank”). These developments suggest that, far from locking herself up within the confines of the Western Hemisphere, as the anachronistic application of a newly dusted-off Monroe Doctrine portends, Latin America will benefit more from opening up to this new “Post Western World,” in Oliver Stuenkel’s expression.

Active non-alignment is not the romantic resurrection of a bygone era, but rather adapting traditions to this new epoch, in a world in flux. It would expand, not limit, the ties of Latin American nations with the vast emerging non-Western world.

  • Genuine non-alignment does not surrender to any major power but focuses instead on the region’s own goals and objectives. For Latin America, it would entail strengthening regional bodies and deepening its commitment to multilateralism; developing an action plan on climate change; establishing a regional Center for Disease Control (CDC); redefining notions of national security to reflect today’s threats; and committing to gender equality and fair labor relations.
  • Chilean Foreign Minister Andrés Allamand has already expressed support for what he has called “active neutralism,” but sitting governments appear unlikely to take up such an unorthodox approach. Nonetheless, the next electoral cycle – in which ruling leaders are likely to pay a heavy price for the COVID debacles – will probably change many minds.
  • The Administration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden will have its hands full with domestic challenges, and China, fully aware of the sensitive geopolitical situation in place today, does not expect Latin America to take Beijing’s side in its differences with Washington on issues that do not affect the region.  In this conjuncture,  Latin America is at a crossroads, and its current fragmentation and deep-seated crisis call for a fresh approach on how it relates to the rest of the world.

November 13, 2020

* Jorge Heine is Research Professor at the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies, Boston University.

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