Countering Moscow’s Influence in Latin America

The presidents of Argentina and Brazil, Alberto Fernández and Jair Bolsonaro respectively, have not directly condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Their silence is not surprising, as the two visited Moscow in February amid escalating tensions over Russia’s troop buildup on the Ukrainian border. The Kremlin and Brasilia are partners in the BRICS mechanism, which aims to promote development, cooperation, security, and peace among the world’s leading emerging market economies (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), and their relationship has been growing over the years with cooperation on energy, pharmaceuticals, space, the military, and trade.

As for Argentina, the meeting between Fernandez and Russian President Vladimir Putin to strengthen bilateral cooperation and trade relations, so that Argentina can cut off its dependence on Washington and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), might have something to do with the country’s silence over Ukraine. However, Argentina has been in a debt default with the IMF for years and won’t be able to break away from its loans until that debt is paid off. Argentina reached an initial agreement with the IMF to refinance its $45 billion debt, which the country’s Congress approved in mid-March. If it becomes law, the agreement will free the Argentine economy to grow and will provide the country with balance of payments and budget support to lower inflation  and protect the social programs that reduce poverty. Under the terms of the agreement, Argentina has pledged to reduce its fiscal deficit by 0.9 percent of GDP. However, ongoing geopolitical conflicts, COVID-19, and a volatile global economy pose challenges to Argentina’s economic stability and poverty reduction. In the first half of 2021, Argentina had a poverty rate of over 40 percent, as a result of inflation and years of debt crises.

Argentina and Brazil have a historical economic rivalry, and both are moving away from democratic partners to seek alliances with authoritarian governments.  Russia is not the only hegemon interested in the region. China won a diplomatic victory when Argentina officially joined its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). And despite Bolsonaro’s antagonistic rhetoric toward Beijing, the two maintain strong economic ties and the diplomatic relationship could improve if former President Lula da Silva wins the 2022 presidential election. During Lula’s presidency, Brasilia considered Beijing a strategic and economic partner.

Given a rise in authoritarianism in the Latin American region, most recently in El Salvador and Honduras, countering the Kremlin should be a priority for Washington. As Argentina and Brazil are currently on a fine line between democracy and autocracy, they can disrupt democratic institutions in the region. Bolsonaro, facing a presidential election he might well lose, held a rally in September designed to undermine Brazil’s election rules.  He is also attacking the judiciary, saying he will not acquiesce to the decisions of “certain justice judges” and complained about a government minister, saying he needed to be brought “under control.”   This came against a backdrop of Bolsonaro’s declining approval ratings, based on what is seen as his poor handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Surprisingly, during the United Nations General Assembly resolution on Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, Argentina and Brazil voted in favor of the resolution, changing their initial silence/neutrality approach. The Kremlin is further isolated by its invasion of Ukraine, so this is an opportunity for Washington to push back on malign actors and strengthen its relations with Argentina and Brazil. Washington should encourage alliances between democratic countries in the region. To illustrate, the current Alliance for Development in Democracy, comprised of the democratic states of Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, and Panama, promotes economic recovery, multilateral solutions to the migration crisis, and strengthening democratic institutions. Vibrant institutions are a critical component of a strong democratic state and the backbone of an independent judicial system. Weakened judicial systems, such as in Peru and Bolivia, open the door to democratic backsliding, human rights violations, and authoritarian actors.

Moscow’s diplomatic gains in Latin America represent a challenge to democracy and Washington’s regional interests. To confront it, Washington must prioritize the Alliance for Development in Democracy which, as a bloc, could become the United States’ third most important trading partner. This alliance could be replicated within Southern American countries with the upcoming Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles as the perfect place for Washington to promote strong democratic and economic development alliances in the region.

Caroline Pimentel
Caroline Pimentel
Caroline Pimentel is a Program Associate for the International Republican Institute’s Latin America and Caribbean Division. The opinions in this piece are her own.