LONDON – In the struggle of hearts and minds against Russia, Europe has a new target in its sights. Unfortunately for them, Latin America is not listening.
A widespread glamor offensive by senior diplomats from major European nations and institutions has sought to win neutral-minded Latin American nations to their cause as part of the larger geopolitical battle with Russia and China.
British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly is the latest to step in, visiting Brazil on Wednesday for the final day of a week-long tour of Latin America that has already included high-level talks in Colombia and Chile.
The trip – the first by a British Foreign Secretary to the region in five years – is part of a wider diplomatic push, set out explicitly by Cleverly in a speech last December, to win over nations that ‘often describe themselves as ‘non-aligned’ and « are wary of engaging in any direction, just because other countries want to. »
South America has attracted particular attention from Western leaders in recent months as Ukraine’s allies roam the world in search of minerals critical to high-tech supply chains, as well as munitions and weapons to allow Kiev to recover the territory occupied by Russia.
Both Chile and Brazil have hundreds of German-made Leopard tanks of the type the West has given to Ukraine in recent months. Colombia and Brazil have Russian-made military hardware, including MiG transport helicopters and anti-tank missiles that would be easy for the Ukrainian military to operate.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy tried to encourage Brazil to support his country with a speech at the G7 summit on Sunday, addressed in part to Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
But a bilateral meeting between Zelenskyy and Lula, as is widely known, was canceled due to scheduling reasons, Zelenskyy told reporters.
And speaking to POLITICO ahead of Cleverly’s visit, a Brazilian official ruled out any increase in support for Kiev. Brazil has so far condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine but has refused to provide military aid or sanction Moscow.
“In an ideal world, the British would like Brazil to join the sanctions. But they are smart enough to understand that there is no such thing as an ideal world and that things are the way they are. » said the official.
Asked whether Britain could persuade Chile to provide military aid to Ukraine, a Chilean official said: « It’s not going to happen, not at all… It’s an issue that needs to be resolved by the big powers, not something we can do from end of the world. »
Speaking Monday in Chile’s capital Santiago, Cleverly sought to draw Latin American governments closer to the West, arguing that the region deserves a bigger say on the international stage and advocating for Brazil to get a permanent seat on the Security Council of the United Nations.
« Our world’s multilateral institutions need reforms, » he said, « particularly to give Latin America more voice and influence. »
The European Union has made similar overtures in recent months, with prominent figures such as European Council President Charles Michel and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz visiting Latin America. Michel in particular lobbied countries in the so-called global south to support the EU-US position on Ukraine, fearing that some would be overly sympathetic towards Russia.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock is next in line. She is due to travel to Brazil early next month to promote final work on an EU-Latin America trade deal, also urging Lula to condemn Russian aggression and support Ukraine.
Scholz failed at the latter task when he visited Brasilia in January, prompting a tense press conference in which Lula said his country « has no interest in delivering munitions that can be used in the Ukraine-Russia war. »
Still, Germany remains a major driver behind the push for closer ties with Latin America. Scholz on Monday named « the many countries of the American South » at the top of a list of regions with which he wants the EU to secure major new trade deals.
The EU’s draft deal with the Mercosur bloc of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay has been under negotiation for almost 25 years and is a top priority for Germany, with Berlin keen to open up the highly protected South American market. « I’m very much in favor of finally quickly achieving what has taken so long to make progress, » Scholz said this week.
To that end, European Council President Ursula von der Leyen will travel to Chile, Brazil and Argentina in the second week of June, three officials with knowledge of her trip said. Her tour, originally scheduled for April, will also focus on looming trade and geosecurity.
Bilateral trade is also officially the focus of Cleverly’s current week-long visit, as is developing UK-Latin American cooperation on energy and environmental issues. But officials in two of the nations he has visited said Cleverly was also eager to discuss their respective approaches to Russia and China.
How to approach China remains perhaps the thorniest question of all, with Beijing still the largest trading partner of both Brazil and Chile.
Neither the leftist government wants to antagonize Beijing, nor be forced to choose between trading with China or the United States. Previous left-aligned regimes in the region have endured deeply conflicting relations with Washington.
The aforementioned Brazilian official said Brasilia wants to preserve its « space for autonomy » and that they expect Cleverly to be diplomatic in his exchanges with his Brazilian counterpart, Mauro Vieira, whom he is due to meet on Wednesday.
« The British are trying to strike the right balance in their relationship with China in light of their interests, and so is Brazil, » the official said. “It would be ridiculous for the foreign minister to go to Brazil and ask Brazil to trade less with China. He knows this would be a failure.
The Chilean official, however, said he was « disappointed » that Wisely hadn’t offered more to woo his nation. “If you want to compete with China, you have to pay. You have to bring something back. said the official. « I would have expected more concrete commitments, but it hasn’t been seen ».
There is still much work to be done for Europe.
Suzanne Lynch reported from Brussels and Hans von der Burchard reported from Berlin.