Note: This piece originally appeared in Spanish in Análisis Latino. To read the original piece click here.
As it does every year, the United Nations held its General Assembly from September 17 to 30th this year. At the annual meeting heads of state and other important government representatives gave speeches outlining their country’s main priorities on the international agenda. This year, during the 74th session period amid a global context of tension and uncertainty—and diverse trends within the region—Latin American leaders outlined differing agendas that provide an overview of the competing ideas over international insertion that coexist in the region today.
Climate change and the environment was the first topic that divided the region. Indeed, a majority of leaders alluded to the climate crisis in their speeches, from Carlos Alvarado Quesada of Costa Rica to Mauricio Macri of Argentina, regional leaders spoke about taking measures to curb climate change. Chilean President Sebastián Piñera dedicated the entire first half of his 22-minute speech to emphasizing the need to urgently address climate change, stating that “[the world is] going astray, time is running out and we have to change course.” Piñera also reiterated Chile’s commitment to becoming a carbon neutral country.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s position, however, was peculiar. Bolsonaro has already been criticized for his environmental policies, more recently in response to the fires that devastated the Amazon. It should be noted, though, that Bolsonaro seemed to recognize the importance of preserving the environment; but he did so by criticizing the media. Bolsonaro challenged international media to “go to Brazil” and see the Amazon with “their own eyes.” He proceeded to deny that the fires were causing insurmountable levels of destruction and denied that the Amazon was in fact the “lungs of the earth,” as it’s commonly referred to.
A second split came over the question of what the best economic model worldwide was—a difference already evident in regional ideological positions that range from the extreme left to the extreme right. Bolsonaro, on the one hand, thanked his country for leaving socialism behind, a model he views as an evil that is affecting other countries in the region. Bolsonaro also highlighted the benefits of an economy based on deregulation and privatization. On the other hand, Bolivian President Evo Morales was of a completely different opinion: “the root of the problem lies in the capitalist system,” he said, also mentioning that the world was being controlled by a “global oligarchy” where the financial system is all but democratic. The difference is striking. And yet, to defend their own ideologies, both presidents used the same language to denounce the other. While Evo denounced “financial” colonialism, Bolsonaro accused developed countries of having a “colonialist spirit” that undermines Brazil’s sovereignty when they criticized the situation in the Amazon.
Even with these differences, leaders were able to reach a consensus on other topics. In a multipolar context in which the two main economic powers—China and the United States—are in the middle of a trade war, one of the clearest messages during the UNGA sessions was a call to strengthen multilateralism. The Argentine president, Mauricio Macri, affirmed that multilateralism and global governance require stable regions and expressed his commitment to MERCOSUR. Piñera went further and said that there is a “leadership vacuum” and that to achieve growth—rather than be deadlocked by trade wars— barriers must be removed and trade rules harmonized.
Some took advantage of this framework to make more extravagant proposals. Nicaragua suggested moving the UN headquarters to an African country, and El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele—who didn’t miss the opportunity to take a selfie in the middle of his speech—called for the modernization of the UN, a plan that would have leaders meet virtually rather than physically, to avoid the risk of becoming irrelevant like BlockBuster and Kodak.
Another issue that was frequently addressed was inequality, a regular item at the region’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR). This issue was highlighted by Peru, Honduras and Panama. The humanitarian crisis in Venezuela was also a recurring theme, especially by neighboring countries which are receiving large numbers of Venezuelan migrants and refugees, such as Colombia and Ecuador.
The international agenda of Latin American countries is very wide, and although there are points of divergence, the countries recognize that there are many problems that must be addressed jointly. However, in a regional scenario with various ideologies, minimum consensus is at risk of becoming the norm. Some more dissonant positions such as those in Brazil or in Venezuela are likely to hinder decision making in international fora where consensus is a must.