The Covid-19 pandemic has not led to changes of foreign policies in Latin America generally or Chile specifically. Processes set in motion before the pandemic, like rising political isolationism and failing multilateralism, continue or are even accelerated. The foreign policy of Chile’s President Sebastián Piñera and Foreign Minister Teodoro Ribera does not constitute an exception to this.
Despite deep impacts on many areas of daily life, the Covid-19 pandemic has not resulted in radical changes for Latin American international relations or individual states’ foreign policies. Latin American multilateralism keeps decaying. On the national level, Chile’s government, for example, maintains a path initiated early in Piñera’s second term toward political isolationism while pursuing economic multilateralism.
To get a clearer picture, Chile Today spoke with Giovanni Agostinis, Assistant Professor of Latin American international relations at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. Agostinis said Chile’s foreign policy traditionally looks beyond Latin America and focuses more on economic rather than political cooperation in the region.
Consequently, other Latin American states do not perceive Chile as an engaged member of the region’s community. The Piñera government even forcefully pushed the paralyzation of UNASUR, a traditional platform for regional problem-solving, and surprised by refusing to sign the UN compact for migration.
Worse, in the midst of the pandemic, the government said it would close the embassies in Syria, Greece, Rumania, Denmark and Algeria. Typically, the decision was publicly justified in economistic terms while a study Ribera said recommended the closures, has not been made available either to the public or parliamentarians.
While officials boast about Chile’s sophisticated international relations and cooperation, hard numbers expose the deception. Chile received US$20,000 in healthcare aid from the US while Peru received US$2.5 million. From China, Chile received, among others, 16 protective suits. Argentina received over 125,000.
Still, Chile and Argentina want to strengthen their bilateral relations to coordinate efforts to fight the pandemic, for example by receiving patients in the case of increasing scarcity of intensive care units. It remains to be seen, however, to what extent these promises will materialize, especially since Piñera accused Fernández of meddling in internal affairs after the latter met with the Frente Amplio opposition.
Agostinis said “there has not been any type of real coordination between states,” partly because of the absence of a regional leader. Brazil was such a leader before President Jair Bolsonaro assumed office, but Bolsonaro replaced Brazil’s global role with nationalism and stronger ties with the Trump White House.
Multilateralism has also been failing because it lacks solid foundations. From 2008 to 2017, under the leadership of Brazil, UNASUR served as a platform to coordinate responses to transnational challenges. For example, UNASUR’s healthcare institute facilitated information integration and exchange between South American states, also on matters of infectious diseases.
After internal ideological struggles and the subsequent inability to formulate an answer to the crisis in Venezuela, several members abandoned UNASUR and the void has still not been filled. Accordingly, regional institutions are highly fragmented and, Agostinis said, “multilateralism in Latin America is completely paralyzed”.
These problems are especially visible during the Covid-19 pandemic. In the region’s south, Mercosur members Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, with Venezuela being currently suspended, have refrained from collectively buying medical equipment or negotiating for a vaccine. Even worse, Argentina withdrew from Mercosur’s free trade agreement negotiations with Canada, India, Lebanon, Singapore and South Korea to focus on its economic and health crises.
The Andean Community and Caribbean CARICOM are not reaching more tangible policies either. These organizations are mainly busy with listing the number of cases in their member states, creating dashboards and discussing the reactivation of the region’s economy once the pandemic has passed.
But exceptions exist. Mercosur has pledged US$16 million for Covid-19 research and to improve the coordination of anti-Covid-19 efforts. And the members of the Central American Integration System have even developed a common protocol.
What’s in Store?
Although the Covid-19 pandemic has not changed Latin American relations for the better, Agostinis sees opportunities. The exogenous shock that is Covid-19 now reveals the vulnerability of the healthcare systems and the economic models, including high levels of informality. “Covid-19 should generate a space of reflection and show the necessity to strengthen the healthcare systems and the role of the state. To do so, cooperation is required.”
According to Agostinis, developing a multilateral center against infectious diseases, composed of independent experts from different states, would be a first step. Such a center would operate independently of personal conflicts among presidents with different ideologies, which often jeopardize cooperation efforts in the region.
Lastly, the way presidents in the region handled the crisis will have consequences for their reelection, starting in a negative sense with Bolsonaro in Brazil. This could lead to an abandonment of his one-sided foreign policies. Together with the insights gained on healthcare during the crisis, this could potentially lead to more cooperation in the region.
Pelle is currently interning at Chile Today. He is a Dutch postgraduate student at Leiden University specialized in Latin American international relations. Previously, he studied at the Universidad de Chile in Santiago.