Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
The highlights this week: A handful of Latin American countries announce new climate pledges amid a brutal heat wave, the Mercosur trade bloc looks to Asia, and a groundbreaking Mexican American wrestler gets the big-screen treatment.
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When wildfires and record-breaking heat rocked the United States and Europe in recent months, it was still winter in the Southern Hemisphere. No matter: Parts of Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, and Paraguay still clocked temperatures of over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in July and August. Early this week, spring reared its ugly head, scorching much of the continent and thrusting parts of Bolivia and Brazil into all-time high temperatures—for any month of the year.
In part, scientists said, the heat can be attributed to the ongoing El Niño weather pattern. But the main factor behind it is undoubtedly human-caused global warming, climatologist Karina Bruno Lima of Brazil’s Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul told the Guardian.
In several parts of Latin America, this year’s extreme heat has already caused economic disruption and posed health risks. Farmers in Brazil, the world’s largest producer of coffee and soybeans, say the heat threatens to disrupt their crop yields. Farther north, unusually low water levels in the Panama Canal have prompted operators to limit canal transits and require ships to lighten their loads in order to safely sail through. The heat has also put people at higher risk of strokes and heart attacks, health authorities warned.
Later in the week, South American temperatures dropped from their record-breaking levels, which offered some short-term relief. But overall, as the climate continues to change, “the tendency is for this to get worse,” Lima said.
The business and health consequences of 2023’s extreme temperatures have so far not prompted a matching level of climate ambition from the world’s governments, in the eyes of longtime observers.
Last week’s United Nations Climate Ambition Summit was meant to highlight countries and private groups that had recently increased their efforts in fighting climate change. Based on that criteria, the world’s biggest polluters—the United States and China—were not invited to speak. The United Kingdom’s announcement of delaying some green targets the morning of the meeting prompted “barely concealed rage [and] deep disappointment” among U.N. officials, diplomats, and delegates, longtime climate watcher Ed King posted on Twitter. The event “was more notable for the absentees than groundbreaking commitments,” Matteo Civillini and Joe Lo wrote in Climate Home News.
Several countries from Latin America and the Caribbean were among those celebrated for their new commitments. This month, Brazil announced a more ambitious national emissions reduction target—undoing the backpedaling of the Jair Bolsonaro administration—and was thus allowed to speak at the summit. So too were Colombia, which last month signed on as a “friend” of a global alliance to phase out fossil fuel production, and Barbados, which has become a leader in advocating for climate finance reform on behalf of developing countries. Additionally, both Colombia and Panama announced last week that they joined a pledge to phase out unabated coal-fired power plants by 2030.
Latin America’s second- and third-largest economies, Mexico and Argentina, did not make the speaker invite list, as current governments in both have embraced fossil fuel production while failing to announce major new climate targets. Upcoming elections could bring change: In Mexico, the ruling party’s candidate for next year’s presidential election is a climate scientist, and the opposition candidate has vocally advocated for shifting to renewables. In Argentina, however, prospects look different: The front-runner for its upcoming presidential election, Javier Milei, has called climate change a “socialist lie.”
As for whether South America’s scorching spring—and likely scorching summer—will boost its commitments to climate action, that will be on display at COP28, the U.N. climate change summit to be held in Dubai later this year.
Friday, Sept. 29: The United States hosts a high-level economic dialogue with Mexico.
Sunday, Oct. 1: Argentina holds its first televised debate of the 2023 presidential campaign.
Sunday, Oct. 15: Ecuador holds a presidential runoff election.
Crunching cartel numbers. A new paper in the journal Science uses a novel mathematical modeling technique to examine Mexico’s drug cartels and how they might respond to different policy interventions. Researchers Rafael Prieto-Curiel, Gian Maria Campedelli, and Alejandro Hope estimated that between 160,000 and 185,000 people worked for the cartels last year, making them collectively Mexico’s fifth-largest employer.
In 2006, former Mexican President Felipe Calderón declared war on drug gangs. Since then, law enforcement has often used highly militarized anti-crime operations to arrest or kill top traffickers, though current President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has backed away from that approach. The researchers, for their part, found that increasing incarceration isn’t the best method for curbing cartel membership and casualties. If incarcerations were doubled, they calculated, cartels’ size and casualty rates would still rise slightly by 2027. Instead, they found that preventing recruitment would be more effective: Halving new membership would decrease casualties and cartel size by 25 percent and 11 percent, respectively, over the same period.
The authors noted the limitations of trying to model something as complex as organized crime. Indeed, three analysts wrote in a response essay in Science that real-life conditions are often not so straightforward: Cartel “leaders could alter their recruiting practices (e.g., offer to pay higher wages) if that became necessary to counteract some government initiative designed to slow their recruiting.” Still, they called the paper an “innovative and interesting perspective.”
“The paper’s most important contribution is, to my mind, that it mathematically shows something we’ve suspected for a while,” political scientist Javier Pérez Sandoval posted on Twitter. “Not only that [militarization] has not worked, but that it will always be insufficient.”
Partial peace. While Mexico has been relatively hands-off in its drug gang strategy under the current administration, Colombia’s Gustavo Petro is moving ahead with efforts to reduce violence through negotiated cease-fires and longer-lasting deals—a strategy Petro calls “total peace.”
Last week, his administration announced that it had agreed on a 10-month cease-fire with the rebel group FARC-EMC. That group had splintered off from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rather than join a peace deal that FARC signed with Colombia’s government in 2016. That agreement ended an over 50-year conflict, but a variety of other armed groups remained active in Colombia’s countryside. Petro announced cease-fires with five of those groups last December, but most collapsed. One armed group said it never reached a deal with the government, and fighters in another killed four young Indigenous people, causing the government to break off the truce. A cease-fire that began Aug. 3 with rebel group the National Liberation Army (ELN), however, had held as of Thursday afternoon.
Petro administration officials say they are correcting course from the hastiness of their past steps, and as part of the FARC-EMC cease-fire, they are holding detailed talks about what kind of conduct the cease-fire forbids and how it will be monitored.
Armendáriz grew up in El Paso, Texas, and trained as a fighter right across the border in Ciudad Juaréz, Mexico. Under the stage name Cassandro, Armendáriz rose to fame within Mexico’s lucha libre wrestling scene in the late 1980s and 1990s as one of the first openly gay fighters, paving the way for other queer fighters. Armendáriz eventually became an outspoken envoy of LGBTQ rights in the country more broadly. Discussing the film, critic Álvaro Cueva wrote in Milenio that Armendáriz’s rise was all the more important because it came at the height of the AIDS epidemic, when discussing homosexuality still generally carried a heavy taboo. Even so, Cueva wrote, “he became a hero, a symbol, an aspirational model.”
Gael García Bernal stars in the film, which also features veteran Mexican actor Joaquín Cosio and reggaetón star Bad Bunny. Though Armendáriz’s story has been told in documentaries before, the feature biopic treatment shone with new layers, critic Carlos Aguilar wrote in IndieWire. Aguilar also praised the film’s slang—including the nickname “El Chuco” for El Paso—and the way its dialogue switches seamlessly between Spanish and English.
Gael García Bernal was nominated for a BAFTA award for his film portrayal of which historical figure?
The 2004 film The Motorcycle Diaries depicted Guevara’s road trip through Latin America as a young man.
Comments this week from two presidents of Mercosur countries—the trade bloc of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay—urged a resolution to negotiations over a free trade agreement with the European Union. Talks started in 2000 but stalled in 2019 amid concerns about Brazil’s environmental record under then-President Bolsonaro. They have since been restarted under current Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, but in recent months both sides have voiced qualms about moving forward with the deal.
Paraguayan President Santiago Peña told the Financial Times that if Mercosur does not reach an agreement with the EU by the time he takes over its rotating presidency on Dec. 6, he will shelve talks and instead focus on trade deals with parties such as Singapore and the United Arab Emirates. Meanwhile, Lula said he hoped to use the final months of his Mercosur presidency to bring the bloc closer to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), including exploring a trade deal with Vietnam. Brazil’s foreign minister will reportedly travel to Indonesia, which led ASEAN this year, soon to explore deepening ties between the groups.
Peña’s ultimatum is not just a bargaining tactic but also a reflection of both sides’ political realities. Spain, one of the biggest backers of the EU-Mercosur deal, will leave its own rotating EU presidency in December, and successor Belgium has not signaled a similar level of commitment to deepening EU-Latin America relations. Milei, Argentina’s presidential front-runner and a self-proclaimed anarcho-capitalist, has said he wants to withdraw Argentina from Mercosur because it “creates trade distortions.” Though many analysts believe he lacks domestic political backing to do so and would moderate his position once in office, his stance would carry sway in a bloc of only four full members.
On Monday, Brazilian Finance Minister Fernando Haddad argued for a rapid conclusion of the EU deal as a way to prove the bloc’s relevance in the face of the “risk” posed by Milei’s potential presidency. Meanwhile, Uruguayan President Luis Lacalle Pou has publicly complained that Mercosur has been slow to cut new deals for the entirety of his tenure; he has threatened to form a separate trade deal with China, which would violate the bloc’s rules.
Peña’s and Lula’s comments show they are taking concerns over the bloc’s relevance into account, but the clock is ticking for more concrete results.