Why the chancellor in Latin America must defy Russian propaganda

Salvador, Berlin It should be the harmonious conclusion of the four-day trip by Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) in South America. In the presidential palace in the Brazilian capital Brasilia, which was still battered by the storming of the government district, Scholz explained to the old and new President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva that he had been missed.

“We are all happy that Brazil is back on the world stage,” said Scholz at the joint press conference. Scholz is the first foreign head of state to visit Lula since he took office a month ago. “Dear Lula,” said the Social Democrat to the comrades from the Workers’ Party, “we have big plans together, and I’m really looking forward to a good, long-term collaboration.”

In fact, the results of the negotiations are impressive: Brazil and Germany now want to quickly push through the free trade zone between the EU and South American Mercosur. Lula hopes that an updated draft contract will be available by the middle of the year at the latest.

Brasilia could have been a triumphant finale for Scholz in South America. If it weren’t for the one big topic that Comrades Scholz and Lula disagree on when it comes to their interpretation: the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine.

In their final declaration, both states condemned the Russian attack and the annexation of occupied Ukrainian territories as “flagrant violations of international law”. But Brazil does not want to deliver tank ammunition to Ukraine, which Germany is said to have asked for days ago, as reported by the Brazilian media. “Brazil does not want any involvement in this war, even indirectly,” Lula said now.

Argentina, Brazil and Mexico are considered important markets for Russia

Lula is not alone in Latin America with his rather neutral stance on Russia and Ukraine. For many countries, the war is far away, but economic and political ties with Moscow are strong.

Shortly after the Russian attack in February last year, the Organization of American States (OAS) released a statement accusing the Russian Federation of an “illegal, unjustified and groundless invasion of Ukraine”. However, some prominent countries were missing from the list of signatories: Brazil, Argentina, Nicaragua and Bolivia.

>> Read here: Olaf Scholz is late – things are getting tight for Europe in South America

The positions of the Latin American states towards Russia differ greatly, depending on their political orientation and economic dependence on Moscow. Argentina, Brazil and Mexico are considered the most important markets for Russia on the subcontinent. During Lula’s last tenure as Brazilian President, bilateral trade between the two countries soared. For example, the Russians benefited from cane sugar, soybeans, coffee and meat from Brazil. At the same time, Russia is the most important fertilizer supplier for South America’s farmers.

So far, Lula has found it very difficult to distance herself from Russian head of state Vladimir Putin and his war of aggression in Ukraine. However, the Brazilian revised his negative stance towards Ukraine. A year ago he said in an interview that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was just as to blame for the outbreak of war as Putin.

At the meeting with Scholz, he emphasized that Russia had made a “classic mistake” when it invaded the territory of another state – but immediately revised this position. There’s a Brazilian proverb: “If one doesn’t want to, two don’t argue,” Lula explained in a lengthy, apparently improvised monologue. Incidentally, he still hasn’t really understood the cause of the war, Lula said, while mentioning that Ukraine probably wants to join NATO. Pope Francis sees it the same way. The US war against Iraq also began with a lie.

Russian narrative gets caught on the subcontinent

Lula’s words should be a reminder for Scholz that the same opinions based on the same information do not prevail everywhere in the world as in the government seats in Berlin or Brussels. With the help of Russian media such as Russia Today, but also a presence on social media, Russia is trying to spread its perspective in Latin America. In many cases, this narrative catches on where there is already a strong historical distrust of the United States.

In an internal paper published by the Spanish newspaper “El País” in August, the European External Action Service therefore warned of Russia’s growing political influence and announced a major European diplomatic offensive. The subcontinent had been neglected in the past, it said self-critically.

>> Read here: How the Argentine President wants to sell his gas to Germany

A neglect that is not only evident on the diplomatic stage. Many countries in Latin America, for example, received the Russian vaccine Sputnik against Covid-19 before the funds from Western manufacturers were available, including Argentina.

Argentina’s President Alberto Ángel Fernández clearly condemned the aggressor Russia during the Scholz trip, but a few days before the start of the war he had touted Argentina as a bridgehead for Russian interests in South America during a trip to Moscow. Argentina also signed a Silk Road Agreement with China a year ago. Only Chile’s Prime Minister Gabriel Boric promised Scholz to send ships to Ukraine to clear Russian mines in the Black Sea.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Chile’s President Gabriel Boric

The relationship between the Latin American countries and Russia is very different.

(Photo: IMAGO/ZUMA Wire)

And so the German delegation in Brasilia made every effort to praise the advantages of close cooperation with European partners. As early as 2015, Germany had agreed on a strategic partnership with Brazil, which should entail regular meetings between the governments.

But after the impeachment proceedings of then President Dilma Rousseff shortly afterwards and the election of right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro as President in 2018, the partnership is on hold. Now the preparatory negotiations at ministerial level are to begin at full speed.

In order to show the good will for a new beginning, Federal Development Minister Svenja Schulze (SPD) also made a generous appearance in Brasilia: she immediately made 200 million euros available to Brazil for the reconstruction of institutions and projects in the area of ​​environment and indigenous protection.

More: Why South America is so important to the Chancellor

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