The offer from the US sounded attractive: if Latin American countries would donate their outdated Russian-made military equipment to Ukraine, Washington would replace it with superior American weapons.
But far from embracing the US proposal, unveiled last month by General Laura Richardson, head of the US Southern Command, Latin American leaders have lined up to condemn it.
“Even if they end up as scrap in Colombia, we will not hand over Russian weapons to take to Ukraine to prolong the war,” replied Gustavo Petro, Colombia’s left-wing president. “We are not on any side. We are for peace.”
“Brazil has no interest in forwarding ammunition to be used in the war between Ukraine and Russia,” said President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. “Brazil is a country of peace. At this moment we have to find those who want peace, a word that has been used very little so far.”
Neighboring Argentina also started in a similar way. “Argentina will not cooperate in the war,” said a defense ministry spokesman. “It is not appropriate to cooperate by sending weapons to a conflict in Europe.”
Asked if any Latin American nation had accepted Washington’s offer, Jose Ruiz, a spokesman for the US Southern Command, said that “it is our policy not to disclose the details of ongoing private discussions with our democratic partners, to discuss details of the defense resources of other sovereign nations or to speculate on any support for Ukraine”.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz also walked away apparently empty-handed from a recent visit to Brazil, Argentina and Chile, after Lula refused a request to resell tank ammunition to Berlin for use in Ukraine, and Alberto Fernández, Argentina’s president, refused to send arms to Europe. Chilean President Gabriel Boric, whose left-wing coalition includes pro-Moscow-oriented communists, offered Kiev only help in removing mines.
Latin America’s reluctance to supply Ukraine with weapons stands in stark contrast to European nations such as Britain, which have led efforts to supply Kiev with modern weapons. Last week, London promised to consider sending fighter jets to Ukraine.
On paper, the Latin American military could provide Ukraine with valuable weapons. The militaries of Chile and Brazil use the highly prized German-made Leopard tank that Kiev is seeking.
Colombia, Peru, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil and Ecuador have purchased Russian-made MiG transport helicopters and, in some cases, Russian surface-to-air missiles or anti-tank missiles, equipment compatible with that used by the Ukrainian military. Peru is reported to have serviceable MiG and Sukhoi military aircraft.
However, Latin American left-wing presidents view the conflict in Ukraine differently than Americans or Europeans.
Hardly anyone has gone so far as to line up behind Moscow’s three staunch Latin American allies – Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. The majority strongly condemned Russia’s attack on Ukraine. But they disagree with Washington and Brussels on how to end the war, saying the emphasis should be on an immediate ceasefire without preconditions, rather than arms supplies.
“I don’t think sending weapons to prolong the conflict has support in Latin America,” Marcelo Ebrard, Mexico’s foreign minister, told the Financial Times.
“That doesn’t seem very intelligent either because the costs will be very high for the European Union, Russia and to some extent for everyone else. . . a tendency I see in Latin America. . . is to try to seek or imagine how there might be a political solution to this conflict.”
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador publicly criticized Scholz for agreeing to send Leopard tanks to Ukraine, saying Berlin was forced to do so against the wishes of most Germans “due to pressure from the German media”.
Christoph Heusgen, head of the Munich Security Conference, said he saw “a certain equidistance in some Latin American countries” over Ukraine. “They see it differently – as an extension of the East-West conflict, as Russia against the US or Russia against Europe,” he said. “And I want to say that this is not about East versus West, this is about a violation of the UN Charter, a violation of the rules-based order.”
López Obrador and Petro’s criticisms of Western arms deliveries to Ukraine were praised by Russian embassies in their countries. But diplomats and foreign policy experts point out that they fit into the long Latin American tradition of non-interference in the affairs of other countries.
Maria Angela Holguín, a former Colombian foreign minister, said the conflict in Ukraine has rekindled unwanted memories in Latin America of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union.
“The region is returning to its non-aligned stance,” she said. “These countries also believe that China and Russia could offer them useful support in the future, for example in the case of moving away from the United States, so they do not want to enter into a conflict with them.”
There is also an economic imperative behind the attitude of the Latin leaders. Like other developing regions, Latin America has been hit hard by increases in global fuel and fertilizer prices since the start of the war and wants to see an end to the fighting as soon as possible.
Celso Amorim, foreign minister in previous Lula governments and still an influential adviser, said Brazil’s refusal to ship arms to Ukraine was unrelated to the key agricultural sector’s need for Russian fertilizer.
“It’s a question of peace and how we think we can reach negotiations,” he said. “Various countries have mentioned Brazil as a possible mediator because of its role in BRICS. Brazil does not want to disqualify itself from any negotiations it may undertake.”
Public opinion polls show that Latin American leaders are in line with their people on this issue.
About 73 percent of Latin Americans surveyed by Ipsos last year “claim that their country cannot afford to provide financial support to Ukraine, given the current economic crisis,” said Jean-Christophe Salles, executive director of the Ipsos poll for Latin America.
“Two big countries, Argentina and Mexico, are especially against any support for Ukraine, most of them claim that Ukraine’s problems are none of their business.”