Latin American leaders take center stage at the United Nations

Several major Latin American leaders spoke this week at the 76th session of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in New York City, largely echoing common concerns about climate change and the unequal distribution of COVID-19 vaccines internationally.


Illustration Credit: Joe Cummings, Financial Times

Several major Latin American leaders spoke this week at the 76th session of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in New York City, largely echoing common concerns about climate change and the unequal distribution of COVID-19 vaccines internationally. Perhaps the most controversial Latin American speaker was Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who arrived in New York defiantly unvaccinated and determined to combat allegations of corruption, anti-environmentalism, and incompetence during Brazil’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout. To the chagrin of public health experts from New York to São Paulo, Bolsonaro continued to promote experimental treatments for COVID-19 as viable alternatives to vaccines. “We don’t understand why many countries, including most of the media, have positioned themselves against tratamento inicial (early treatment),” he said. “History and science will know how to hold all of them responsible.” Brazil, by far the most populous country in Latin America and the Caribbean, has vaccinated more people than any other nation in the region, with about 70 percent of Brazilians having received at least one jab. However, Bolsonaro’s public opposition to lockdowns and social distancing has been widely blamed for Brazil’s 600,000 COVID-19 deaths. Bolsonaro also praised his government’s controversial management of the Amazon rainforest, declaring that deforestation was reduced by 32 percent in August compared to the previous year, and that 84 percent of the forest remains intact. Activists object by pointing to the apparent doubling of the Amazon’s deforestation rate since 2018, the reduction in oversight in the Amazon since Bolsonaro took office in 2019, and increasing encroachments on protected Indigenous and ecological reserves by mining, timber, and agricultural interests.
President Guillermo Lasso of Ecuador, a conservative former banker, used his New York visit to tout the exceptional COVID-19 vaccine rollout that has characterized his first 100 days in office. Buoyed by his COVID-19 success—since Lasso’s inauguration, Ecuador surged from a three percent vaccination rate to fully vaccinating over 50 percent of Ecuadoreans—Lasso discussed plans to cut spending while raising taxes on the top 3.5 percent of earners. Speaking at the UN, Lasso emphasized the importance of “international diplomacy” in vaccinating the Ecuadorean public. China has contributed 62 percent of Ecuador’s vaccines since Lasso took office, while the United States has provided two million doses. Lasso also mentioned ongoing talks with Russia to produce the Sputnik vaccine in Ecuador. President Iván Duque of Columbia shared Lasso’s emphasis on international partnerships in combating COVID-19, highlighting the stark lack of equality in vaccine distribution between poor and wealthy states. Duque lamented how “some countries have acquired enough doses for six or seven times their population and have announced third booster doses, while others have not been able to administer any shots.” Chilean President Sebastián Piñera, who has guided Chile to a 72 percent rate of full vaccination, among the highest rates in the region, remarked, “In science, cooperation prevailed; in politics, individualism… In science, teamwork predominated; in politics, isolated effort.” Perhaps in response to complaints from Piñera and others, U.S. President Joe Biden announced Wednesday that the U.S. will purchase an additional 500 million doses for distribution abroad, raising the US commitment for international donations to 1.1 billion doses.
Regarding climate change, President Piñera reflected the somber chord struck by other foreign leaders, saying, “the next generations will judge our current actions […] we are the last generation that can stop the current climate crisis from becoming an environmental apocalypse.” Duque, who referred to climate change the most urgent challenge faced by the world, committed Colombia to a 51 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2031. Both Duque and Piñera also addressed their handling of recent civil unrest in Colombia and Chile, respectively, with Duque vowing to prosecute “unconstitutional behavior” among Colombian security forces—who have come under domestic and international fire for their role in dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries during last spring’s paro nacional—while introducing structural reforms to make the nation’s “patriotic” and “determined” security personnel more diligent about civil and human rights. President Piñera condemned the “unacceptable” political violence that raged across Chile in the autumn of 2019, calling for social and political movements to abandon militancy and choose instead to participate in Chile’s “clean, transparent, and democratic” electoral system.
Beyond climate change, COVID-19, and corruption, Latin American leaders also addressed the region’s Venezuelan migrant crisis, among the most severe in the world. Lasso, whose country has received about 433,000 Venezuelan migrants, recommended regional economic cooperation to slow migrant flows. “In Ecuador,” Lasso said, “we have suffered an increase in the migrant population … exposed to unimaginable risks in their attempts to reach (the U.S.) … it is because of this, that I support economic integration with such passion.” Under the leadership of Lasso, an ardent free-marketeer, Ecuador is currently negotiating with the nations of the Pacific Alliance—Mexico, Colombia, Peru, and Chile—in hopes of joining the trading bloc by early 2022.

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