Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief, and happy holidays. This week, we review some of the year’s most prominent stories, including renewed diplomatic relations with Venezuela, progress in protecting the Amazon, and successful efforts to support democracy in Brazil and Guatemala.
The year concludes with a dramatic turn of events in Latin America. On Wednesday, the United States carried out a high-profile prisoner exchange with Venezuela, releasing a close business associate of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in exchange for 10 Americans who had been detained in Venezuela.
Caracas also agreed to release 20 political prisoners, as the White House announced. In addition, the United States took custody of the fugitive defense contractor Leonard Glenn Francis, also known as “Fat Leonard,” who was at the center of a Pentagon bribery scandal. These negotiations follow a broader trend across the region, as Latin American countries, led by leaders from both left-wing and right-wing governments, restored their ambassadors to Venezuela after a prolonged period of nonrecognition that failed to weaken Maduro’s autocratic rule.
The United States has also shifted its approach to Venezuela from one of isolation to engagement. This thaw in relations can be attributed to two major trends in Western Hemisphere politics. Firstly, Brazil, under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, has reemerged as a proponent of Latin American regionalism. Secondly, the United States has adjusted its long-standing policy of imposing punitive sanctions on Venezuela.
Ongoing discussions between Venezuela, the United States, and other Latin American neighbors have centered around Maduro’s desire for sanctions relief and other nations’ desires for restored economic ties and a competitive presidential election in Venezuela in 2024. The negotiations represent a shift away from the failed regime change strategy that led to a wave of countries recognizing a top opposition figure as Venezuela’s rightful leader, hoping that Maduro would fall. The so-called “maximum pressure” U.S. sanctions imposed on Venezuela’s oil sector caused significant damage to the country’s economy, resulting in approximately 7 million people leaving Venezuela since 2015. However, Maduro remained in power.
The year 2023 may be seen as a turning point in Washington’s engagement with its regional adversaries as well as in Latin American countries’ relations with Venezuela, moving away from idealism toward realpolitik. It remains to be seen whether the engagement with Venezuela will lead to the desired outcome, particularly free and fair elections next year. Despite some positive results, such as the recent prisoner swap, the future of relations between Venezuela and the United States remains uncertain.
The year also saw progress in the protection of the Amazon rainforest, with decreased levels of deforestation in Brazil and Colombia following the inaugurations of presidents who had pledged to stem it. This year also saw a diplomatic push by Brazil to encourage rainforest protection in neighboring South American countries through an “Amazon summit.” This event elevated conservation as a regional priority and led to progress in Bolivia and Peru as well.
Additionally, Mexico benefitted from a shift in supply chains away from China to locations closer to the United States. This nearshoring activity has resulted in a surge in foreign direct investment and economic growth in Mexico, positioning the country as a strong trade partner with the United States. However, challenges remain as Mexico must address regulatory decisions and manage its relationship with China to fully capitalize on this opportunity.
Overall, 2023 marked a significant shift in Latin American politics and diplomacy, with countries in the region navigating changes in their relationships with Venezuela and taking steps to protect the Amazon. As the year comes to a close, the region continues to evolve, and 2024 holds promise for further developments in international relations and environmental protection.