Essequibo referendum: Is Venezuela about to seize part of Guyana?

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is organising a referendum on Sunday to decide whether to create a new state in the Essequibo territory, an area currently under the control of neighbouring Guyana. Does Caracas have the means for its territorial ambitions, or is it just political grandstanding?

On December 3, Venezuelans vote for or against the creation of a new Venezuelan state in the Essequibo region. In the eyes of Venezuelan authorities, it is a “consultative” referendum designed to put an end to over 200 years of territorial conflict. 

However, there is one big problem: the land Venezuela wants to potentially extend control over is recognised by the international community as a part of neighbouring Guyana – a sparsely populated country with some 800,000 inhabitants.

The issue has become an obsession for populist President Nicolas Maduro, who often repeats the phrase “El Essequibo es Nuestro” [The Essequibo is ours] in his speeches.

Among four other questions, the referendum asks citizens whether they favour “the creation of the Essequibo state and the development of an accelerated plan for comprehensive care for the current and future population of that territory”.

The outcome of the vote is hardly in doubt according to French daily Le Monde, which reported Thursday that the referendum “will take place without observers” and that no one dared to campaign for the “no” vote.

This situation is causing concern for Guyana’s leaders. Caracas is threatening to deprive its eastern neighbour of more than half of its territory and to make the approximately 200,000 inhabitants of Essequibo Venezuelan citizens.

“The long-term consequences of this referendum could be Venezuela’s de facto annexation of a region which covers 160,000 square kilometers, a significant portion of Guyana [215,000 km²],” says Annette Idler, associate professor at the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford and a specialist in international security.

On top of significant gold, diamond, and aluminium deposits, the Essequibo has become an offshore paradise for oil and gas interests. Since Exxon discovered hydrocarbon deposits off the coast, black gold has given an unprecedented boost to the economy, raising Guyana’s GDP by no less than 62 percent in 2022.

© Guillermo Rivas Pachecor, Paz Pizarro, Jean-Michel Corbu, Patricio Arana, AFP

Writing in 2015, an American specialist in Latin America, Jose de Arimateia da Cruz, argued the discovery of these underwater oil reserves “strengthened Venezuela’s determination to support its territorial claims on this region”.

The Venezuelan government has been particularly angered by Exxon’s choice to negotiate exclusively with the Guyanese government, suggesting that the US oil giant recognised Guyana’s sovereignty over these waters and the Essequibo region.

A territorial dispute dating back to 1811

The territorial dispute over Essequibo dates back to the colonial era. In 1811, when Venezuela proclaimed its independence, it believed the region was part of its territory. Despite the claims, the United Kingdom, which occupied the territory of present-day Guyana, placed the region under the authority of the British crown. In 1899, an arbitration court ruled in favour of the UK, even though the United States had supported Caracas.

The dispute resurfaced in 1966 when Guyana gained independence. The Geneva Agreement, signed by the UK, Venezuela, and British Guiana, urged countries to agree to a peaceful resolution through dialogue, but Guyana has since sought a resolution through the International Court of Justice (ICJ) – a procedure which Venezuela rejects. 

If the Venezuelan government is pushing for a referendum now, it is partly “because the International Court of Justice declared itself competent in April to settle the dispute”, says Idler.

Maduro does not want to recognise the ruling of the ICJ – a branch of the UN with nonbinding legal authority. He even called on United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to mediate between Venezuela and Guyana.

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro casts his vote during a consultative referendum on Venezuelan sovereignty over the Esquiba region controlled by neighbouring Guyana, in Caracas on December 3, 2023
Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro casts his vote during a consultative referendum on Venezuelan sovereignty over the Essequibo region, controlled by neighbouring Guyana, in Caracas on December 3, 2023. © Venezuelan Presidency via AFP

There is also – perhaps most importantly – a domestic political element to the referendum. “We must not forget that the presidential election takes place in a year, and Nicolas Maduro is trying to rally support around him by playing to the national sentiment of voters,” explains Idler.

By presenting himself as the champion of nationalism, “he puts the opposition in a delicate position”, she adds. What’s more, “some observers believe he could escalate the situation with Guyana to declare a state of emergency and cancel the presidential election if necessary”.

Faced with the Venezuelan threat, Guyana is relying heavily on international law. A case was referred to the ICJ on October 3 to prevent Caracas from proceeding with its referendum. 

On Friday, the ICJ called on Caracas to take no action that would modify the disputed lands – but it did not mention the referendum.

Is Maduro bluffing?

The risk is that Venezuela may want to take advantage of international attention being focused on two major conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza. Venezuelan troops are already on the border with Guyana “carrying out anti-illegal mining activities”, reports the Financial Times.

If Venezuela were to genuinely attempt to annex Essequibo, “it could destabilise the entire region”, says Idler. Countries like Brazil or Uruguay could be forced to choose sides in this territorial conflict.

But the annexation threat could also be a bluff. Venezuela may not have the means to seize the territory, says Idler. “The authorities exercise limited control over the border regions from where Caracas would need to launch troops to take possession of this region.”

Venezuela’s president knows that such a move would prompt the United States to reimpose the sanctions that Washington has just lifted on oil exports, says Idler. Economically very fragile, Venezuela may think twice before taking such a risk.

Regardless of how the roughly 20 million eligible Venezuelans vote, little will change in the short term – the people of Essequibo are not voting, and the referendum is nonbinding.

Either way, says Idler, Maduro can hardly afford to act on his nationalist impulse.

“He will then have to choose between discrediting himself in the eyes of voters and facing new American sanctions.”

This article was translated from the original in French.

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Gangs battling for control over port city leaves Ecuador broken

With slow yet heavy steps, Herlinda walks through the rubble of what used to be her house. Her footsteps reverberate in what was her room, now empty, the windows covered with sheet metal. A nervous gaze scans the bare walls and the tangles of metal that slip between the walls.

The humble two-story building was blown up a year ago in an attack by criminal gangs who fought over the port city of Guayaquil, known as Ecuador’s gateway to the Pacific, located some 400 km south of capital Quito. Five neighbours lost their lives and dozens were seriously injured, including Ms. Herlinda, who lost an eye in the explosion.

“Thank God, I fell at the impact of the explosion, but I was not unconscious. I rushed out, I saw many people destroyed, injured,” recalls the 44-year-old cook, as she struggles to dust off her kitchen, which she is trying, very slowly, to rebuild.

Nothing has been the same since that day. “I liked to work, dance… but now I am seeing the doctor daily. I am constantly dizzy, and my head hurts. My life has totally changed”, she laments, closing the metal door of her home, located in the Cristo del Consuelo neighbourhood, while avoiding the curious glances of her neighbours.

Rise in violence

The highly populated place, made up of rows of humble buildings and narrow streets, is one of the areas where criminal gangs fight each other in Ecuador. In recent years, the South American country saw a major jump in violence.

In 2017 Ecuador was one of the safest countries in Latin America, with a rate of 5.4 murders per 1,00,000 inhabitants. Today, it is the fourth most violent country in the region, only surpassed by Venezuela, Honduras and Colombia, after marking 25 murders per 1,00,000 inhabitants. In 2022, it saw 4,603 homicides, almost double the previous year’s numbers, a record. To put the figure in context, India, according to the World Bank, registered three murders per 1,00,000 inhabitants in 2021.

Violence was not limited just to the streets of Guayaquil. Prisons that keep inmates belonging to the feared Mexican drug cartels such as Tijuana and Jalisco Nueva Generación, often witnessed gang wars. More than 400 people have been murdered in Ecuadorian prisons since 2020. The bloodiest of them broke out on September 28, 2021, at the Guayaquil Litoral Penitentiary, when 119 inmates were killed in a single day.

Guayaquil accounts for some 30% of the murders in the entire country. The reason, according to officials, is that gangs try to take control of the coast and the port, from where part of the cocaine produced in neighbouring Colombia leaves for the U.S. and Europe.

Guayaquil docks
| Photo Credit:
Hector Estepa

Isla Trinitaria is one of the poorest, and also dangerous, neighbourhoods in the city. Hundreds of shanty towns, many of them made of wood, sprawl haphazardly over the trash-laden waters of the Salado estuary. Its intricate streets are a veritable labyrinth from where several of the gangs that have the city in check operate.

Criminalisation of poverty

What breeds organised crime in Ecuador? “The increase in violence is a consequence of state abandonment. The government has limited our access to education, health, housing and decent employment. All these limitations create the perfect scenarios for organised crime, which comes from nothing other than the criminalisation of poverty,” says Scarlett Choez, a social worker on Isla Trinitaria, whose father was seriously injured in a neighbourhood bombing.

This state abandonment is visible in the streets of the poor neighbourhoods, where unemployment is rampant, and thousands of families depend on charity, especially after the Coronavirus pandemics.

In the poor neighbourhoods of the city, drug use has also grown out of control. The situation becomes clear as soon as you cross the bridges that connect the centre city with the humble areas, when the streets begin to fill with informal merchants. Between the fruit carts and fast-food stalls, people hooked on “H”, a kind of heroin, sneak in, walking with their eyes lost in the horizon.

Scenes after a bank robbery in Guayaquil.

Scenes after a bank robbery in Guayaquil.
| Photo Credit:
Hector Estepa

Amid gang wars and the drug epidemic, common crimes are also on the rise. Robberies with violence have spread throughout the city. Blanca Moncada, a journalist with the website La Defensa experienced it first-hand. She was kidnapped, along with a friend, by two armed individuals, after taking a taxi in a relatively safe area of the city.

For two and a half hours they were driven around Guayaquil, until they were robbed of their money and journalistic equipment. “They told me that they were going to kill me if I didn’t cooperate, and then I decided not to resist, enduring their insults. My friend was even left without shoes. They groped me, with the excuse of looking for more things,” says the journalist.

Normalisation of crime

Ms. Moncada says the worst thing is the normalisation of crime. “You begin to experience this violence as a habit, as part of the idiosyncrasies of the territory. That’s how you look at it when you live here. It means living in a state of alert. Not being calm even in the public space that is supposed to be safer.”

Another problem the country is facing is the extortion business, which grew by 300% in 2022. “We are getting used to fear. It’s hard to say, but every merchant today, within Ecuador, is afraid that someone will approach you to ask for a bribe, with the excuse of protecting you, and tell you that if you don’t pay, they will blow up your business or threaten you and your family”, says a merchant from Guayaquil.

He does not want to be identified for fear of retaliation. “It causes nausea. It is a really terrible feeling of not being able to do anything, which saturates any normal person with nerves. There have already been kidnappings, and businesses that have been attacked by explosives.”

The rise in violent crimes has deeply affected the popularity of the government of President Guillermo Lasso, whose approval rating hit 15%. In May, Mr. Lasso, who was facing impeachment, dissolved Congress and announced that he’s leaving power – elections are expected to take place later this year.

The conservative President sent troops to the streets of the cities most affected by violent crimes and authorised them to use force. The government also increased police numbers, limited freedom of assembly of citizens and suspended many of their rights as part of its war against organised crime. But such decisions have not had any immediate impact on violent incidents.

“Citizen security cannot be addressed simply with military patrols in poor communities. This crisis has been aggravated by very strong cuts in the social sphere by this government and the previous one”, says Billy Navarrete, coordinator of the Standing Committee for the Defence of Human Rights.

Schools under attack

Dozens of soldiers patrol the Guayaquil schools. Armed soldiers searching students is a daily scene in schools, which are also affected by violence. “There is an expansion of the forced recruitment of children by gangs. The educational system is being intervened by the mafias. More than 200 minors were murdered last year. Clashes don’t just take place in the streets. They also occur inside schools. Many children have stopped going to school out of fear”, says Mr. Navarrete.

The crisis is getting worse. Between January and June this year, 3,326 homicides were registered throughout the country, 1,198 more than in the corresponding period last year. As law-and-order collapses and criminal organisations thrive, those who can afford to leave the country are migrating to the U.S. and Europe.

Hector Estepa is an independent journalist based in Ecuador.

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Zika Virus Infection Fast Facts | CNN


Here’s a look at Zika virus, an illness spread through mosquito bites that can cause birth defects and other neurological defects.

Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), World Health Organization (WHO) and CNN

Zika virus is a flavivirus, part of the same family as yellow fever, West Nile, chikungunya and dengue fever.

Zika is primarily transmitted through the bite of an infected female Aedes aegypti mosquito. It becomes infected from biting an infected human and then transmits the virus to another person. The Aedes aegypti mosquito is an aggressive species, active day and night and usually bites when it is light out. The virus can be transmitted from a pregnant woman to her fetus, through sexual contact, blood transfusion or by needle.

The FDA approved the first human trial of a Zika vaccine in June 2016. As of May 2022, there is still no available vaccine or medication.

Cases including confirmed, probable or suspected cases of Zika in US states and territories updated by the CDC.

Most people infected with Zika virus won’t have symptoms. If there are symptoms, they will last for a few days to a week.

Fever, rash, joint pain and conjunctivitis (red eyes) are the most common symptoms. Some patients may also experience muscle pain or headaches.

Zika virus infection during pregnancy can cause microcephaly, a neurological disorder that results in babies being born with abnormally small heads. Microcephaly can cause severe developmental issues and sometimes death. A Zika infection may cause other birth defects, including eye problems, hearing loss and impaired growth. Miscarriage can also occur.

An August 2018 report published by the CDC estimates that nearly one in seven babies born to women infected with the Zika virus while pregnant had one or more health problems possibly caused by the virus, including microcephaly.

According to the CDC, there is no evidence that previous infection will affect future pregnancies.

(Sources: WHO, CDC and CNN)

1947 – The Zika virus is first discovered in a monkey by scientists studying yellow fever in Uganda’s Zika forest.

1948 – The virus is isolated from Aedes africanus mosquito samples in the Zika forest.

1964 – First active case of Zika virus found in humans. While researchers had found antibodies in the blood of people in both Uganda and in Tanzania as far back as 1952, this is the first known case of the active virus in humans. The infected man developed a pinkish rash over most of his body but reported the illness as “mild,” with none of the pain associated with dengue and chikungunya.

1960s-1980s – A small number of countries in West Africa and Asia find Zika in mosquitoes, and isolated, rare cases are reported in humans.

April-July 2007 – The first major outbreak in humans occurs on Yap Island, Federated States of Micronesia. Of the suspected 185 cases reported, 49 are confirmed, and 59 are considered probable. There are an additional 77 suspected cases. No deaths are reported.

2008 – Two American researchers studying in Senegal become ill with the Zika virus after returning to the United States. Subsequently, one of the researchers transmits the virus to his wife.

2013-2014 – A large outbreak of Zika occurs in French Polynesia, with about 32,000 suspected cases. There are also outbreaks in the Pacific Islands during this time. An uptick in cases of Guillain-Barré Syndrome during the same period suggests a possible link between the Zika virus and the rare neurological syndrome. However, it was not proven because the islands were also experiencing an outbreak of dengue fever at the time.

March 2015 – Brazil alerts the WHO to an illness with skin rash that is present in the northeastern region of the country. From February 2015 to April 29, 2015, nearly 7,000 cases of illness with a skin rash are reported. Later in the month, Brazil provides additional information to WHO on the illnesses.

April 29, 2015 – A state laboratory in Brazil informs the WHO that preliminary samples have tested positive for the Zika virus.

May 7, 2015 – The outbreak of the Zika virus in Brazil prompts the WHO and the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) to issue an epidemiological alert.

October 30, 2015 – Brazil reports an increase in the cases of microcephaly, babies born with abnormally small heads: 54 cases between August and October 30.

November 11, 2015 – Brazil declares a national public health emergency as the number of newborns with microcephaly continues to rise.

November 27, 2015 – Brazil reports it is examining 739 cases of microcephaly.

November 28, 2015 – Brazil reports three deaths from Zika infection: two adults and one newborn.

January 15 and 22, 2016 – The CDC advises all pregnant women or those trying to become pregnant to postpone travel or consult their physicians prior to traveling to any of the countries where Zika is active.

February 2016 – The CDC reports Zika virus in brain tissue samples from two Brazilian babies who died within a day of birth, as well as in fetal tissue from two miscarriages providing the first proof of a potential connection between Zika and the rising number of birth defects, stillbirths and miscarriages in mothers infected with the virus.

February 1, 2016 – The WHO declares Zika a Public Health Emergency of International Concern due to the increase of neurological disorders, such as microcephaly, in areas of French Polynesia and Brazil.

February 8, 2016 – The CDC elevates its Emergency Operations Center for Zika to Level 1, the highest level of response at the CDC.

February 26, 2016 – Amid indications that the mosquito-borne Zika virus is causing microcephaly in newborns, the CDC advises pregnant women to “consider not going” to the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. The CDC later strengthens the advisory, telling pregnant women, “Do not go to the Olympics.”

March 4, 2016 – The US Olympic Committee announces the formation of an infectious disease advisory group to help the USOC establish “best practices regarding the mitigation, assessment and management of infectious disease, paying particular attention to how issues may affect athletes and staff participating in the upcoming Olympic and Paralympic Games.”

April 13, 2016 – During a press briefing, CDC Director Thomas Frieden said, “It is now clear the CDC has concluded that Zika does cause microcephaly. This confirmation is based on a thorough review of the best scientific evidence conducted by CDC and other experts in maternal and fetal health and mosquito-borne diseases.”

May 27, 2016 – More than 100 prominent doctors and scientists sign an open letter to WHO Director General Margaret Chan, calling for the summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro to be postponed or moved “in the name of public health” due to the widening Zika outbreak in Brazil.

July 8, 2016 – Health officials in Utah report the first Zika-related death in the continental United States.

August 1, 2016 – Pregnant women and their partners are advised by the CDC not to visit the Miami neighborhood of Wynwood as four cases of the disease have been reported in the small community and local mosquitoes are believed to be spreading the infection.

September 19, 2016 – The CDC announces that it has successfully reduced the population of Zika-carrying mosquitoes in Wynwood and lifts its advisory against travel to the community.

November 18, 2016 – The WHO declares that the Zika virus outbreak is no longer a public health emergency, shifting the focus to long-term plans to research the disease and birth defects linked to the virus.

November 28, 2016 – Health officials announce Texas has become the second state in the continental United States to confirm a locally transmitted case of Zika virus.

September 29, 2017 – The CDC deactivates its emergency response for Zika virus, which was activated in January 2016.

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Medical tourism to Mexico is on the rise, but it can come with risks | CNN


One of the four Americans who were kidnapped in Mexico last week was traveling for medical tourism, a friend said. A growing number of US residents are traveling internationally to seek more affordable medical care, more timely care or access to certain treatments or procedures that are unapproved or unavailable in the United States.

Latavia “Tay” Washington McGee, 33, drove to Mexico with Shaeed Woodard, Zindell Brown and Eric Williams for cosmetic surgery that was scheduled to take place Friday, according to a close friend of Washington McGee’s who did not want to be identified.

The four Americans were found Tuesday near the border city of Matamoros, officials said. Washington McGee and Williams were found alive, and Woodard and Brown were found dead, a US official familiar with the investigation told CNN. Investigators are still piecing together what happened after they were abducted.

Medical tourism takes people all over the world, including to Mexico, India and Eastern Europe. Violence against medical tourists is generally thought to be rare, but the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns about other risks such as quality of care, infection control and communication challenges with medical staff.

“It’s on the daily, without a doubt. There are people going daily to get this kind of stuff done,” said Dr. Nolan Perez, a gastroenterologist in Brownsville, Texas, which is across the border from Matamoros. “Whether it’s primary care provider visits or dental procedures or something more significant, like elective or weight loss surgery, there’s no doubt that people are doing that because of low cost and easier access.”

One study published in the American Journal of Medicine estimated that fewer than 800,000 Americans traveled to other countries for medical care in 2007, but by 2017, more than 1 million did.

More current estimates suggest that those numbers have continued to grow.

“People travel because there may be a long waiting time, wait lists or other reasons why they can’t get treatment as quickly as they would like it. So they explore their options outside the United States to see what’s available,” said Elizabeth Ziemba, president of Medical Tourism Training, which provides training and accreditation to international health travel organizations.

Also, “price is a big issue in the United States. We know that the US health care system is incredibly expensive,” she added. “Even for people with insurance, there may be high deductibles or out-of-pocket costs that are not covered by insurance, so that people will look based on price for what’s available in other destinations.”

The most common procedures that prompt medical tourism trips include dental care, surgery, cosmetic surgery, fertility treatments, organ and tissue transplants and cancer treatment, according to the CDC.

“With Mexico and Costa Rica, it’s overwhelmingly dental and cosmetic surgery. However, certain countries are known for specialties. For example, in Singapore, stem cell and oncology is huge. In India, South India and Chennai Apollo hospitals does incredible work with hip and knee surgeries,” said Josef Woodman, founder of Patients Beyond Borders, an international health care consulting company.

“In Eastern Europe, a lot of people from the UK – but also people from the United States – travel to Hungary, Croatia and Turkey for everything from dental to light cosmetic surgery,” he said.

Mexico is the second most popular destination for medical tourism globally, with an estimated 1.4 million to 3 million people coming into the country to take advantage of inexpensive treatment in 2020, according to Patients Beyond Borders.

Matamoros – where officials said the four kidnapped Americans were found – is “not considered a primary medical travel destination,” Woodman said, “largely because there are no internationally accredited medical centers/specialty clinics there or in the immediate region.”

Mexico City, Cancun and Tijuana are more frequented and reliable destinations in the country, Woodman said.

On average, Americans can save 40% to 60% across the most common major procedures received by medical tourists in Mexico, according to an analysis of 2020 health ministry data conducted by Patients Beyond Borders.

Woodman said that violence against medical tourists was extremely rare, but he added that “price shopping” – searching for the cheapest location for a procedure – is a “blueprint for trouble,” namely substandard medical care.

Medical tourism can be dangerous, depending on the destination and the person’s condition.

“There are the complexities of traveling if you have a medically complex situation. There are fit-to-fly rules. And your health care providers should take into consideration the impact of traveling if you have orthopedic injuries or issues,” Ziemba said.

“The quality of care may be an unknown,” she said. “It may be that the quality of care is not up to the standards that you would like. So there’s a bit of an unknown there, and then the last thing I would say is, if something goes wrong, what’s going to happen?”

Perez said he commonly manages complications from medical tourism in his practice.

“There are a lot of bad outcomes. There are a lot of infections and a lot of botched procedures gone wrong, and patients have to come back to the United States and then have a revision of the surgery,” he said. “So it’s really unfortunate.”

Yet Ziemba added that there can be benefits to medical tourism, including that someone could receive a service that they need faster overseas than locally.

“And price: If you simply can’t afford the out-of-pocket costs of health care in the United States, and assuming the risks involved, it may make much more sense for you financially to travel outside the United States,” she said.

Medical tourism is not just for people traveling around the world. Many living along the US-Mexico border, where access to health care can be scarce, cross into Mexico for care.

The Rio Grande Valley, at the southernmost point of Texas, is considered to be a medically underserved area. The region has some of the nation’s highest rates of comorbidities, including obesity and diabetes, and one of the lowest physician-to-patient ratios.

There is a “dire need” for health care professionals along the border, Perez said.

“There are not as many doctors given our big and our growing population down here. So the demands on primary care doctors and specialists are very high because there are not enough of us for this population,” he said. “So that’s one reason why people end up going to Mexico to visit with physicians, because of easier access.”

People interested in medical tourism can take some steps to help minimize their risk, the CDC says.

Those planning to travel to another country for medical care should see their health care provider or a travel medicine provider at least four to six weeks before the trip and get international travel health insurance that covers medical evacuation back to the United States.

The CDC advises taking copies of your medical records with you and checking the qualifications of the providers who will be overseeing your medical care. Also, make sure you can get any follow-up care you may need.

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EU has neglected Latin America as a trade partner. That has to change

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the editorial position of Euronews.

When Russia embarked on its full-scale invasion of Ukraine last February, the European Union realised that Moscow’s act of aggression meant Brussels had to look for economic partners elsewhere.

South America should have been the first on Brussels’ speed dial.

Yet, in reality, the two continents tend to treat each other with a combination of indifference and contempt.

Latin American diplomats would say that Europe tends to take the region for granted — especially its former colonies. At the same time, the EU appears not to have worked out clearly what it wants of its relationship with Latin America.

The detachment between the two blocs is summed up by the fact that the last EU-Latin America summit took place seven years ago, while a trade agreement between the EU and the Mercosur union — comprising Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay — has been stalled for more than two decades.

In Brussels’ absence, Beijing became Latin America’s best friend

However, if the EU wants to wean itself off Russian energy and lead the clean-energy transition, officials in Brussels will need to renew ties with their Latin American counterparts by forging new trade deals, as the region is home to several metals that are critical to building a green economy. 

The demand for rare earth metals in the EU — already at its highest — is expected to surge fivefold by 2030, yet Europe produces a negligible share of the minerals it needs in its race for renewables.

By contrast, Chile owns 42% of the world’s lithium reserves, a key component of electric car batteries, and a quarter of its copper deposits, used in everything from grids to turbines. Peru, too, holds nearly a quarter of the world’s silver, which is essential in producing solar panels and electric cars.

Putting new life into that old relationship would also help the EU diversify trade to avoid strategic dependencies with China, as concerns are mounting in Brussels about the bloc’s over-reliance on Beijing as a market for goods and raw materials for its green transition.

In turn, deepening ties would also alleviate the economic semi-stagnation of Latin America, hard-hit by globalisation, enabling European companies to shift production from China to the Americas.

Another reason the EU should increase ties with Latin America is to counter Beijing’s rising influence in the region. To avoid the same mistake as in Africa — where Chinese firms have monopolised cobalt mining, essential for electric vehicle batteries, accounting for an estimated one-eighth of the continent’s industrial output — the EU needs to step up its game.

Over the past decade, China has been systematically building its supply chain in these critical minerals. It increased its investments in Latin America 26-fold between 2000 and 2020 and is now the primary stakeholder in two of the ten biggest lithium mines in Chile, as well as Mercosur’s largest single trade partner (and the second-biggest for Latin America as a whole).

In Brazil, China Three Gorges, the world’s largest hydropower provider, controls almost half of its hydro plants. At the same time, China’s State Grid Corp is the country’s largest power generation and distribution company.

Moreover, 19 governments across Latin America and the Caribbean have joined Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative, a nearly €1-trillion transcontinental trade and infrastructure network.

‘Pink wave’ of left-leaning leaders a chance for relations reset

However, after years of EU disengagement, it seems that the political stars have aligned to enable a qualitative leap in relations between the bloc and Latin America. 

Putin’s war in Ukraine and China’s rising authoritarianism have woken Brussels to the enormous challenges the bloc has to face, and politicians are now scrambling to forge new deals to secure raw materials.

Last December, the EU concluded a trade deal with Chile that will give it easier access to lithium, copper and other minerals vital to its renewable energy industry. Currently, 67% of Chile’s copper exports go to China, while just 5% go to the EU.

Yet another disadvantage for Brussels can be gleaned from the fact that Chile’s raw materials are processed in China and resold at a markup, with the difference often coming out of the pockets of Europeans.

Some things have changed as of late, however.

Chile’s leftist President Gabriel Boric is seeking to boost manufacturing jobs by reducing the country’s reliance on raw exports to China and instead having more of the production process based locally.

Moreover, socialist Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s victory in Brazil’s presidential election on 30 October has revived EU trade hopes for Latin America.

It was Lula’s return that also brought back talks about the EU-Mercosur trade deal, now poised to be ratified by the end of the year — a pact blocked by European countries in 2019 after his predecessor, far-right firebrand Jair Bolsonaro, allowed Amazon’s deforestation to spike by 59.5%.

Boric and Lula both belong to the so-called “pink wave” of left-leaning Latin American heads of state at the helm of six out of seven of the region’s biggest economies.

Strike while the iron is hot

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s recent trip to the region was, in many ways, a chance for Europe to use this new era to its advantage.

In late January, he met with Boric to secure additional supplies of the lithium needed for its electric car industry, promising in return to help Chile develop its processing sectors. This week with Lula, he talked Mercosur.

Others in the EU, too, are looking to boost relations: a mix of trade-friendly countries — Sweden and Spain — are set to hold the bloc’s Council presidency this year, and the need to decouple from Russian gas and reduce Chinese dependencies are at the top of the agenda, which is bound to incentivise officials to forge new deals.

Yet, none of this will happen if Europe doesn’t strike while the iron is hot.

In the face of mounting geopolitical challenges and the urgent need to speed up the energy transition, Brussels needs a major reset of policy towards Latin America. It’s time to open political dialogue and diversify friendships.

Carla Subirana is an economist who has worked as a policy analyst for the Bank of England and Europe analyst for Economist Intelligence.

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