The opening of the 76th General Assembly debate. (Image: @UN_PGA Twitter)

The opening of the 76th General Assembly debate. (Image: @UN_PGA Twitter)

An Eye on Latin America at the 76th UN General Assembly

By Chase Harrison and Carin Zissis

The UN General Assembly returns to an in-person opening debate in New York. AS/COA Online covers the main developments for the region at this year’s session.

This coverage was originally published on September 21, 2021 and has since been updated.

It’s been more than a year and a half since the pandemic set in, and the UN General Assembly is back—sort of. After the 2020 opening debate was largely virtual, many world leaders and their delegations are back to bearing the snarling traffic on the east side of Manhattan this September, though some still opted not to travel, and a number submitted pre-recorded speeches.

In the case of Latin America, which is nearing a tragic Covid death toll of 1.5 million, there will be a range in types of participation at the 76th Opening Debate of the UN General Assembly. AS/COA Online tracks news related to the region at this year’s session as it occurs.

A hint of what’s to come at COP26

As UNGA winds to a close, there’s another big summit on the horizon: In November, leaders will head to Glasgow for the 26th UN Climate Change Conference, or COP26. Speeches and meetings at this year’s UNGA hinted at the urgent—and potentially combative tone—that may define COP26, where large-scale commitments on climate financing, greenhouse gas reduction, and green energy must be forged if the planet hopes to meet global warming targets.

“Climate change has not been in quarantine,” Chilean President Sebastián Piñera declared on the first day of UNGA. And nearly every Latin American leader who had spoken as of Friday raised the issue of climate change in their speeches. Bolivia’s President Luis Arce spoke of the need to promulgate climate commitments informed by “the criteria of climate justice and based on the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities.”

Solving the climate crisis won’t come cheap; it was estimated that developed countries will need roughly $70 billion a year to adapt to sustainability practices, though the UN hopes to mobilize $100 billion at COP26. Arce, among others, called for industrialized countries like the United States and China to increase their climate funding as “historic compensation.” In his speech on Tuesday, Joe Biden announced his intention to double the United States’ climate funding commitment to 11.4 billion a year. On Thursday, members of the UN Security Council, met for a session focused specifically on the climate crisis. The members, which includes the United States and Mexico, discussed the need for urgent action, though few concrete steps were announced. Russia, a permanent member, expressed that climate was not an appropriate topic for the Security Council.

Time after time: Which Latin American leader kept it short?

As usually happens, the UNGA schedule was thrown off by leaders exceeding their allotted time at the podium. But, as one Global Americans editor noted, while Honduras’ Juan Orlando Hernández took up nearly half an hour of everybody’s time, the pre-recorded speech by El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele clocked in at five minutes, 30 seconds.

The Salvadoran leader did fit a lot in during that time, speaking at an accelerated clip as he quoted Confucius and Goethe.  The speech was a departure from Bukele’s first, when he became the first president to take and share a selfie at the UNGA podium. Earlier this week, he earned criticism for joking in his Twitter bio that he is “the coolest dictator in the world”  after a U.S. diplomat warned of “a decline in democracy” in El Salvador when Bukele-allied judges handed down a ruling that opened the door to the president’s reelection.

Taking on the Americas’ migration crisis

Last weekend, leaders from all parts of the globe headed to the United States for UNGA, disturbing images went viral of U.S. agents on horseback, whipping and chasing down Haitian migrants seeking refuge near the U.S.-Mexico border.

Between Haiti’s recent earthquake and the assassination of its president, observers might think that it is the current turmoil in the country that’s sparking departures. But many of the Haitians heading for the U.S. border left after the country’s devastating 2010 quake, searching for a way to make their livelihood in South American countries, such as Brazil and Chile. 

Now, there’s a new reason people are on the move in the Western Hemisphere: Covid-19. Latin America and the Caribbean took the harshest economic battering during the pandemic. Add on natural disasters, as well as increased political repression in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, and, as The Wall Street Journal reports, “a far broader mix of nationalities is turning up at the [U.S.] border than in the past.” 

In his debut UN remarks, Ecuador’s President Guillermo Lasso called on the international community to deepen commercial ties with his country, where roughly 433,000 Venezuelans have taken refuge, as a means to help overcome the migration crisis, saying: “It’s better for us to be connected by free trade than because of forced migration, caused by practices that isolate us, close us off, and only limit spaces for shared prosperity.” 

On Thursday, Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard—the official representing his country at UNGA—met with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Central American ministers to discuss urgent migration issues. This came before Ebrard covered the rising number of asylum requests Mexico is receiving in his address to the UN General Assembly on Thursday night. In that speech, he explained that his country had offered protection to some 18,000 people from Brazil, Chile, and Haiti, and roughly 70,000 Central Americans. Through August 2021, Mexico had already received 10 percent more asylum requests than it’s prior one-year record 2019. 

Before heading to New York with her husband, Honduran First Lady Ana García de Hernández told journalists that her U.S. agenda would focus on the plight of both Honduran nationals and migrants traveling through her country. While she and President Juan Orlando Hernández have urged shared responsibility for migrants, he spent much of his Wednesday UNGA speech denying allegations that he is involved in the narcotrafficking rings—a driver of emigration—for which his brother sits in a U.S. prison. 

Leaders had a word or two for Maduro

Nicolás Maduro is wanted on drug charges in the United States and Washington does not recognize him as Venezuela’s legitimate president, so it comes as little shock that he skipped a trip to New York for the UNGA. His pre-recorded remarks, which aired Wednesday afternoon, also touched on issues that come as little surprise: He expressed support for Cuba, condemned sanctions on his government, decried imperialism, and lauded the recent Mexico-based negotiations with an opposition he described as “radical.”

Even if Maduro’s statement included few revelations, his virtual presence at the UN drew attention, given that his country’s ongoing humanitarian crisis has caused an exodus of 5.4 million people and a stunning 8,000 percent increase in Venezuelans seeking refugee status worldwide since 2014. In their own speeches, Latin American leaders weighed in on the Andean country’s situation.

Guatemala’s President Alejandro Giammattei, who spoke earlier on September 22, called on neighbors and the Latin American community to form a plan to combat Venezuelan narcotrafficking, contending that the country is the source for 95 percent of drug-smuggling planes landing in his country. On the same day, Uruguay’s President Luis Lacalle Pou to alluded the leaders of Venezuela and Cuba—both of which he criticized a few days earlier during the CELAC summit in Mexico City—as “authoritarian governments that fear their citizens and freedom, and who end up impoverishing their people for generations to come.”

Speaking a day earlier, Colombian President Iván Duque called on Caracas to hold free and fair elections as a means to ease “the millions of Venezuelans fleeing the narco dictatorship and infamy.” There are roughly 2 million Venezuelan refugees living in Colombia.

An economic view: Calls against “pre-pandemic criteria”and “debt-icide”

The devastating economic impact of Covid sent national budgets awry, and two Latin American leaders—Colombian President Iván Duque and Argentine President Alberto Fernández, both of whom spoke on Tuesday—had a message for the international financial community on the first day of the UN General Assembly: show some mercy.

Duque particularly called out risk rating agencies, explaining that levels of indebtedness had to rise during the pandemic and there has not been sufficient time for fiscal reform packages to smooth our national finances. He called on the agencies to not use “pre-pandemic eyes and criteria” when assessing countries. Colombia’s credit rating was downgraded to junk by Standard and Poor’s in May and by Fitch in July.

Fernández, meanwhile, focused much of his speech on the $57 billion loan Argentina signed in 2018 with the International Monetary Fund under the previous president, Mauricio Macri, calling it “toxic and irresponsible.” Fernández called for new global debt restructuring programs to avoid “debt-icide” for countries struggling financially. Since taking office in 2019, Fernández has refused to accept additional funds beyond the $45 billion previously received.

Biden makes “arsenal of vaccines” pledge

If there’s one topic that’s come up repeatedly during UN speeches thus far, it’s concerns about shortcomings in the global vaccine rollout. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres went so far as to call vaccine inequity “obscene” during his opening remarks, and said: “We passed the science test. But we are getting an ‘F’ in Ethics.”

When U.S. President Joe Biden gave his inaugural speech to the UNGA on Tuesday, he identified the vaccine rollout as a top priority and he pledged that Washington would be unveiling an agenda to help close that immunization gap.

More details came on Wednesday in conjunction with a virtual COVID summit, when Biden confirmed a new plan to distribute an additional 500 million Pfizer doses worldwide as a contribution toward getting the world 70 percent vaccinated over the course of the next year. As of the publishing of this report, some 32 percent of the world’s population is fully vaccinated.

This new U.S. commitment adds to country’s existing ones, bringing the total doses it so far pledged to distribute to 1.1 billion. Biden, who said the United States will be the world’s “arsenal of vaccines,” also committed $370 million to support logistics and distribution and $380 million in funds to the Global Vaccine Alliance, GAVI.

Already, the United States has donated approximately 157 million doses abroad, with more than a quarter of them going to Latin America. About 28 percent of the region's population had been fully vaccinated by September 8, per the Pan-American Health Organization.

Brazil's health minister tests positive for Covid in NYC

Brazilian Health Minister Marcelo Queiroga tested positive for Covid on September 21, the first day of UNGA. He tweeted that he would remain in the United States to quarantine. Members of the Brazilian delegation will reportedly self-quarantine for 14 days and the delegation's subsequent meetings on the sidelines of UNGA were canceled.

The minister made news earlier in the week when he used an obscene hand gesture against anti-Bolsonaro protesters in New York.

Foreign Policy covered fears that UNGA could become a superspreader event and named the Brazilian delegation as a potential culprit. 

Update: On September 24, and since returning to Brazil from New York, President Jair Bolsonaro's son Eduardo and Brazilian Agriculture Minister Tereza Cristina revealed they had also tested positive for Covid-19.

See our earlier post on Bolsonaro's vaccine skepticism in the context of UNGA.  


On the sidelines of UNGA and ahead of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Tuesday meeting at the White House with U.S. President Joe Biden, rumors began bubbling up that London is hoping to join the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade deal. That accord was signed last year as a NAFTA upgrade and is known as USMCA in the United States, T-MEC in Mexico, and CUSMA in Canada.

The United Kingdom already has trade deals with Canada and Mexico but, as the Financial Times points out, Brexit backers have long suggested that quitting the EU could open the door to a U.S. trade deal. But that dream has yet to be made a reality, and Johnson has indicated he doesn’t see it happening before the UK’s 2024 general election. On his way to the United States this week, he told reporters that he knows a bilateral deal isn’t a priority for Biden, saying: “The reality is that Joe has a lot of fish to fry.”

Joining the USMCA would involve leaping procedural hurdles and making a spat of regulatory commitments for the UK, reports Bloomberg. It may not not be worth the price of entry, given how little it could add to the British economy.

As the USMCA+UK rumors circulated, a spokesperson from the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative said it had not received a request to join from the Johnson government. Word is also circulating that the UK is looking into joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, known as the CPTPP, despite its Atlantic locale.

In debut, Castillo condemns terrorism

Donning the trademark hat of the Cajamarca region he calls home, Peru’s new President Pedro Castillo closed his first appearance at the UN General Assembly with a rejection of terrorism. In remarks that focused largely closing gaps in social inequity, the former school teacher noted: “Terrorism can never be a means for social change.”

Peru’s most brutal years of violence at the hands of the Maoist terrorist organization known as the Shining Path may be well in the country’s past, but Castillo’s membership to a Marxist-Leninist party drew concerns during the election because of ties between members of his government and organizations linked to the guerrilla group.

However, a little over a week before UNGA, the infamous Shining Path founder Abimael Guzmán, 86, died in a Peruvian military hospital.  Amid concerns over the president’s ties, the insurgent leader’s passing “presents a twist that is likely to work in Castillo’s favor,” writes Andrea Moncada for Americas Quarterly, noting that Castillo quickly condemned Guzmán’s role in tens of thousands of deaths. Peru is among the countries with the highest per capita coronavirus death tolls. In his UNGA remarks, Castillo stressed the need for vaccine equity, calling for heads of state and patent-holders to reach an agreement to guarantee universal access to vaccines. Peru had fully vaccinated 28 percent of its population as of September 17. 

Duque touts tax reform “without populism”

In his final UNGA speech as president of Colombia, Iván Duque touted a new tax reform, signed into law in early September, that Semana reports will recover $4 million—equivalent to 1.8 percent of GDP—for the government’s budget. Those new revenues will help fund an extension through December 2022 of the government’s COVID-19 relief program, known as Ingreso Solidario, which disburses a little over $40 monthly to more than 4 million low income homes, or about a quarter of the population. Also included in the package is a plan to subsidize up to 25 percent of the salaries of young workers and provide support to small- and medium-businesses. 

The September reform was the government’s second stab at the package, after an initial reform proposed in April set off a wave of protests that were met with violence from security forces. Speaking about the reform at UNGA, on Tuesday, Duque said: “This was something we achieved without populism and without affecting the competitiveness of our businesses.”

A whole new pizzagate: Vaccine skeptic Bolsonaro opens debate

New York City may require proof of vaccination to enter restaurants and the like, but the UN opted for a simple honor system when it came to checking whether attendees—meaning leaders, their delegations, and security staff—had their Covid shots.

That honor system got a test with its first speaker: Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, known for stoking anti-vaccine sentiment, opened the UN General Assembly debate on Tuesday. He used the platform to defend using unapproved drugs to treat coronavirus. Bolsonaro has not announced whether he himself is vaccinated, though he does claim that he has immunity, given that he had COVID-19 in July 2020.  Even before Bolsonaro took the podium, his team was making pandemic waves. On September 20, a member of his delegation tested positive for Covid. Later that day, Bolsonaro was photographers, eating pizza with staff on a New York City sidewalk, given that he can’t enter restaurants.

That same day, Bolsonaro met with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Though both men were unmasked, Johnson appeared to try out some vaccine diplomacy when used the meeting to promote the AstraZeneca vaccine. The Brazilian leader responded that he would not get the jab.

Despite Bolsonaro raising vaccine doubts, his country is making immunization gains, with the number of Brazilians with at least one shot tripling over the past three months. Nearly 37 percent of the population was fully vaccinated as of September 17. 

The summit before the summit

The weekend ahead of the UN Opening Debate, Mexico hosted presidents and top officials in a summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). With its 33 member states, the group, inaugurated by the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in 2011, does not count the United States in its membership and has been framed as an alternative to the Washington-based Organization of American States. Chinese President Xi Jinping delivered a video speech at this year’s summit, a reminder to leaders that CELAC serves as a platform for Sino-Latin American cooperation.

CELAC languished in recent years until Mexico took up the pro tempore presidency in 2020. This year’s presidential-level meeting was the first in four years. ​There, leaders unanimously signed a 44-point declaration, covering themes ranging from regional self-sufficiency on health matters, working together on climate change, deepening economic integration, and opposing the U.S. embargo on Cuba.

But many headlines instead focused on the controversial leaders in attendance. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador invited Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel to not just attend but also deliver remarks at Mexico’s September 16 Independence Day military parade. On top of that, the unexpected arrival of Nicolás Maduro caused sparks to fly. Paraguay’s President Mario Abdo Benítez opened his CELAC remarks by saying he views the Venezuelan leader as illegitimate, while Uruguay’s President Luis Lacalle Pou condemned anti-democratic developments in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. As Bloomberg reports, Maduro’s CELAC appearance was his first international trip since Washington’s 2020 drug-trafficking indictment of the Venezuelan leader.

Holly K. Sonneland contributed to this report.