Main menu

Top Latin American Issues to Watch at the 2019 UNGA Opening Debate

Colombia's Iván Duque in 2018. (AP)

Colombia’s Iván Duque at the UN in 2018. (AP)

September 19, 2019

4 million = Central Americans who could be displaced by 2050 due to climate change if the region doesn't adopt more climate-friendly policies. Expect to hear more than one Latin American head of state raise the issue of migration at the 74th #UNGA.
Three issues whose effects are spilling over borders? The Amazon, the crisis in Venezuela, and migration. Ahead of the #UNGA general debate kickoff on Tuesday, we look at these top issues for Latin America.

The Opening Debate of the 74th session of the UN General Assembly general debate kicks off on Tuesday, September 24. Here’s a look at three issues whose effects are spilling across Latin American borders and beyond.

1. The Amazon and climate change

As temperatures rise, so too does the debate about international cooperation in the fight against climate change. Fires in the Brazilian Amazon are up 80 percent in 2019, the first year of Jair Bolsonaro’s term. On the eve of the G7 Summit in August, host French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted, “Our house is burning…It is an international crisis.” Bolsonaro chafed at what he said was Macron’s “colonial” concern for the rainforest and asserted that care of the Amazon fell squarely under the banner of national sovereignty, stoking decades’ old sentiments among militant Brazilian nationalists that it’s their duty to occupy and develop the territory. Bolsonaro subsequently rejected Macron’s offer of $22 million in international aid to fight the fires.

On the eve of the opening debate, UN Secretary-General António Guterres will host a UN Climate Action Summit and floated the idea of a holding a high-level session to protect the Amazon during UNGA. Per tradition, the Brazilian president will open the general debate. Bolsonaro, for his part, said that he will address the Amazon “with patriotism” in his first remarks before the body. His spokesperson added that the president will use the opportunity to counter the idea that “Brazil doesn’t take care of the Amazon.”

France and Ireland say they will not ratify a long-awaited EU-Mercosur trade deal unless Brazil does more to protect the Amazon. In addition, a subcommittee in Austria’s parliament voted down the deal on September 18; lawmakers said they could not “reward” the Amazon fires and the resulting discounted beef exports with a trade deal. The trade pact requires the backing of all EU governments and, after the Austrian vote, one German outlet declared the pact to be "history."

The EU is Brazil’s second-largest trading partner, representing 18 percent of the country’s total foreign trade. Norway and Germany, which fund 99 percent of the UN-sponsored Amazon Fund designed to reduce carbon emissions and deforestation, froze their contributions the same week over concerns about deforestation. After dropping 80 percent from 2004 to 2012, deforestation in the Amazon is on pace to rise 25 percent in 2019 compared with last year. Since 2008, Norway has given $1.2 billion to the fund and Germany another $60 million. 

Though it’s received less international attention, a similar area—about 2 million hectares—of tropical forest have burned in Bolivia as well. 

2. Venezuela

Who will be representing Venezuela at UNGA? Nicolás Maduro said on September 13 that he will not travel to New York this year but stay “safe and calm” at home, sending Executive Vice President Delcy Rodríguez to address the General Assembly in his place. Some say he was afraid of a coup from within his inner circle while away. Juan Guaidó, meanwhile, is scheduled to participate via video in a summit that will take place in New York during the opening debate. It’s still unknown if he is traveling to New York, as doing so could jeopardize his ability to reenter Venezuela. 

The opposition is under pressure to make something happen sooner rather than later. Guaidó’s term as president of Congress—the position from which he derives the interim presidency constitutionally—is due to end in January as part of a power-sharing agreement between Venezuela’s largest opposition parties. If the opposition ends up changing the face of its movement, then the more than 50 countries that currently recognize Guaidó might be asked to shift their official recognition to a new president of Congress.

Adding to the pressure are Maduro’s moves to “recover” the National Assembly, the only one of Venezuela’s five branches of power the opposition controls. On September 4, Maduro said legislative elections would be held “soon” and that “there will be surprises.” The next legislative elections aren’t due to take place until the second half of 2020, but chavista Diosdado Cabello said they could be held as early as January 5. On September 16, Maduro-aligned parties announced that 55 pro-government congresspeople will return to the National Assembly, which they’ve boycotted for the last three years. 

On the sidelines of the opening debate, the foreign ministers of over a dozen Western Hemisphere countries will meet in New York to discuss expanding multilateral sanctions on Venezuela, after a vote in the OAS invoked the Rio Treaty, also known as the TIAR. The treaty, adopted in 1947, calls for such a meeting in the case of a non-military aggression on a country or of an “intercontinental conflict.” Colombian officials have said that President Iván Duque will, in his remarks before the General Assembly, provide evidence that Venezuela harbors Colombian terrorist groups within its borders under protection orders from Maduro, on documents obtained by Semana magazine.

3. Migration

People are also spilling across Latin America’s various borders in ever increasing numbers, driven by climate change, economic precarity, political instability, and violence. The UN adopted two landmark compacts in December 2018: one on “safe and orderly” migration and a second on refugees. The compacts notably recognize the root causes of migration that often have little regard for state borders and frame the issue through the principle of burden- and responsibility-sharing among involved nations.

Venezuela’s neighbors are feeling the strain as the now 4-million-strong exodus of migrants continues. This month, Colombia’s national statistics agency put the total number of Venezuelans in the country at 1.6 million, or 3.4 percent of all the country’s inhabitants. Almost half of them arrived between August 2018 and July 2019. In July, Ecuadoran President Lenín Moreno said there are roughly half a million Venezuelans in the country, or about 2.9 percent of the local population. The UN put the figure closer to 220,000 as of March. In Peru, some 750,000 Venezuelans make up 2.3 percent of the population. Caribbean neighbors like Trinidad & Tobago are also facing similar influxes relative to their populations. While many countries have been by and large receptive to the migrants, the welcome may be wearing thin

Central American migration is also on the rise. The World Bank estimates that around 2 million Central Americans are likely to be displaced by the year 2050 due to climate change, and that figure could rise to almost 4 million if the region does not adopt more climate-friendly agricultural models. 

In the first six months of this year, Mexico and the United States deported 131,000 Central American migrants, a 36 percent increase over the same period last year. Mexico carried out 55 percent of these deportations, and the United States the other 45 percent. 

Paola Nagovitch contributed to this article.