Potential partners - and what connects us to them

Latin America

Germany and Latin America have been linked for centuries. No other region in the world beyond the vicinity of Europe and the North Atlantic region is as close to Germany historically, culturally and spiritually as Latin America. The predominantly Christian region with close historical ties to Europe has always seen itself as part of the western world and is therefore a natural partner in the pursuit of peace, freedom and security in the world.

Status quo

Germany and Latin America have been linked for centuries. No other region in the world beyond the vicinity of Europe and the North Atlantic region is as close to Germany historically, culturally and spiritually as Latin America. The predominantly Christian region with close historical ties to Europe has always seen itself as part of the western world and is therefore a natural partner in the pursuit of peace, freedom and security in the world.

Geographically distant from Germany and, for a long time, politically and economically located in the United States’ geopolitical zone of influence, the region has never been at the top of the foreign policy agenda. However, a large number of German speakers in the region and the strong presence of German companies bring Latin America culturally and economically closer to Germany than might be expected at first glance. Germany’s relations with Latin America, and especially with South America, have a solid foundation thanks to high emigration to southern South America (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay) in the 19th century, and extensive direct investment in key industries, such as automobile production in the 1960s to 1980s, which made an important contribution to the development of national industries in the larger economies of the region. Alongside Spain, which, as a former colonial power, continues to claim a special role in relations with Latin America, Germany is therefore one of the few European countries with its own profile in the region.

Latin America and Germany are closely linked, particularly in the economic sphere: German companies such as Volkswagen, Bayer, BASF and Bosch have been producing in Latin American countries for decades, generating a considerable proportion of their profits there. Although Asia has overtaken Latin America economically in the last two decades, the region is still an important location for German companies. More than 1,300 German companies are based in the São Paulo economic area in Brazil alone, making it the largest production location outside Germany – even ahead of China(!). In the region’s largest economies, Mexico and Brazil, German subsidiaries are responsible for around 5 percent of the gross national product; German companies even contribute around 15 percent of the added value in the Brazilian industrial sector. Latin America also plays a significant role in terms of direct investment. Although the region as a whole, again, lags behind the Eurozone, North America and Asia, Germany has strategically expanded its investments, particularly in the Latin American growth decade of 2004 to 2014, and is showing great interest in the developing sales markets.

Despite the importance of the economy in the context of German-Latin American relations, other “soft” policy areas largely dominate the foreign policy agenda. Development cooperation and foreign cultural policy not only shape the German view of the region, but also characterise the fundamental orientation of German foreign policy towards Latin America. Compared to other regions of the world, a dense network of German schools and Goethe Institutes, as well as agencies of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and institutions of scientific cooperation, such as the German Centre for Research and Innovation (DWIH) in Brazil, promote cultural exchange and form an important basis for relations. Even more important, however, is development cooperation, which eclipses all other areas of international cooperation with Latin America, not only in terms of the volume of funding available, but also in terms of the choice of key issues that determine relations between Germany and the region. This means that it is primarily development policy issues, such as combating climate change, producing sustainable energy or promoting the rule of law, that are at the top of the foreign policy agenda with Latin America.

Although Germany’s attention and commitment to Latin America has a long tradition, a truly proactive foreign policy towards the region’s countries has generally been limited to short periods. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, it is a geographically distant region, relatively peaceful by international standards, without interstate wars or geopolitical hotspots that would force increased attention. Secondly, problems and issues are arising in Germany’s immediate neighbourhood that have a noticeable impact on the regional power structure or even on Germany itself. Especially in the 1990s and 2000s, following German reunification and the lifting of the Iron Curtain, Germany devoted more attention to Eastern Europe, which was opening up as a new neighbourhood and interesting market. Distant and stable Latin America thus played a subordinate role at that time. Still today, acute problems and more pressing issues for German foreign policy dominate the agenda, which usually leave little room for a prominent engagement with Latin America. This was most recently demonstrated by the global coronavirus crisis in spring 2020, during which Germany’s foreign policy focus was almost exclusively on its traditional NATO allies and on Asia.

Moreover, Germany regards Latin America as a “natural ally” due to its socio-cultural ties as a Western, Christian-influenced and democratic region. In day-to-day foreign policy, what at first glance would seem to suggest an undoubted closeness and solidarity between Germany and Latin America all too often results in little attention being paid to a partner who is assumed to be on one’s side anyway. In foreign policy boom times, a “natural ally” is a partner you do not have to court in order to be sure of their support in an emergency. As a result, Latin America has been moved repeatedly to the margins of the German foreign policy agenda.

There have been – and still are – regular attempts made to counteract this tendency. As early as 1995, the first interdepartmental Latin America concept was created, with the aim of bringing the marginalised region back into focus. The subsequent Latin America concepts of 2010 and 2019 (known as the Latin America Initiative) pursued the same objective.

With reference to the broad common value base, all concepts and initiatives underline the historical and cultural ties between Germany and the region, which are seen as the basis for fruitful foreign policy cooperation in the future. However, while Germany adheres to the instrument of foreign policy initiatives at periodic intervals, much has changed both within Germany and in Latin America. China and other emerging powers have entered the USA’s former backyard, and are strategically positioning themselves as new partners in the region, often with the provision of considerable financial resources. Many a Latin American country will never forget how quickly China was able to act in the coronavirus crisis, for example by providing efficient emergency aid in the form of medical supplies. The fact that China’s motives were anything but altruistic and that the relief efforts were part of a global propaganda campaign are ideas that recede into the background for Latin Americans.

However, there have been structural changes in Germany too with regard to Latin America policy: the field of foreign policy has expanded over the decades and now includes more players and policy areas. This means that more and more ministries are formulating specific policies towards Latin America, making coordination increasingly difficult. As a consequence, Germany is often not speaking with one voice with regard to Latin America.

There have been a number of initiatives in recent years to strengthen not only well-established development cooperation, but also genuine foreign policy cooperation, thereby placing relations with Latin America on a more equal footing. With Brazil, for example, with whom Germany has maintained a strategic partnership since 2008, there have been several joint, thematic cooperation projects at the international level and especially within the framework of the United Nations, ranging from a proposal (developed jointly with Japan and India) for reform of the UN Security Council to joint initiatives in the field of international cyber policy. Within this strategic partnership, several joint cabinet meetings were also held until 2016, in order to give symbolic expression to common political goals. With Mexico, on the other hand, cooperation focuses mainly on economic policy issues, such as trade and industry, along with education and innovation. Although there is no formal strategic partnership here, there is a binational commission of the two governments that meets regularly, thus providing a special institutional framework for relations between the countries.

The German economy has always been an important driver of Latin America policy. Since 1994, for example, the Latin America Initiative of German Business (LAI) has been promoting economic cooperation with the region and seeking a close political alliance. Supported by the most important business associations and representatives of German industry, this initiative coordinates and combines German economic interests towards Latin America and initiates specific projects for economic cooperation. Every two years, the group organises the high-ranking Latin America Conference of German Business (LAK), at which companies and politicians meet regularly for Latin America-related exchange and where heads of state from the region present their countries and seek to attract investments. Specific initiatives vis-à-vis important Latin American economic partners, such as the regular German-Brazilian Business Days, and political-institutional mechanisms, such as the Latin America Committee, which manages coordination with policymakers, complete the picture of a structured and targeted economic policy towards Latin America.

As the recurring Latin America concepts and initiatives demonstrate, German foreign policy has recognised the region’s potential. However, the partnerships with Latin America and commitments to a values-based solidarity with Latin America, which are declared publicly every few years, also make clear that the region only plays a very subordinate role in day-to-day foreign policy, and that special initiatives are needed to bring the region into focus.

The lack of constancy with respect to Germany’s Latin America policy is of course related to the characteristics of this world region, as described above, and which, due to its geographical distance, the supposedly low geostrategic relevance for Germany, and the absence of interstate wars, is repeatedly pushed into the background in the face of more pressing crises. However, the difficulty of having to actively and repeatedly put Latin America back on the foreign policy agenda also has to do with the orientation of German Latin America policy, because the much-invoked partnership of shared values with the region is not sustained automatically. Although shared values are a helpful basis for stable intergovernmental relations, they are only the starting point and basis for joint action, but do not yet define the common fields of action or even common interests. A partnership based on values must be underpinned by content and substantive initiatives in order to have real impact; otherwise it will remain an abstraction.

In recent years, German foreign policy has launched a number of initiatives and multilateral cooperation projects with countries in the region, covering highly varied policy areas that range from cooperation on cyber policy issues at the international level, to the establishment of a German-Latin American women’s network. However, the selected areas of cooperation sometimes appear rather arbitrary and eclectic, and do not generally have a long half-life. Moreover, the rhetorical recognition of the region as a partner with shared values in the context of LAK concepts or initiatives contrasts with the often highly problem-centred reporting of deficits in the rule of law, poverty and corruption. If a region of the world is known to the public mainly through negative headlines such as drug trafficking, social inequality or high levels of violence, the declaration of this region as a partner in shared values is surprising, and begs the question: What connects us with this region despite the existing deficits? What are the advantages of Latin America for Germany compared with other regions of the world?

There is even more of a need for an honest reflection on interests than for a credible communication of the shared values partnership at home and to the outside world. Constant reference to the cultural and values-based partnership sometimes gives the impression that Germany and Latin America do not actually share any strategic interests. A sober analysis of German interests in Latin America and of common interests at regional and international level is required in order to better exploit the potential of the partnership.

Beyond idealisations and generalisations pertaining to an entire world region, German Latin America policy needs to make the various partnerships more substantive: What interests does Germany have in the region and where? With which partner can these interests best be implemented?

The following sections on individual countries give a summary of five partner countries in Latin America that are particularly suitable for realising the core German interests of values, prosperity, security, resources and migration. They are not the only countries in the region that make suitable partners, but rather represent a selection of countries that have intrinsic potential for intensifying bilateral relations in these specific areas with their particular relevance for Germany.

A whole range of countries in Latin America offer themselves as potential partners, in particular for the first field of interest, namely that of strengthening a values and rules-based world order. In addition to Uruguay – which as a small country in southern South America might not be the first partner country to come to mind for this particular area of interest, but whose impressively stable political and socioeconomic situation is a model for the region – traditional partners such as Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Colombia do, of course, play an important role. Countries such as Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Paraguay and Peru, which have a strong self-interest in a values and rules-based world order, because this guarantees them sovereignty under international law vis-à-vis more powerful states, also offer Germany partnership opportunities for implementing this core foreign policy interest.

There are also many potential partner countries in Latin America for realising the interest in safeguarding our prosperity via free trade and innovation. Chile, Costa Rica, Colombia, Mexico, Panama and Peru, for example, advocate market economy principles in international trade through their free-trade-oriented foreign trade policies, or are – like Argentina, and like our selected case study, Brazil – G20 members and important production locations for German companies.

In terms of international security and the stability of Europe, Latin America plays a rather subordinate role overall due to its geographical distance from Europe and its considerable stability. The region is characterised by largely peaceful interstate relations, relatively low military expenditure, and the ban on nuclear weapons agreed in the Treaty of Tlatelolco. In contrast to many other regions of the world, Latin America is therefore a haven of peace and stability, and therefore does not play a central role in international security policy. However, there are a number of Latin American countries that work in their regional neighbourhood toward peaceful conflict resolution, diplomatic settlement and security policy integration in the region, thus ensuring that Latin America’s stability is maintained in the future. These include countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Colombia and Panama, as well as the case study chosen here, Mexico, which plays an important security policy role in the region as a regional leader and G20 member, yet also as a central transit state for migration towards the USA.

By contrast, Latin America is a key region for securing essential natural resources and protecting the climate. South America in particular, which, with the Amazon rainforest, has the largest contiguous rainforest area and the greatest biodiversity in the world, is a key player when it comes to global efforts to protect the climate. Due to the enormous wealth of mineral and agricultural raw materials (e.g. oil, lithium, iron ore, soya and beef), the region also plays a central role in supplying and securing important resources. Countries such as Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Colombia, Mexico and the chosen case study, Peru, are suitable partners for these key issues of the future.

Last but not least, a number of Latin American countries are also important partners in regulating global migration flows. Although the region does not seem to have the same immediate importance as North Africa or the Middle East because of its distance from Germany and Europe, South America is currently undergoing one of the greatest refugee disasters of our time due to the crisis in Venezuela. Most of the roughly 4.5 million refugees from Venezuela were taken in by the surrounding states, especially the neighbouring country of Colombia. However, Venezuelan refugees already constitute the second largest group of asylum seekers in Europe. In addition to Colombia, which was chosen as a case study due to its enormous integration efforts with respect to neighbours seeking help and protection, a number of other countries, such as Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and Panama are playing an important role as countries of origin, transit or even destination for migration flows.

Overall, Latin America is a reliable partner in the pursuit and implementation of core German foreign policy interests, with different countries being particularly suitable and deserving of closer examination in relation to the respective subject area. The following case studies, each of which presents a country in the region as a partner for implementing Germany’s foreign policy interests, serve both to illustrate and guide the search for partners among the 33 Latin American and Caribbean countries.

Jan Woischnik is head of “Latin America” in the European and International Cooperation Division;
Christina Stolte is Desk Officer for Andean Countries in the European and International Cooperation Division.



as a partner for strengthening a values and rules-based world order

In comparison to other Latin American countries and despite its modest size, Uruguay serves as a model with its impressive political and socio-economic status. In a region that is not always stable, the country can look back on a long democratic-republican tradition with functioning institutions and a diverse media landscape.


as a partner for safeguarding our prosperity via free trade and innovation

Brazil is the largest economy in Latin America and, with a GDP of approximately 2 trillion US dollars, is one of the most important emerging markets in the world. The country has a domestic market of 210 million inhabitants and is rich in natural resources.


as a partner for the security and stability of Europe, its neighbourhood, and other regions of the world

In connection with organised crime, drug trafficking, and the penetration of the state by criminal groups, Mexico – a regional leader and member of the G20 – is facing major challenges that affect both internal and regional security. In view of the cross-border effects of organised crime in Mexico, which extend far beyond the American continent, migration from Central America and other regions of the world through Mexico towards the USA, the significant economic potential as a production location with a well-qualified workforce and privileged access to the US market via the North American Free-Trade Area, Mexico is of great importance for the stability of the region.


as a partner for securing essential natural resources and protecting the climate

Peru is an exception in Latin America in terms of its enormous wealth of resources and biodiversity. The country has three large landscape zones: the coast, most of which is covered by desert, the Andes and the jungle region. According to the World Resource Institute, Peru is one of only eight megadiverse countries in the world, possessing 84 of the 104 existing life zones. 76 percent of the country is occupied by rainforest, which means that the country has the largest share of the Amazon rainforest after Brazil.


as a partner for regulating global migration flows

According to official data from the Colombian migration authorities, approximately 1.8 million of the more than 4 million Venezuelan migrants are currently in Colombia. According to estimates by the Colombian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the flow of migrants could increase to 3 million by the end of 2020, not including “transit migrants” or commuters.