By: William Mathis, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs
By now the emergence of Brazil as a major power not only in the Western Hemisphere, but also on the world stage, is an undisputed fact. The country, until recently mentioned outside its borders for seldom more than in reference to the Girl from Ipanema, is now on everybody’s lips. Brazil is possibly one of the globe’s most popular and successful nations, experiencing limited negative impact from the global economic crisis that ravaged Western economies, and having beaten out both Chicago and Tokyo for home field advantage in the 2016 Summer Olympics. But as Brazil wows the international crowds with its economic, diplomatic and athletic prowess, the distance that the nation still needs to traverse before solidifying its South American powerhouse status could be formidable.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Brazil’s supersonic growth is the leverage it has developed on a continent so recently dominated by the U.S. foreign policy agenda. While its government may not be seeking a socialist Bolivarian Revolution, it is far enough to the left as to be deemed sabotage-worthy by Cold War standards and has perfectly cordial ties with left-leaning ideological foes of Washington, such as Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Iran.
On March 3, 2010, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a stopover in Brazil to meet with President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Foreign Minister Celso Amorim to discuss a central issue for Washington’s foreign policymakers: deterring Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. While Iran’s nuclear ambitions thus far have not been proven to extend beyond peaceful energy purposes, the Obama administration is not taking any chances, and with distinctly mixed results has been attempting to gather support around the world for tougher sanctions against Tehran. Despite not too subtle pressure from Clinton, Lula and Amorim were prepared to not give in to her demands, refusing to support sanctions outright, although not ruling out the possibility of backing them at a later date. Similarly, in November of 2009, Brazil abstained from voting against Iran in an IAEA vote in the aftermath of the disclosure of the secret existence of an uranium enrichment site in Qom. In May, the Brazilian president is scheduled to meet with his Iranian counterpart, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This type of resistance to Washington’s focused policy goals has become characteristic of Brazilian foreign policy making, demonstrating to the US and the rest of the world that the country’s decisions are no longer automatically based on Washington’s interests, but rather its own.
However, despite Brasilia’s swelling activism, it may be premature to rule out Washington’s influence on Brazil’s policy decisions. The specific statement that support for sanctions could come later may possibly be linked to election season politics. In addition to the Brazilian president and foreign minister, Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s pick to be the next president, was also present for negotiations with Secretary Clinton. With presidential elections looming on October 3, it would be unwise for Rousseff to portray herself as bending to Washington’s will even if more supportive measures toward the U.S. are indeed planned for the future.
In the wake of the bitter diplomatic row that has been ongoing as a result of the 2009 coup against the democratically-elected government of Honduras, there is much fence-mending to be done to heal the somewhat fractured relationship between Brazil and the U.S. Brazilian policy makers were among the most out-spoken critics of Tegucigalpa’s de facto government of golpista Roberto Micheletti and one of President Manuel Zelaya’s most powerful proponents. They even housed the ousted leader in their embassy for months after his secret return to Honduras.
While initially taking a far more cautious approach than most other hemispheric countries in denouncing the coup, the U.S. eventually joined ranks with its Latin American peers. However, its support for Zelaya was short-lived and amounted to far less than meets the eye, seemingly geared more to courting hard-line Senator DeMint’s (R-SC) release of his “hold” on several State Department nominations than fighting to exonerate any democratic principle. As a result, the Obama administration ended up eventually backing elections without the ousted president’s a priori restoration, a move strongly opposed by a majority of countries in the region, including Brazil. With the assured support of the US for the compromised elections, any reconciliation dialogue between Zelaya and Micheletti became irrelevant and ultimately dissipated completely. While few of the region’s nations recognized the legitimacy of the elections that gave office to newly elected President Porfirio Lobo as the new leader of Honduras on 29 November 2009, he was inaugurated two months later.
Despite its best diplomatic efforts, Brazil was ultimately unable to alter the course of events in Honduras, in effect losing a testy diplomatic tiff with the US. For the time being, Brazil continues to stand by its position that presidential elections conducted under the tutelage of the illegal government headed by Micheletti were prima facie illegitimate. But as Brazil tries to defend its stance, events in Honduras are grinding on, and it’s just a matter of time before Washington will be able to assert its will on Lula. Meanwhile, Washington will be doing what it can to force the country and the region to forget the tawdry events that began on June 28. On the same day that Clinton was meeting with the Brazilian president, she also was stopping in Costa Rica to announce, among other news, that the $31million in US aid to Honduras that had been suspended during the coup would now be restored. Clinton also praised the Lobo government and urged the region’s leaders to reinstate Honduras to the OAS.
If the State Department was humiliated by the outcome in Honduras—since it surely cannot say that its shabby script showed any class—it was Brazilian diplomacy that upheld the principle of honor and pro-democracy driven policy over the Honduran affair. One could even argue that it was the Bureau of Western Hemispheric Affairs rather that Zelaya that played the role of the joker. The US has clearly pursued a near-unilateral position on the issue, isolating itself from regional leaders like Brazil by correctly assuming that some other nations like Oscar Arias’ Costa Rica, Alan Garcia’s Peru as well as Alvaro Uribe’s Colombia were prepared to chuck their democratic fandango in favor of an open market and other little favors from Washington. Nevertheless, Washington correctly calculated that its self-serving strategy eventually would save the day with or without outside help.
While Brazil may have been successfully side swiped by the US in relation to the former’s principled response to the Honduran coup, the issue seems not to have in any way augmented Washington’s political capital in the region, nor has it entirely convinced Brasilia to be more malleable to Washington’s demands. Brazil’s continued resistance to tougher sanctions on Iran coupled with its vocal criticism of the logic of President Obama’s policy is only part of that country’s continued flair for independence. Brazil then went on to prove itself to be capable of leadership in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in Haiti, as it continued its sometimes troubled role of coordinating UN relief efforts on the islands.
At the same time Brazil has taken significant steps to replace what many now see as the lame duck OAS by a new rival bloc of Caribbean and Latin American States consisting of an expanded Rio Group, which excludes the US along with Canada. The now expanded Rio Group has traditionally been seen as a talk show and little else. Now Brazil appears driven to institutionalize the group, turning it into a far more powerful actor in the region which rapidly could come to rival the importance of the OAS, or even replace it. Washington already has been feeling somewhat isolated in the OAS lately, where for decades it has been the sole nation to continue to oppose Cuba’s reintegration into the organization, an issue that it brought up once again at the most recent UN General Assembly.
A preeminent Rio Bloc, free of any US involvement, could come to further isolate the US from the region while confirming Brazil’s leadership position which long has been in the offing. The independent and laid back style of Brazil’s foreign policy making is warmly welcomed in the region as a friendlier and more respectful alternative to Washington’s traditional dictates, which in the past has treated Latin America with little respect. If Brazil can maintain its current rate of growth, neither the US nor the rest of the global community will be able to ignore its importance, especially as it comes to occupy a defining role in a region that is home to some of the largest deposits of oil, natural gas, lithium and scores of other commodities. Such importance may even be transformed into a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, a feat that Brasilia has long sought after and which would likely permanently alter the balance of power both regionally and globally.
By: William Mathis, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs