As the only big power in South America, Brazil inevitably catches the eye of outsiders looking for a country to take the lead in resolving the region’s conflicts, such as the one raging in the streets of Venezuela. Leader is not a role that President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil is eager to play, however.
She has reasons for her reluctance, and they explain why Brazilian foreign policy has run into trouble.
Rousseff has behaved as a loyal ally to the elected-but-autocratic government of President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela, which faces opposition protests almost daily. Brazil worked hard to thwart any role in Venezuela for the Organization of American States, which includes the United States. Instead the foreign ministers of the South American Union have agreed to promote talks in Venezuela. It is an initiative without teeth, however: The ministers expressed their solidarity with Maduro, disqualifying themselves as honest brokers in the opposition’s eyes.
Brazil’s wrong-headed calculation is that the protests will fizzle out. Maduro took a South American Union statement on March 12 as a green light to launch another crackdown. Faced with a deteriorating economy and mounting unpopularity, his rule is likely to remain repressive. Given that Brazil’s ruling Workers’ Party claims to stand for democracy and human rights, he is a strange ally.
One explanation is that Venezuela has become an issue in Brazil’s presidential election, set for October, in which Rousseff will seek a second term. Venezuela’s left-right divide is echoed, albeit more faintly, in Brazil. Whatever the Workers’ Party’s differences with Maduro’s authoritarian populism, they are trumped by left-wing solidarity. Having done lucrative business in Venezuela, Brazilian companies want to repatriate their profits and worry that Brazil may fall out of favor in Caracas. In addition, Brazil’s long tradition of multilateralism and nonintervention means that its default position is to talk, not to act.
Not always, however. When Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Rousseff’s predecessor and political mentor, took office in 2003, he declared that Brazil would pursue a more ambitious foreign policy and seek a leading role in South America. Brazil duly forged closer ties with other rising powers of the global ‘’south’’ and allied with them in the Doha round of world-trade talks. It sought a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. In South America a ‘’pink tide’’ of electoral victories by the left allowed Lula’s Brazil to recast Mercosur, the flawed customs union it leads, as an instrument of political cooperation, shared protectionism and social justice, an alternative to the ‘’Washington consensus.’’ When the 2008 financial crisis crippled Europe and the United States, Lula’s bet on the south seemed to have paid off.
Five years later, however, the world is a much harsher place for Brazil, according to Matias Spektor, an international-affairs specialist at Kings College London. Brazil’s new friends in the south helped to torpedo any meaningful Doha deal. The relationship with China has disappointed. China failed to back Brazil’s Security Council bid and, while it is happy to buy Brazilian soyabeans, it doesn’t buy its manufactures.
Most wounding of all, the countries of Latin America’s western seaboard – Chile, Columbia, Mexico and Peru — have forged their own Pacific Alliance, built on free trade and free markets, in a tacit rebuke to Mercosur.
Brazil still has international strengths. It has acquired influence in Africa and has plenty of soft power, which will be enhanced if this year’s soccer World Cup goes well. In the region, however, its main allies now are ultra-protectionist Argentina and Venezuela, a basket case and political embarrassment.
Brazil’s underlying problem in South America is its ambivalence about exercising real leadership. That would involve opening its economy to its neighbors and seeking integration based on mutual national interest and binding rules, rather than on fleeting ideological solidarity.
Brazil’s foreign ministry recently launched a policy review, though on South America it is Rousseff and her advisers who call the shots. In Mercosur external trade negotiations are conducted by the bloc and hobbled by Argentina, so Brazil should set out to turn it into a free-trade area instead. Brazil could then do trade deals with the Pacific Alliance, the European Union and others.
The country also should recognize that the democracy clauses in regional agreements not only require condemnation of coups but also oblige elected presidents, such as Maduro, to adhere to minimal standards of democratic governance and human rights.
Unfortunately such changes in Brazil are likely only if the opposition wins in October.