September 1, 2014
January 6, 2014
November 11, 2013
November 4, 2013
An interesting article in the Daily Dot about N.S.A. scandal, Brazil and oil company Petrobras.
November 2, 2013
October 20, 2013
October 15, 2013
September 26, 2013
September 21, 2013
To read my interview with Brazilian web portal UOL Noticas about the impact of the N.S.A. scandal on Brazil-U.S. relations, click here [Portuguese]. For a rough English translation, click here.
September 20, 2013
September 3, 2013
August 22, 2013
August 12, 2013
July 25, 2013
July 10, 2013
July 8, 2013
June 10, 2013
To read my latest article on Brazil's emerging drone surveillance program, click here.
Unfortunately, there is a pay wall so one cannot read the entire piece though you get a clear gist from the introduction. The article deals with the extreme diplomatic and political sensitivities associated with President Rousseff's drone program. Brazil is an emerging world power, and must tread lightly in neighboring countries like Paraguay and Bolivia which guard their sovereignty closely.
To read earlier articles, click here.
May 28, 2013
May 15, 2013
April 24, 2013
October 6, 2012
October 2, 2012
September 30, 2012
To read my latest piece, click here.
August 15, 2012
August 11, 2012
My latest about Brazil and its wider role in South America now out. Click here to read the article.
June 19, 2012
To read article on Commondreams, click here.
June 10, 2012
Big al-Jazeera article today about Pentagon's desire to have Brazil play a more forceful role in Africa. To read the piece, click here.
Update: just concluded an interview with Capetown radio station Voice of the Cape which dealt with aforementioned article. The issue of Brazilian involvement in Africa is a new one, and I had the sense that Africans don't really know what to make of Brazil's rise on world stage. What are your thoughts? Write me and let me know what you think, particularly if you hail from Africa.
May 5, 2012
My big piece about up and coming power Brazil and what's behind the story in terms of big power rivalry with the U.S. To read the article, click here.
April 18, 2012
Just made an appearance on al-Jazeera English on Sunday, though unfortunately it does not seem to be available on the internet. The discussion centered around the upcoming Venezuelan election and the ramifications of Hugo Chavez's illness upon domestic politics as well as the international left. I said that Chavez made a big mistake by not grooming a successor about six years ago, which jeopardizes the whole "Bolivarian" project. From there, we got into the issue of the pitfalls of populism and the idea of the charismatic leader. If Chavez should falter, the most immediate beneficiary will probably be Brazil, and I have decidedly mixed feelings about this. In my next and upcoming article, I highlight these concerns in light of secret correspondence involving the U.S., Brazil and Argentina.
April 13, 2012
January 10, 2012
December 12, 2011
A two part series focusing on the Durban climate conference. To read Part I, click here. For Part II, click here.
For earlier pieces, click here.
August 29, 2011
August 20, 2011
August 12, 2011
August 6, 2011
April 9, 2011
To read the article on al-Jazeera, click here.
March 15, 2011
To read my article about WikiLeaks, Brazil and Cuba in the post-Castro era, click here.
March 2, 2011
February 24, 2011
February 14, 2011
February 2, 2011
January 27, 2011
If Wikileaks documents are any indication, Chinese investors might have a big surprise in store as they continue their push into Latin America. In their effort to extract raw resources, the Chinese have fared relatively well in such areas of the globe as Africa. However, recently disclosed U.S. cables hint that Latin America may not prove as pliable for the Chinese. Indeed, during private discussions with U.S. diplomats in Shanghai, Chinese experts candidly admitted they faced a “public relations challenge” in Latin America, and that local residents viewed Chinese businessmen as “locusts” intent on “extracting minerals and natural resources and leaving very little of lasting value behind.”
China is a relative newcomer in Latin America, yet the Asian powerhouse has made a big splash. In its drive to dominate Latin American markets, China is primarily motivated by economic and not political considerations. In recent years, the Chinese authorities have understood that native industry must be provided with adequate supplies of energy, minerals, and other basic raw materials if the Asian powerhouse is to sustain continued economic growth. In tandem with such desires, China has moved aggressively to become Latin America’s second largest commercial partner after the United States.
For their part, the Latin Americans have been content to export their raw materials to China, though many countries have uncomfortable memories of U.S. economic enclaves and may wonder whether the Asian powerhouse will encourage sustainable development and social equity. While China is willing to help construct ports and railroads, such infrastructure projects will be linked to the transport of raw materials and in this sense the Asian tiger is little different from the United States, which historically sought to promote the type of “development” which would merely facilitate the extraction of South America’s resources.
Latin America is Not Africa
In Africa, China found that it could import its own labor, ignore environmental standards and essentially adopt a colonialist approach toward local peoples and resources. Compliant political elites, who displayed scant regard for human rights, made life easy for Chinese investors. But Latin America, having recently witnessed a tectonic shift to the left, is less willing to embrace untrammeled economic development if this comes at a high social and environmental cost.
In contrast to Africa, Latin America has a much more dynamic political culture characterized by combative political parties, labor unions and non-governmental organizations. Though many within Latin American civil society may have looked upon China as the champion of “Third World-ism” at a certain point, some will be less than impressed by the Asian tiger’s shedding of any ideological pretensions in the name of promoting a more politically neutral “multi-polar” world.
WikiLeaks documents shed fascinating light on the many difficulties and contradictions in the incipient Chinese-Latin American relationship. Speaking with officials at the U.S. consulate in Shanghai, Chinese experts said their nation’s leaders were interested in paying more attention to large emerging countries like Brazil and Mexico “amid the changing global economic balance of power.” Chinese companies, however, had difficulty understanding the Latin business milieu, and complained about “strong labor unions and cultural conflicts.”
Fundamentally, experts noted, “Chinese investors think Latin America and Africa are the same…but it is easier for them to do business in Africa since Africa's institutions and regulatory environment are less well-developed than Latin America’s.” Chinese workers, meanwhile, had a “different work ethic” from their Latin American counterparts, and as a result many companies had chosen to import their own laborers which had in turn fed “local resentment.” Conscious of the need to improve its public image, China encouraged its companies to take on more local employees, and the Asian tiger had become a substantial donor to the Inter-American Development Bank.
Differing Views on China
Despite these many problems, it is also clear from WikiLeaks cables that Latin America’s view of China depends very much on the individual country. Indeed, while China is viewed as a friend in some nations, in others it is viewed as a threat. In recent years, China has signed free trade agreements with Peru and Chile, two countries which don’t have competitive industries to defend. China has failed to negotiate accords with some of the other larger countries, however, because certain Chinese exports are viewed as more direct threats.
One country which has been particularly wary of the Asian tiger is Mexico. In early 2009, U.S. diplomats at the American embassy in Mexico City wrote Washington that “Mexico’s trade deficit with China and concerns over China’s approach to investment continue to color Mexico’s perception of China as a true partner.” While Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping was well received in Mexico, officials were “reluctant to push too strongly for increased Chinese presence.” One top Mexican businessman confided to the Americans, “We don’t want to be China’s next Africa.”
The entrepreneur was referring to “the oft-cited criticism that China has pursued a strategy of seizing the continent’s huge natural resources while dumping cheap industrial manufactured products into Africa’s markets.” “We need to own our country’s development,” the businessman added. Judging from WikiLeaks documents, the Chinese are aware of Mexico’s skittishness. Speaking to U.S. officials in Shanghai, Chinese experts pointed to the “similar industrial structure” between China and Mexico, adding that the Asian powerhouse should “invest more in the Mexican oil industry to counter Mexican concerns about China's growing trade surplus with the country.”
Seeking a South American Gateway
Another nation with mixed feelings toward the Asian tiger is Colombia. In WikiLeaks cables, U.S. diplomats in Beijing remarked that Colombia was actively seeking new economic partners but was still “wary of Chinese motives.” Speaking to the U.S. Chargé d’Affaires in Beijing, Colombian businessmen expressed their concern that China might “walk all over” Colombia and its people much as the Asian powerhouse had done in Africa. In addition, the Colombians were wary of Chinese investment in mining and hydrocarbons given the Asian tiger’s awful track record on environmental and labor practices [such talk is rather ironic in light of Colombia’s own horrible standards on these counts].
Because Colombian exports compete with those from China, the Andean nation is mainly interested in investment as opposed to signing a free trade agreement with the Asian powerhouse. Originally, China had directed its companies to invest in neighboring Venezuela, but the firms had “dragged their feet.” Reportedly, Chinese businessmen regarded Colombia as more stable and economically open than Venezuela, and therefore a “better base for targeting the rest of Latin America.”
In the long-term China may find that Colombia, which has a much more repressive anti-labor climate than Venezuela, is a country more to its political and economic liking. Indeed, recent business deals suggest that China sees Colombia as its preferred South American gateway. Take for example a Chinese plan to build an auto assembly plant in Colombia. The factory will manufacture light vehicles for export to different regional markets. The Chinese chose Colombia over Chile, Brazil and Mexico and the factory will begin production in 2012.
Brazil: “We Don’t Want to Be Colonized Again”
While Colombia and Mexico are certainly economically important within the overall Chinese strategy, it is the South American powerhouse of Brazil which has become the most indispensable linchpin. China has already displaced the U.S. as Brazil’s chief trading partner and experts predict that between now and 2014 the Asian tiger could invest an average of about $40 billion a year in Brazil. As they establish their key beach head in South America, the Chinese will target specific economic sectors such as telecommunications, infrastructure, farming, oil, biofuels, natural gas, mining and steel.
The most visible sign of burgeoning Sino-Brazil ties is the Açu complex, a mega port which is being constructed near Rio de Janeiro. The vast $2.5 billion facility will open in 2012 and its piers will host fleets of cargo ships including the ChinaMax, a huge vessel capable of holding a whopping 400,000 tons of cargo. In the nearby city of São João da Barra, the local town hall is providing free Mandarin lessons to those who wish to work with an anticipated wave of Chinese guests.
Though the new economic relationship has proven beneficial to both China and Brazil, it is rather lopsided. Indeed, China’s needs have begun to alter the Brazilian economy in fundamental ways. Take, for example, the Brazilian footwear industry which has been decimated by Chinese imports. Caught by surprise by China’s economic rise and burgeoning manufacturing sector, Brazilians worry that they haven’t laid the ground work for a sufficiently balanced relationship, one which will result in sustainable growth and not just small enclaves of prosperity.
Información Selectiva, a Mexican company providing financial news from around the region, recently reported on an eye-opening business meeting which brought together Latin and Chinese executives. During the summit, which took place in Chengdu, Brazilian investor Nizan Guanaes remarked “We were already colonized once and we don’t want to be colonized again. We want to be partners.” It’s unclear whether the Chinese have the patience to put up with such insolent independence. Frustrated by everything from Brazilian bureaucracy to strong labor unions to a more vigilant media culture and stringent environmental laws, the Chinese have found that Brazil is no pushover.
To be sure, the Chinese relationship has brought tangible economic benefits for Brazil. Take for example the local soybean industry which has thrived amidst booming exports to China. For the Asian tiger, soya is a versatile product which is utilized from everything from soy flour to tofu to soy sauce. In my recently published book No Rain in the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Affects the Entire Planet (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2010) I discuss the rise of soy boom towns in Brazil and accompanying infrastructure such as highways which are designed to facilitate exports to China. Even here, however, local development has been a mixed bag: while the soybean industry has brought economic gains it has also led to severe environmental downsides and pressures on the Amazon. Meanwhile, paved roads linking Brazil to Pacific ports of call and onward to Asia have cut through the rainforest and exacted a high ecological toll.
Wikileaks cables underscore underlying tensions in the Sino-Brazilian relationship. Speaking with American officials at the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai, Brazilian diplomats expressed some concern about growing imbalances in bilateral trade. Although Brazil exported some small commercial aircraft to China, in general the South American nation was a mere provider of commodities to the Asian tiger and received higher value-added machinery in exchange. Meanwhile, Chinese investors failed to adequately understand the local Brazilian market and regulations.
As history has shown, the Latin American people do not take kindly to outside powers coming in to the region and reaping maximum economic advantage while failing to encourage equitable social development. For years, it was the United States which raised the political ire of many countries throughout the hemisphere as it set up economic enclaves and propped up compliant elites. So far, the Chinese interest in Latin America has been primarily economic though the Asian giant may be obliged to become more involved in local politics as its interests grow. If China expects, however, that it will get its way in Latin America as easily as it did in Africa then the Asian tiger may find that it has another thing coming.
January 9, 2011
When will Brazil throw its weight around on the world stage and actually start to challenge Washington? Judging from Wikileaks documents, that day may be very off indeed. Far from taking a stand against the United States, Brazilian diplomats serving in Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva’s administration sought to appease the Americans behind closed doors or, at most, express mild criticism. Since Wikileaks documents end in late 2009, we don’t know if incoming president Dilma Rousseff will choose to mimic her predecessor’s non-confrontational foreign policy, but most observers expect continuity. For the South American left, Wikileaks documents serve as a sobering wake-up call and underscore the difficult political work which lies ahead.
Recent cables pick up in 2005, at the height of the Bush administration’s diplomatic difficulties with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. In Brasilia, U.S. ambassador John Danilovich expressed Washington’s “growing concern” about “Chávez’s rhetoric and actions” during a meeting with Brazilian foreign minister Celso Amorim. Going further, Danilovich sought to set up a joint U.S.-Brazilian operation which would gather intelligence on Chávez. Amorim rejected Danilovich’s entreaties, remarking that Brazil did not see Venezuela as a threat.
Nevertheless, Amorim said the Lula government would be interested in “any intelligence [the U.S.] wished to provide unilaterally.” What was behind Amorim’s interest, and might the diplomat have shared sensitive U.S. intelligence with Venezuela? Like Chávez, Lula came out of South America’s new left and the two shared cordial diplomatic relations, at least publicly. Perhaps, Brazil’s foreign minister hoped to double cross Washington, though frankly such an interpretation seems unlikely given that Lula had reportedly told Chávez to “tone down his rhetoric.”
Furthermore, Lula had “personally persuaded Chávez not to go swimming at a Chilean beach where Chávez intended to proclaim to gathered press that he was bathing in a spot which should be Bolivia's coastline on the Pacific.” Ever since the 1879-1904 War of the Pacific, La Paz has claimed that Chile denied Bolivia rightful access to the ocean and the issue strikes a nationalist chord in the impoverished and landlocked Andean nation. Historically, Chávez has been a leading critic of the more pro-U.S. Chile and a champion of leftist political movements in Bolivia.
The Petrobras Affair
The Danilovich-Amorim détente took place against the backdrop of political instability in the Andes. In Washington, the Bush administration was concerned about coca grower and rising political star Evo Morales, who would shortly succeed to the presidency of Bolivia and become Chávez’s protégé. During his meeting with the U.S. ambassador, Amorim sought to depict Brazil as a reliable regional partner. The Lula administration, which was focused on the “economic exposure of Brazilian companies in Bolivia, along with the threat posed to regional stability by unrest there,” sought to persuade Morales that the Bolivian needed “to act in a democratic fashion.”
Compared to the politically volatile Andean region, Brazil is certainly an island of tranquility and it is understandable that the Lula administration would seek to promote regional calm within its own “near abroad.” There’s always a fine line, however, between promoting stability and diluting South America’s common leftist front. Wikileaks cables suggest that, more often than not, Lula opted for the latter in his dealings with Bolivia. Shortly after the Danilovich-Amorim meeting, the Americans checked in with Lula’s Institutional Security Cabinet and asked if Brazil had a contingency plan “if the Bolivia political situation deteriorates into instability or radicalization that threatens Brazilian interests, especially Petrobras [a mixed private/state Brazilian energy company which had operations in Bolivia] and energy resources from Bolivia that are critical to industry in southern Brazil.”
Brazilian officials frankly admitted that they were “banking on ‘a strategy of hope,’ i.e., that despite fiery nationalist rhetoric during the elections, sensible leaders in Bolivia will not allow radical new government policies or general instability to damage Brazilian energy industries which contribute so massively to Bolivia's economy.” U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Phillip Chicola remarked that Lula’s security apparatus was particularly concerned “about the potential for increased cocaine flows into Brazil from Bolivia in the event of a Morales victory.”
In the wake of Morales’ electoral victory, Lula and Amorim announced they would maintain “strong relations” with Venezuela and Bolivia, but did not seek to “abandon” or “contaminate” Brazil’s bilateral ties to the Bush White House. Writing to Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon, Chicola suggested that the U.S. seek to exploit Brazilian-Bolivian tensions in upcoming meetings. It would be wise, Chicola advised, for Shannon to bring up “the grittier, real-world worries of Brazilian law enforcement and intelligence services about the increased threats a Morales presidency may bring in the arenas of narcotrafficking and other cross-border criminal activities.”
In mid-2006, Lula was placed in a further quandary when Morales nationalized foreign oil and gas investments in Bolivia. Publicly, U.S. diplomats noted, the Brazilian president “issued a stunningly bland public statement…recognizing Bolivia's sovereignty to act as it did but reaffirming that Brazil would act to protect the interests of…Petrobras.” In a private meeting with the Americans, however, deputy foreign affairs advisor Marcel Biato painted a more intricate picture. According to him, Bolivia and Petrobras had been involved in “what appeared to be relatively positive discussions.” Later, however, Morales abruptly broke off the talks and “there was a lot of Morales interaction with Chávez.”
At a meeting in Brasilia, Lula was scheduled to “register his concern” about “Venezuelan involvement with Morales on the hydrocarbons issues.” The Brazilians, it seems, were angered when Morales dramatically sent in the army to occupy Bolivian gas fields. In the final analysis, American diplomats noted, Morales was emboldened by Venezuelan support “after hearing that Chávez would (a) provide technical help to get gas out of the ground if Petrobras bails…and (b) buy the product.”
Writing to his superiors in Washington, Chicola noted that “Lula and his foreign policy team could not look worse at this moment. The image of Bolivian soldiers moving into Petrobras installations is vivid and offensive for Brazilians of all classes, and will appear to many as a massive rebuke to the Lula administration's theology of a Brazilian-led new era of ‘regional integration.’ Indeed, in the Brazilian press and popular imagination, Lula is increasingly seen as outmaneuvered, manipulated and flim-flammed by his ‘hermanos,’ Chávez and Morales.”
Adding insult to injury, on the same day that Morales announced the gas nationalization the Bolivian president also stated his intention to carry out agricultural reforms which could affect Brazilian farmers residing within the Andean nation. Numbering some 15,000-strong, the farmers had been gradually moving into Bolivia where they had taken to cultivating soybeans. Chicola noted that “any action taken that would threaten the rights of those farmers would occasion a public outcry in Brazil, probably worse than that caused by the spectacle of Bolivian soldiers occupying Petrobras facilities.” Needless to say, as I point out in my recent book, soybean farming has been highly damaging to the environment and in this sense Brazilian interests run contrary to social progress in the Andes.
All in all, Brazilian officials were exasperated by Morales, a politician who was intent on playing poker with Brasilia but who had no sense of “logic and rationality.” When Chicola “challenged” Biato “about the growing public perception in Brazil that Morales and Chávez are in cahoots at Lula’s expense,” the Brazilian was “laconic.” “What are we supposed to do?” Biato lamented. “We can’t choose our neighbors. We don’t like Chávez’s modus operandi or Morales’ surprises, but we have to manage these guys somehow, and keep the regional integration idea alive.”
The idea that Brazil might have to “manage” pesky Bolivia, much as the U.S. has sought to oversee political developments in, say, Central America, proved irksome to the Lula administration. In the waning days of the Bush administration, Brazilian presidential Foreign Policy Advisor Marco Aurelio Garcia told the Americans that Bolivia’s instability stemmed in large measure from Morales’ highhanded attitude. The coca leader, Garcia declared, had come into office “as if it were a revolution.” Prolonged instability in neighboring Bolivia, the diplomat added, could worsen “like a flammable gas in the air.”
Many Brazilians, Garcia continued, were frankly surprised by Morales’ “confrontational posture” toward Brazil early on and the Lula administration had been compelled to warn Bolivia, like Venezuela before, to “tone down the rhetoric” and to “cease provoking the United States.” Fundamentally, Garcia opined, Bolivia would have to get its political house in order if the country sought to attract foreign investment and maximize its energy potential. A further cable from late 2009, now well into the Obama era, suggests that relations failed to improve over time. Speaking to the Americans, Brazilian diplomats characterized their relationship with Morales as “frustratingly difficult to manage” and expressed ongoing interest in joint counter-narcotics operations with Bolivia and the United States.
Brazil’s Ambiguous Role
Though Brazil has refused to ostracize its leftist neighbors at the behest of Washington, South America’s biggest political and economic powerhouse has acted rather cynically more often than not. Publicly, Lula expressed solidarity with his leftist colleagues in Brazil’s near abroad, but behind the scenes diplomats worked to dilute a common anti-imperialist front. Putting on airs in private, Brazilian diplomats evidently feel their own country is superior and more “mature” than neighboring nations where rabble-rousing populist regimes hold sway. As the U.S. loses geopolitical influence in South America, will Brazil expand its own regional sphere and what are the larger implications? If Wikileaks cables are any indication, promoting revolutionary change could not be farther from the minds of Brazilian officials. Rather, narrow-minded energy and economic interests will guide Lula’s successors.
December 24, 2010
According to Spanish newspaper El País, Julian Assange might be looking for political asylum in Brazil, and the Wikileaks founder is reportedly even interested in basing some of his organization’s operations in the South American nation. Brazil, Assange explains, “is sufficiently large so as to resist U.S. pressure; the country has the requisite economic and military means to do so.” The Wikileaks marked man adds that Brazil “is not like China or Russia which are intolerant toward freedom of the press.”
What could have prompted Assange to consider asylum in South America? In recent days, outgoing President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva has been one of Wikileaks’ most prominent defenders, remarking that Assange is a champion of free expression. Interrupting a run-of-the-mill speech about infrastructure development, Lula declared “What’s its name? Viki-leaks? Like that? To WikiLeaks: my solidarity in disclosing these things and my protest on behalf of free speech.”
The Brazilian president added, “I don’t know if they put up signs like those from Westerns saying, ‘wanted dead or alive.’ The man was arrested and I’m not seeing any protest defending freedom of expression…Instead of blaming the person who disclosed it, blame the person who wrote this nonsense. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have the scandal we now have.”
Assange has praised Lula for speaking out about Wikileaks, and promises to release more cables relating to U.S.-Brazilian relations. Relatively speaking, Wikileaks has already published a great number of documents from the U.S. consulate in São Paulo and the American Embassy in Brasilia. Assange says some members of his organization are Brazilian, and “it would be great to receive an offer” of political asylum from Lula.
Lula Might Want to Read the Cables
So, just how likely would it be for Brazil to extend asylum to Assange? It is one thing to praise Wikileaks for shedding light on U.S. foreign policy and quite another to welcome such a whistleblower to Brazilian shores. On the face of it, such an endgame would seem unlikely: though Wikileaks cables have proven to be a severe embarrassment to Washington, the documents aren’t too flattering toward Brazil either.
Political idealists may have hoped that Brazil, which forms part of the regional “Pink Tide” which has come to power in recent years, would move the leftist agenda forward in South America. Yet, Wikileaks documents seem to dash any such hopes. As I discussed in an earlier article, the Brazilian political elite is divided with some senior figures in the security apparatus opposing Venezuela’s Chávez and negotiating with the U.S. behind closed doors.
While Wikileaks cables suggest that the Brazilian Foreign Affairs Ministry, also known as Itamaraty, disagrees with the nation’s defense establishment when it comes to setting policy toward the U.S., it can hardly be said that Lula diplomats are a radical bunch intent on overturning Washington’s goals. Indeed, Itamaraty has sought to portray itself as a valuable geopolitical partner to the U.S., willing to promote “political stability” in the immediate regional neighborhood.
Bush Years and Brazil’s Double Game
Perhaps, after scrutinizing some of the recently released Wikileaks cables, Lula will think twice before backing Assange. In tandem with earlier documentation, the cables confirm the overall cynical nature of Brazilian foreign policy during the Bush era. They show that even as Lula was extending warm ties to Hugo Chávez, Chief of Staff Jose Dirceu was meeting with White House Special Envoy for the Western Hemisphere Otto Reich. A staunchly anti-Chávez figure, Reich expressed “deep concern” with the political situation in Venezuela. Dirceu was critical of Chávez, remarking that Lula was “uncomfortable” with the Venezuelan’s behavior at a recent meeting of the G-15 in Caracas. Since the meeting, Lula had refused to take any of Chávez’s calls, though the Brazilian might agree to do so “as unpleasant as it may be.”
Shortly after the Reich-Dirceu tete-a-tete, Brazilian officials expressed “grave concerns” about the “seismic changes” occurring in Bolivia. Evo Morales’ electoral victory was still some two years off, and the Andean nation was going through a period of severe political instability. On the one side was the Carlos Mesa government, intent on ramming through a neo-liberal economic agenda, and on the other a rising tide of Indian opposition. Far from expressing any solidarity with Morales, Brazilian authorities said they were “disturbed” by the “energized indigenous movement” and sought to preserve political “moderation” at all costs in the neighboring Andean country.
If the Bush administration had any qualms about the political allegiances of the Lula regime, Dirceu sought to alleviate such concerns, remarking to U.S. ambassador John Danilovich that both Washington and Brasilia shared a common interest in promoting regional stability. The Lula government would seek to “ameliorate tensions” in Venezuela, Dirceu said. Another cable from the following year of 2005 lays even more bare Brazilian intentions toward Venezuela. According to the document, Dirceu said he planned to travel to Caracas to deliver a blunt message to Chávez to “stand down from his provocative rhetoric,” “do his homework” and “stop playing with fire.”
Specifically, the Brazilians were upset with Chávez for pursuing useless provocations against the United States. Moreover, by pursuing an escalating war of words with Washington, Chávez was adversely affecting the course of commercial integration with Brazil. Dirceu’s mission was cleared at the top level by Lula, who sought to meet with Bush “at the earliest opportunity” so as to “clear the air” on Venezuela. When Danilovich asked Dirceu whether Brazil was in reality pursuing a strategic alliance with Chávez behind Washington’s back, the Brazilian assured the U.S. ambassador that there was “not a single item of anti-American intent” in Lula’s “regional policy matrix.” In the long term, Dirceu added, Brazil hoped to draw Venezuela into more moderate and practical economic integration.
Perhaps, Lula’s erstwhile leftist supporters within his own Workers’ Party would have been surprised by what came next. According to the documents, Dirceu said it was “crucial” for Bush to meet personally with Lula so that the two might discuss the future of the Free Trade Area of the America or FTAA, a corporate free trade scheme backed by Washington but widely reviled by the South American left. Brazil, Dirceu remarked, could not “afford to create the impression that it lacks interest in the FTAA.” The Brazilian added that his government ought to increase its commercial relations with the U.S. “one hundred fold.” In five to ten years, Dirceu continued hopefully, South America might constitute one market under Brazilian dominance, and U.S. firms based in Brazil would certainly want to export their goods throughout the region.
From Bush to Obama: Brazil Reluctant to Challenge U.S. Interests
Four years after Dirceu’s meeting with Danilovich, Brazil was still reluctant to challenge U.S. hegemony in the wider region. When democratically elected president of Honduras Manuel Zelaya was deposed in a military coup, Brazil strenuously protested. Yet, again Wikileaks cables show Lula as a timid player and fundamentally unwilling to counter the U.S. in its traditional sphere of influence. Perhaps, Brazil was afraid of being too closely identified with Zelaya, a Chávez protégé, for fear of jeopardizing its cherished ties to the newly installed Obama White House.
The Honduran imbroglio was all brought to a head when, in the midst of political hostilities, Zelaya made a surprise visit to the Brazilian Embassy in Tegucigalpa. According to cables, Brazil had no hand in the matter and was caught off guard by the ousted Honduran leader. Though Brazil graciously welcomed Zelaya inside, the Lula government had no idea how to handle the subsequent standoff. When Honduran security forces surrounded the premises in a show of force, Lula requested U.S. assistance in helping to supply its embassy and head off any potential violence.
The Brazilians grew apprehensive of what might happen, and asked for diesel fuel to run their generator. Unfortunately, Brazilian officials noted, they did not have “the type of protection the U.S. Embassy has, the Marines,” and as a result could not defend their embassy. The Brazilians added that they believed Chávez was behind Zelaya’s appearance at their embassy, a maneuver which they apparently did not welcome. Perhaps somewhat incensed by Chávez, Brazil did not coordinate with Venezuela during the crisis, preferring instead to check in with Secretary of State Clinton who declared that Zelaya should behave himself and act in a peaceful manner.
Writing to her superiors, U.S. Chargé d’Affaires in Brasilia Lisa Kubiske summed up the crisis succinctly. “Having been vocal in its support for Zelaya’s return and dragged--almost certainly without advance warning--into an unaccustomed place at the center of the crisis,” she wrote, “Brazil appears to be at a loss as to what to do next. It is remarkable that the government of Brazil has apparently made no effort to reach out within the region or taken a more assertive role in seeking a resolution. Instead, planted firmly in the back seat, it appears Brazil is looking to the United States, the OAS, and the United Nations to safeguard its interests and, it hopes, navigate toward a long-term solution.”
In the end, Honduras held elections under extremely dubious circumstances and political repression against Zelaya supporters continued, accompanied by rampant human rights abuses. According to cables, however, the Lula government refrained from asserting itself too much. Brazilian officials told the U.S. that they were displeased about the situation in Honduras but did “not want this issue to create difficulties” with Washington. Celso Amorim, Brazil’s Foreign Minister at Itamaraty, added that the U.S. and Brazil should continue to pursue close ties even when the media sought to exploit the two countries’ differences. The diplomat declared that Brazil was not ready to recognize the recent election in Honduras as valid, but the Lula government was “done harping on this point.”
Clearly, Brazil has not emerged from the Wikileaks scandal smelling like a rose. Far from standing up for the progressive left in the wider region, the Lula government has more often than not acted timidly while negotiating with U.S. diplomats behind closed doors. It’s a sorry spectacle, and there may be more unflattering revelations in the pipeline: Assange has declared that Wikileaks possesses a whopping 2,855 cables related to the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia, of which only a few have been disclosed thus far.
Lula has publicly defended Wikileaks, but there may be limits to the Brazilian’s magnanimity. Thus far Lula has not addressed any of the leaked cables specifically, preferring instead to simply criticize Washington’s heavy handed use of foreign policy. For his part, Assange has been praising Lula to the skies, remarking that the Brazilian leader is brave for defending Wikileaks. Whether such flattery will work is another matter, however. If the Lula administration were to grant political asylum to Assange, this would create a diplomatic firestorm and seriously damage U.S. relations.
It seems unlikely that incoming president Dilma Rousseff, who takes office on January 1st, would want to risk such a fallout. Lula, however, might be another matter. The legendary president leaves office with a record-breaking 83% popularity, and Lula might think he can afford to make a controversial move on Wikileaks. That, at any rate, is what Assange clearly hopes for: recently, the Wikileaks founder remarked that Lula was nearing the end of his second term and as a result “he can speak more freely about what he genuinely thinks.”
I suspect that Assange may be overestimating Lula’s willingness to confront the U.S., but you never know. In any case, if Brazil does provide refuge to Assange the announcement will have to come in the next few days, as the window of opportunity for the Wikileaks founder is likely to close very shortly.
December 15, 2010
WikiLeaks: The U.S. Must “Neutralize, Co-opt or Marginalize” Radical Latin American Bloc in Climate Negotiations
December 6, 2010
December 5, 2010
December 3, 2010
November 30, 2010
November 24, 2010
November 21, 2010
October 8, 2010
A five part series. To read part I, click here. To read part II, click here. For part III click here. For part IV, click here. For part V, click here.
For earlier articles, click here.
September 7, 2010
To read the article at Council on Hemispheric Affairs, click here.
For earlier articles, click here.
December 7, 2009
November 19, 2009
It’s everyone’s worst nightmare: being caught in an underground subway in the midst of a power outage. Yet, that is exactly what happened recently when Brazilian commuters in the city of São Paulo were trapped inside trains and literally had to be pulled out of subway cars. In addition to sparking problems in public transport, the blackout or apagão led to hospital emergencies and the shutting down of several airports. In all the power outage darkened approximately half of the South American nation, affecting sixty million people.
In recent years Brazil has become an economic powerhouse yet the blackout exposed vulnerabilities in the country’s infrastructure. In the wake of the power outage, government officials intent on sustaining high economic growth have tried to figure out what might have gone wrong with the country’s electrical grid. Initial reports blamed the power outage on the massive Itaipu hydroelectric dam though a spokesperson for the facility said there had been no problem at the plant.
Itaipu, the official stated, was solely responsible for power generation and the failure occurred in the transmission line. Perhaps, the Energy and Mines Minister declared, a chance atmospheric event like a storm could have disconnected Itaipu. While the authorities conduct further investigations into the matter, some are concerned about the scope of the apagão and have demanded a more detailed explanation.
In addition to power outages there are other, more profound problems associated with hydropower, problems that now concern us all. Indeed, hydroelectric plants lead to emissions of methane which are formed when vegetation decomposes at the bottom of reservoirs devoid of oxygen. The methane is either released slowly as it bubbles up in the reservoir or rapidly when water passes through turbines.
One Brazilian dam, Balbina, flooded about 920 square miles of rainforest when it was completed and during the first three years of its existence the actual reservoir emitted 23 million tons of carbon dioxide and 140,000 tons of methane. Dr. Philip Fearnside, a scientist who I interviewed for my upcoming book No Rain In the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Change Affects The Entire Planet (Palgrave Macmillan, April 2010), has calculated that during this time Balbina’s greenhouse gas output was four times that of a coal-fired plant producing the same amount of power.
The news is particularly troubling as methane is twenty times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon. Environmentalists say that methane gas produced by forests inundated by hydroelectric projects accounts for one-fifth of Brazil’s greenhouse gas contribution to global warming.
How concerned should we be about dams and their effect on Earth’s climate? According to researchers, the world’s reservoirs release 20 percent of the total methane from all known sources connected to human activity, including livestock, fossil fuels, and landfills. Experts say that same methane released by dams, meanwhile, accounts for 4 percent of total global warming while reservoirs contribute approximately 4 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions resulting from human activity.
The issue of hydro power has been climbing up the political agenda of the world’s leading scientists: in 2006 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) included emissions from artificially flooded regions in its greenhouse gas inventory. That hasn’t stopped Brazilian policymakers however from proceeding full throttle with their plans for Amazonian dams and currently the country relies on hydropower for more than 80% of its electricity. In particular, the government has pushed a controversial dam project called Belo Monte. Scientists have raised the alarm bell about the complex, which will cause an increase in greenhouse gas emissions due to the decomposition of organic matter within the stagnant water of the reservoir.
President Lula has said that developing hydro power in the Amazon is essential if the country wants to sustain more than 5 percent growth. The mere fact, however, that Brazil is afflicted by chronic energy problems does not mean that Lula must sacrifice the rainforest to hydro power and thereby intensify climate pressures. Indeed, critics charge that Lula’s dam building is merely designed to satisfy big business which gobbles up energy so as to export tropical commodities.
With all of the social drawbacks associated with hydro power, not to mention the implications for climate change, why won’t authorities consider meeting Brazil’s future energy needs through alternative means? Environmentalists argue that the Lula government should upgrade existing energy systems and push through rapid development of wind, solar, and biomass technologies. If Lula adopted such clean technologies Brazil could meet its electricity needs through 2020 and actually save $15 billion in the process.
Sounds like a proposal worth exploring, but predictably the electrical sector has wasted no time in attacking environmentalists for being utopian and naive. To retrofit older dams and cut transmission losses is simply wishful thinking, the powerful lobbying group has charged. One expert reports that hydroelectric projects die hard in Brazil. “It’s like a Dracula movie,” he says. “Every 20 years or so, it surges up out of the coffin. You have to drive the stake back through the thing and make it go away again.”
Where is all the money coming from for these hydroelectric initiatives you ask? One chief culprit is the Brazilian National Development Bank, the financial arm of the Ministry of Development, Industry and Foreign Trade. Because of the incestuous relationship between the government and hydropower, it’s politically difficult to challenge these boondoggle projects.
But just in case you thought methane-producing dams were a strictly Brazilian affair, consider that the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) is also expected to contribute financially to hydro electric projects despite heavy lobbying from environmental and human rights groups that have been urging the bank to steer clear of such initiatives.
Moving away from hydropower and solving our climate conundrum will require political leadership in Brazil but also significant international cooperation. As we move forward in crucial climate change negotiations, the Global North needs to do much more to invest in truly green technology such as wind, solar, and waves. Instead of sponsoring hydropower, large financial institutions as well as affluent countries should provide clean energy transfers to such nations as Brazil.
Failure to act now could exact a heavy environmental toll and condemn Brazil to a vicious energy-climate trap. Consider the case of an earlier, 2001 apagão: in that year, a blackout crippled the country and authorities were forced to decree emergency measures, including a ban on power-hungry floodlights. A special government task force (nicknamed the “Blackout Ministry”) called for the switching off of lighting on streets, beaches, and squares. In the midst of the energy crisis some Rio business leaders feared a crime wave and called for the army to be deployed in the event of power cuts.
Meanwhile, panic-stricken citizens stocked up on candles, generators, and flashlights. When the rationing went into effect, cutbacks obliged schools and businesses to close and disrupted transportation, trade, and leisure. As street lighting in most major cities was cut 35 percent, police night shifts were increased and even Brazilians’ prized night games of soccer were prohibited.
The connection between hydro power and climate change is becoming all too painfully clear. Consider: the immediate cause of the 2001 energy crisis and blackout was a severe drought–the worst in more than sixty years. When the dry spell hit, water levels at hydroelectric plants fell to less than one-third of capacity.
In the long run hydro power may be caught in a vicious cycle of its own making: as large boondoggle projects such as Belo Monte proliferate, they may emit harmful greenhouse gases and thus contribute to climate change and increasing drought. But if global warming dries up parts of the Amazon, Belo Monte and other dams like it could wind up being white elephants as there won’t be much water left to harness.
March 15, 2009
When you can’t stamp out progressive social change, the next step is to try to desperately derail it or otherwise water it down. That’s exactly the kind of strategy pursued by the likes of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who concluded a South American tour a year ago designed to ostracize the bad countries, namely Venezuela, Bolivia, and increasingly Argentina, and to cultivate ties with the good countries such as Brazil and Chile. Having woken up to the fact that its free trade and neo-liberal agenda for the region lay in tatters, and that wielding a Big Stick to defang its enemies could not work politically, the Bush White House pursued stealthy diplomacy. Rice’s strategy was to divide and rule, to contain radical social change and to steer it within acceptable boundaries. Because South America was headed on a new trajectory which was more independent of Washington, Rice hoped that the "responsible" left as exemplified by Brazil’s Lula and Chile’s Bachelet would steer the region away from the likes of Venezuela’s Chávez and Bolivian President Morales.
One year later with a fresh Democratic administration in Washington, what is the U.S. attitude towards different left leaning regimes in South America? That is the question posed by a recent article in Time magazine, provocatively headlined "Brazil’s Lula: A Bridge to Latin American Left?" The article implies that Bush did not dutifully look out for U.S. interests in South America, and this created "a problem" because it allowed for the expansion of the anti-U.S. left throughout the region.
Thankfully for Time magazine, it now looks as if Brazil will act as a broker between the United States and Venezuela, paving the way for a possible diplomatic rapprochement. In his first meeting with a Latin leader, Obama sat down with Brazilian President Lula da Silva in Washington on Saturday. During the encounter, Lula told his U.S. counterpart that America should do its utmost to improve ties with Venezuela and Bolivia and to build a relationship based on trust and not interference.
Publicly, Lula and Chávez have been political allies for the past several years. Nevertheless, it needs to be said that the Brazilian leader has adopted a more conservative approach towards politics and economics than his Venezuelan counterpart. Both Venezuela and Brazil are energy giants and see themselves as natural political leaders in the wider region. Behind the façade therefore, there may be a slight geopolitical rivalry between the two South American nations. Lula surely does not want a return to the Big Stick of the Bush years, but he would probably like to supplant Venezuela as a regional power so that Brazil can assume its natural place in the South America sun.
Lula may get his wish. The economic picture has shifted dramatically recently and Brazil stands to benefit most in the new geopolitical equation. A year ago the U.S. was not in the midst of a frightening economic mess and Venezuela was getting a much better financial yield on its oil exports. Despite Chávez’s recent victory in his country’s constitutional referendum — which allowed the Venezuelan leader to run indefinitely for reelection — Venezuela is no position to assume a greater regional role right now. Formerly, Chávez was wont to throw around development aid to Bolivia and other nations with reckless abandon, but within the new economic milieu he will be severely constrained in his wider ambitions because of the lower price of oil.
A year ago, Brazil was certainly an important diplomatic player but it has now emerged as perhaps the dominant strategic force in the region. Though Brazil has suffered as a result of the world economic slowdown, the country is still in a better position than many other nations. Indeed, as noted by a recent report by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, "while most of the developed world is undergoing a financial crisis, Brazil still retains some positive strength, with the country still recording significant economic and social achievements at home. For this and other reasons arising from the Brazil’s impressive statistics, Lula is emerging as the de facto spokesman for Latin America."
Brazil, the report goes on, is "far better off than the European and American economies. Its banks are solvent, credit, though increasingly viscous, is still flowing from BNDES, Brazil’s national development bank, to favored companies such as Petrobras [the Brazilian state oil firm] and consumers remain more confident than their North American counterparts. The absence of these negative factors that are primarily propelling the crisis abroad is helping to shield Brazil from the worst of the downturn." Interestingly, the report concludes, Brazil may be the only one of 34 major economies to avoid recession in 2009.
With its newfound clout, what does Brazil seek on the international stage? Lula has long coveted a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council and may want to become a world energy powerhouse. Indeed, Brazil might seek to supplant Venezuela as the main South American oil supplier to the United States. "Such observations that Obama would welcome Lula as an alternative energy supplier," notes the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, "seem to run counter to Lula’s putative pledge to Hugo Chávez, in which he promised to act as an advocate for Venezuela during his meeting with Obama. Is Lula positioning himself as Latin America’s Otto Von Bismarck?"
Within this new "Bismarckian" game of chess Lula may wish to appear as Venezuela’s paternalistic protector while simultaneously looking out for wider Brazilian interests. If Lula could ever bring off a meeting or summit with Chávez and Obama, it would constitute a huge political coup and Brazil’s diplomatic prestige would be enormously enhanced.
There is some indication that Obama might be somewhat amenable to Lula’s entreaties.
Back during the U.S. presidential campaign, Obama was vague about what U.S. foreign policy towards Venezuela ought to be. Reluctant to tackle this hot potato, Obama issued rather contradictory statements about his attitude towards the Andean nation. Now that he has been swept into office, what is Obama’s policy? Judging from the contradictory statements put out by the State Department, the administration is conflicted.
At first, the State Department praised Venezuela’s recent constitutional referendum as free and fair. But then, diplomats reversed course. According to the Wall Street Journal, the positive remarks "set off a furor among Venezuelan opposition activists and some commentators because the description of Venezuela’s referendum seemed markedly different from the tone set by the Bush administration, which repeatedly voiced worry that Mr. Chávez was undermining Venezuela’s democracy."
As the right laid into Obama, the State Department quickly backpedaled. As noted in the Wall Street Journal, "U.S. officials are scrambling to assert that the Obama administration hasn’t softened U.S. policy toward Venezuela, where President Hugo Chávez recently won a controversial referendum allowing him to run for office as many times as he wants." The reports suggest that there may be disagreement within the State Department about how to handle Chavez; different factions may not see eye to eye. Like the Carter administration, which had somewhat contradictory policies at different times towards left wing movements in Latin America, Obama has not quite figured out what course he wants to chart.
This lack of coherence in official U.S. policy towards Venezuela suggests that Lula might be able to at least nudge the U.S. in another direction. Given Brazil’s new economic and political clout, and the U.S.’s reduced position world-wide, Lula is in an ideal position to reform regional politics in a dramatic way. Within the new diplomatic triangle between Venezuela, Brazil and the United States, Lula wants his country to be paramount. In the new arrangement, the United States will cease its political interference in South American affairs while Venezuela will become a junior partner to Brazil. If Lula can achieve these ends, he will indeed emerge as a very important figure on the world stage.
June 11, 2008
April 3, 2008
When you can’t stamp out progressive social change, the next step is to try to desperately derail it or otherwise water it down. That’s exactly the kind of strategy being pursued right now by the likes of Condoleezza Rice, who recently concluded a South American tour designed to ostracize the bad countries, namely Venezuela, Bolivia, and increasingly Argentina, and to cultivate ties with the good countries such as Brazil and Chile.
Rice and her colleagues are alarmed because, notwithstanding their ideological differences, South American nations appear to be moving towards extensive political and economic integration. The only question now is which economic development model will predominate within the region and what the eventual complexion of integration will look like.
The vehicle for closer integration could well be Mercosur, a trading bloc of South American countries. At present the bloc’s members include Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay. Venezuela is in the process of joining the bloc, and a number of countries including Bolivia and Chile are associate members. Mercosur nations have declared their intention of forming a South American Community of Nations modeled after the European Union.
The bloc is beginning to take on political projects rather than pursuing strictly economic objectives. For example, Mercosur now has a European Union-styled regional parliament in Montevideo, and many Uruguayans hope their capital might evolve into the "Brussels of South America." In a repudiation of Washington’s diktat, Mercosur nations openly debated what the future of free trade should be in South America during a heady 2007 summit.
In line with his usual penchant for over the top rhetorical flourishes, Hugo Chávez of Venezuela stressed the need for Mercosur to be "decontaminated" from the ravages of neo-liberal economics. Mercosur, noted the Venezuelan leader, was an "outdated mechanism and is leaking like a sieve." The trade bloc, Chávez added, was "founded in the context of a free- market economic model and offers integration for the élites, for business, for transnational companies, not integration for the peoples." Such remarks have riled the Bush White House which has come to distrust Mercosur, an entity which has acted to block the corporate-friendly Free Trade Area of the Americas.
Having woken up to the fact that its free trade and neo-liberal agenda for the region lies in tatters, and that wielding a Big Stick to defang its enemies cannot work politically in the present milieu, the Bush White House is now pursuing stealthy diplomacy. Rice’s strategy is to divide and rule, to contain radical social change and to steer it within acceptable boundaries.
These are important geopolitical developments which have largely fallen beneath the media radar screen. It’s a deficiency I seek to rectify in my new book, Revolution! South America and The Rise of The New Left (just released with Palgrave-Macmillan), based on extensive interviews with activists, intellectuals, political experts, and government officials in six countries throughout the region.
Venezuela and Brazil: Their Differing Visions for the Future
Officially, Venezuela and Brazil are close allies and are not vying for regional political control. But waning U.S. prestige has led to something of a power vacuum and the two countries are now pushing very different economic agendas. On the one hand, Brazil seeks to create economic opportunities for itself which in turn might offer advantages for smaller South American countries. Within President Lula’s scheme, these smaller nations would buy Brazilian goods and supply Brazil with energy resources. With Brazil as the hub of a southern bloc of countries, the region would head towards a more equitable development model mitigating the savage effects of globalization. Lula’s model is market-friendly though not explicitly "neo-liberal;" it is predicated upon government support for domestic companies which are intent on exploiting regional and global opportunities.
Lula’s agenda stands in contrast to that of Hugo Chávez who has overseen an avowedly socialist and strong statist approach to the economy. Rhetorically, Chávez rails against the market and globalization, thus sparking fear in Brazil that the Venezuelan leader will scare off investors from flocking to the region. Chávez would like to see a more "un-savage" version of globalization spread forth from Venezuela into neighboring countries.
In order to advance Venezuelan interests, Chávez provides development assistance and oil at discount prices to sympathetic regimes in the hemisphere. He has sought to bring Venezuela into Mercosur and hopes to subvert the bloc from within, presumably by shifting the entity’s focus from free trade to more equitable, reciprocal trade. Simultaneously however he has hedged his bets by promoting the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (known by its Spanish acronym ALBA), a scheme based on solidarity and barter trade outside of the usual corporate strictures.
Driving a Wedge between Brazil and Venezuela
Rice is trying to exploit these differences and to effectively drive a wedge through South America’s incipient left bloc. "Brazil has a president from the left. He’s one of America’s closest friends and partners in the region and on the globe. I will go on to Chile, another country where the president is from the left and again, we have excellent relations with Chile," the Secretary of State remarked in an interview with Brazil’s Globo TV.
Now that South America is headed on a new trajectory which is more independent of Washington, Rice hopes that the "responsible" left as exemplified by Brazil’s Lula and Chile’s Bachelet will steer the region away from the likes of Venezuela’s Chávez and Bolivian President Morales. "This is not about where you are on the ideological spectrum," she said. "It’s a question of: Do you respect democratic values and democratic institutions; are you working for the good of your people; are you working for the good of your neighbors. Those are the issues that are important to the United States, but it’s certainly not a matter of whether you come from the left or from the right."
Rice then urged nations such as Venezuela to meet their United Nations obligations by keeping terrorists out of their territories. In sounding the alarm, Rice was merely parroting her boss who had earlier remarked that Venezuela’s response to the recent border crisis in Colombia and Ecuador was "the latest step in a disturbing pattern of provocative behavior by the regime in Caracas." (In March, Chávez and Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, ordered troops to their Colombian borders and withdrew their ambassadors from Bogotá after Colombia killed a top rebel leader, Raúl Reyes, on Ecuadorean soil. During the raid, Colombia obtained computer hard drives that U.S. officials claim show the Venezuelan government may have had dealings with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which the U.S. labels a terrorist group). When she was asked whether the U.S. was considering designating Venezuela a state sponsor of terror, Rice declared: "We will watch the situation and act accordingly."
From Bio Fuels to Free Trade
In the fight for geopolitical influence, energy politics looms large: that’s why the issue of bio fuels was at the top of Rice’s agenda during her Brazilian trip. In recent years, Brazil has become an energy giant by producing ethanol, a fuel made from sugar cane, which is even more environmentally destructive than oil in certain respects. It’s all part of Lula’s bid to rival Chávez, who has used oil for diplomatic and political advantage in the region.
In Brasilia, Rice discussed progress on an initiative launched by Bush last year to develop ethanol industries. At a press conference, she surprised the audience by seemingly becoming a born again environmentalist. Putting bio fuels on the map, she remarked, was "a way to deal with the terrible problems that we face in energy supply and climate change."
Brazil would like to become a more important political player on the world stage, and Rice was careful to bring up the issue of United Nations Security Council reform. The South American giant has long hoped to obtain a permanent seat, and the Secretary of State offered the carrot of possible U.S. backing for the move.
In Chile, Rice sought to revive a long-standing, but largely dormant, strategic partnership between Chile and the U.S. state of California. State Department officials argue that both have complimentary economies; spokesman Sean McCormack said that a centerpiece of Rice’s visit was a proposed educational exchange program. For Rice it was important to visit Chile, a country with which the United States has a free trade agreement: the Bush White House hopes the accord will serve as a model for other free trade initiatives in the region, including a pending deal with Colombia.
Snubbing Argentina by Refusing To Set Foot in the Country
What is truly startling to consider is that Rice altogether skipped Argentina during her tour. That’s a monumental diplomatic snub of a major country within the region. What’s it all about?
Relations between the United States and Argentina have been plummeting ever since Bush’s first term. Argentina still blames the American-controlled International Monetary Fund for its financial collapse in late 2001 (Argentina was forced to default on billions of dollars in debt to the IMF).
In 2003 incoming President Néstor Kirchner played on anti-American sentiment as a means of consolidating leftist constituencies, while simultaneously becoming a key Chávez ally. When I was in Buenos Aires researching my book, I was truly amazed at the extent of the growing Venezuelan-Argentine alliance. The two nations now barter and trade everything from cattle, to oil, to agricultural products and ships.
In 2005, things got worse when, right in front of Bush, Kirchner criticized the neo-liberal policies of the 1990s that the United States sponsored. Kirchner delivered his riposte at a meeting of Latin American leaders in Mar del Plata. The Argentine president did little to stop anti-American protests, leading Bush to leave the summit feeling totally humiliated. In an effort to avoid further embarrassment, Bush avoided Argentina altogether during his South America tour last year, preferring instead to pay his respects to Brazil and Uruguay.
The White House hoped that things might turn around with last year’s election of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the former president’s wife. But then relations took a further nose dive when American prosecutors in Miami named four Venezuelans and one Uruguayan in connection with a plot to cover up $800,000 found in a suitcase at a Buenos Aires airport allegedly meant as a secret campaign contribution from Venezuela’s government to Kirchner. The new Argentine president lashed out at the U.S., calling the investigation "garbage operations." Kirchner argued that the investigation was politically motivated and designed to drive a wedge between Argentina and Venezuela.
In retaliation, Kirchner restricted the diplomatic access of the American ambassador in Argentina, Anthony Wayne. Rubbing Bush’s face in the mud yet further, Kirchner has cultivated even greater ties to Chávez: the Argentine leader has continued to sell more consumer products to Venezuela as well as some $4 billion in Argentine bonds to help refinance the country’s debt. What’s more, energy-strapped Argentina will be the proud recipient of more than 10 million barrels of Venezuelan fuel oil and diesel per year.
What’s behind Argentina’s geopolitical maneuvers and what do the Kirchners want from Venezuela? Argentina seems to be playing a rather Byzantine game in an effort to offset Brazil’s big footprint in the Southern Cone. The Brazilians have always seen Mercosur and the Southern Cone as their backyard which offends Argentina’s sense of national pride. When Néstor Kirchner and now Cristina further ties to Venezuela, it’s a way of poking the eye of their northern neighbor.
To an extent, the growing rapprochement is also based on shared ideological affinity. Indeed, Néstor Kirchner once stressed that Mercosur needed to transcend its mere emphasis on economic growth. "We are not interested only in economic integration," he remarked. "We are not interested in a region of the world where integration is full of poverty, exclusion and unemployment."
Chávez to Brazilian Senate: "You’re Parrots"
For Chávez, the advantages of Argentine friendship are eminently clear. By securing important support from his ally to the south, Chávez makes it easier for Venezuela to join Mercosur and hopefully overcome Brazilian skittishness. That support has become more and more critical as Venezuela’s bid to join Mercosur has been held up and stalled. Though Argentina and Uruguay have ratified Venezuela’s bid, Paraguay and Brazil have still not agreed.
In Brazil, the biggest thorn in Chávez’s side has been the Senate, which was outraged by Venezuela’s refusal to renew Radio Caracas Televisión’s broadcast license; the station was a hotbed of opposition sentiment. Characteristically, Chávez flew off the handle and accused the Brazilian Senate of being subservient to the United States. In a move which hardly ingratiated himself amongst the Brazilian elite, Chávez said that the Senators were "puppets of the (U.S.) empire" and "oligarchs" more interested "in their pockets than the people." Memorably, the Venezuelan leader said that the Senate was a "parrot that just mimics Washington." Meanwhile, a Venezuelan negotiator remarked that the United States did not want "the strong bloc of the present Mercosur plus Venezuela leading the way to South American unity."
Chávez’s outburst led the leader of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party in the Senate, Arthur Virgílio, to declare that his colleagues would try to prevent Venezuela’s entry into Mercosur. Both the Social Democracy Party and the Democrat Party declared that Venezuela could not be admitted to Mercosur because it was "a country that cannot respect disagreement in a civil fashion." President Lula himself told Venezuela to mind its own business. In anger, Chávez issued an ultimatum, saying that Venezuela would withdraw its application to join Mercosur unless its bid was approved within three months. "We won’t wait any longer than that. The Brazilian and Paraguayan Congresses have no reason not to approve our entry: no political, legal, economic or moral reasons," Chávez said. Incensed, Brazilian government officials retorted that they would not accept deadlines from anyone.
Contours of Further Integration Unclear
Despite such incendiary tit-for-tats, some experts believe that integration will eventually occur, even though it may take 30 or 40 years to complete the process. While in São Paulo researching my book I caught up with Valter Pomar, Secretary of International Relations with Brazil’s Workers’ Party. Regional integration, he said, would have a significant geopolitical impact because it "would take place within the context of a rising left movement. That is important, because the European Union was pushed for and created under conservative governments."
Perhaps, but what will be the precise contours of economic and political integration? For the time being, the future is still plenty murky. Even if Venezuela becomes a member of Mercosur, the trade bloc faces daunting economic and political pressures which are far too complicated and arcane to even enumerate here. With Mercosur, and implicitly the South American Community of Nations future in some doubt, Chávez has turned his attention elsewhere.
By far the most enlightened and socially progressive initiative guiding South American integration today, Venezuela’s ALBA is designed to serve as a counterweight to free trade blocs. In particular, growing integration between Venezuela, Cuba, and Bolivia has led to important developments in health care which have benefited millions. On the other hand, ALBA has had little effect on the overall volume of trade between member nations. It’s difficult to see how particular South American nations, for example Brazil or Chile, would ever accept ALBA as a viable economic model. Meanwhile, Chávez’s plans to transform ALBA into some kind of a military alliance have foundered and gone nowhere as I have previously explained (see "`We Will Respond Jointly,’ Hugo Chávez’s Anti-Imperialist Army," February 16/17, 2008).
Such lack of political clarity has given the White House a slight opening. Though the Bush administration is reviled throughout the region and Washington cannot hope to turn back the rising pink tide of progressive regimes, Rice believes she can mitigate Venezuelan influence by cutting bilateral energy and trade deals with individual South American countries. As long as Brazil and Venezuela play out their big power rivalry, smaller countries may choose to either wait on the sidelines or secure advantages from either Lula or Chávez based on their particular needs at any given time.
Despite his constant rhetorical outbursts directed at the likes of parrots within the Brazilian Senate, Chávez has expressed regret at the lack of overall diplomatic progress. If they are ever to achieve meaningful integration, the big powers of Venezuela, Argentina, and Brazil must find a way to resolve their differences. Up to now, all three have been engaged in a precarious geopolitical dance, an irony not lost on Chávez himself. Recently the Venezuelan leader remarked, "Neither Venezuela alone, nor Brazil alone, nor Argentina alone can become a world power. We can only achieve that together."
For earlier articles, click here.