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WikiLeaks: U.S. and Brazil Vie for Power in Peru

In their correspondence with the State Department, U.S. diplomats in South America have been exceptionally paranoid about the activities of Hugo Chávez and the possibility of a leftist regional alignment centered upon Venezuela.  That, at least, is the unmistakable impression that one is left with by reading U.S. cables recently disclosed by whistle-blowing outfit WikiLeaks, and it's a topic about which I have written widely in recent months.  Yet, with President Hugo Chávez's health now fading fast and Venezuela looking like a rather spent force politically, it would seem natural that Washington will eventually turn its sights upon other rising powers --- countries like Brazil, for instance.

 

Judging from WikiLeaks cables, the U.S. doesn't have much to fear from this South American juggernaut in an ideological sense, and indeed leftist diplomats within Brazil's Ministry of Foreign Affairs are regarded as outmoded and anachronistic relics of the past.  Nevertheless, Brazil is a rising player in the region and U.S. diplomats are keenly aware of this fact.  For the time being, Brazil and the United States maintain a cordial, if not exactly stellar diplomatic relationship.  As Venezuela fades and Washington struggles to maintain its crumbling hegemony in the wider region, however, Brazil and the U.S. will inevitably develop rivalries.

 

This geopolitical competition has fallen somewhat under the radar, but a close reading of WikiLeaks cables lays bare Washington's secret agenda.  As far back as 2005 American ambassador to Lima Curtis Struble wrote that the U.S. was enmeshed in an "undeclared contest" with Brazil for political influence in Peru.  "We are winning on most issues that count," Struble added, remarking that negotiations over a U.S.-Peru free trade deal had remained positive.   However, the ambassador noted ominously, "the government of Brazil is still very much in the game" and had met with some success in pushing for the so-called South American Community of Nations or UNASUR which would diminish U.S. influence.

 

Run-Up to 2006 Election

 

Further cables indicate that the Brazilian administration of Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva pursued narrow-minded self interest in order to advance Machiavellian geopolitical and economic goals.  In the run-up to the Peruvian presidential election in 2006, Brazilian foreign policy advisor Marco Aurelio García visited Peru where he met with members of the Alejandro Toledo administration.  During his discussions, García sought to spearhead moves to establish the South American Community of Nations in the face of internal difficulties. 

 

Chief amongst those "difficulties" was none other than Hugo Chávez, a regional rival.  In order for the South American Community of Nations to progress, its two constituent parts, namely trading blocs Mercosur and Andean Community, would have to be "stabilized."  According to García, however, the Andean Community was in "crisis" due to Chávez's "antics."  Speaking to the Peruvians, García recommended that the Toledo government simply "ignore his [Chávez's] diatribes" [privately, the Brazilian added, Lula had helped to "rein in" the Venezuelan leader]. 

Meanwhile, García opposed Chávez's so-called Bank of the South, an institution designed to counter large financial entities like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.  According to a WikiLeaks cable, the Peruvians agreed that Bank of the South would not be suitable for the new South American Community of Nations.  Like García, Toledo officials saw the more conservative Andean Development Fund as a more appropriate mechanism to enhance regional integration.

 

Handling Humala

 

García also met with nationalist presidential candidate Ollanta Humala, a kind of Chávez protégé.  During the campaign, the Venezuelan leader had provocatively backed Humala while attacking the candidate's chief opponents.  At campaign events, Humala had taken a leaf from his political mentor by sporting red T-shirts, calling himself "comandante" and boasting of plans to assert greater state control over energy resources.   

 

None too pleased by Humala's tilt toward Venezuela, García reportedly told the candidate that Brazil disapproved of Chávez's actions which promoted "intranquility" in the region.  Moreover, the diplomat remarked that he did not agree with Chávez's notion of countries belonging to different "axes" of powers.  García added that he was very concerned about social, political and economic tensions in the Andean region and Brazil was intent on playing a larger stabilizing role.

 

The meeting took place at Humala's own house and the candidate's wife, Nadine Heredia, took great pains to graciously entertain the Brazilians [perhaps Heredia wanted to reassure her guests in light of her own reported links to Venezuela].  Humala meanwhile "was very polite, upright and not at all a firebrand."  The candidate added that he wanted Peru to peacefully co-exist with both the U.S. and Brazil. 

 

A More Assertive Brazil

 

In the event, Humala must have surely regretted his political associations with Chávez.  During the campaign, the Peruvian was widely criticized for his ties to Venezuela, and the connection may have even cost him the election.  The man who edged out Humala, former president Alan García, had a previous incarnation as a fiery nationalist.  However, García was extremely critical of Chávez during the campaign and as he succeeded to the presidency the veteran politician went out of his way to court Brazil.

 

According to WikiLeaks cables, Brazil viewed the election as a necessary corrective which would help to restore "regional equilibrium" and to curb Chávez's increased geopolitical profile.  In the wake of the contest, Lula met personally with García in Brasilia in what insiders termed a "love-fest."  Though both leaders had political origins on the left, García and Lula had long since jettisoned such ideals in pursuit of their respective careers. 

 

Perhaps, Lula sensed that Chávez's star had waned and that it was now time for Brazil to press its own strategic advantage.  The Brazilian president stressed the need for greater physical integration between Peru and Brazil, including the dreaded Inter-Oceanic Highway which stood to exacerbate deforestation in the Amazon (for more on this, see my book No Rain in the Amazon: How South America's Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet).  The project, which is being carried out by Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht, will ship Brazilian exports to China via Peruvian ports.

 

Lula also spoke of the need for a regional, military, and political alliance between Peru and Brazil.  Lest García get the wrong idea about Brazilian intentions, Lula stressed that his country did not seek regional "hegemony" but merely wanted to transform South America into "a global actor on a par with China and India."  Responding to Lula, García candidly admitted that he preferred Brazilian regional hegemony to that of the United States.  Peru, the new president added, would surely be interested in forming joint ventures with Brazil and benefiting from Brazilian technological know-how.         

 

Judging from other cables, García sought to extend cooperation in yet other areas.  In 2009, U.S. diplomats reported that Lima was interested in purchasing a dozen Super Tucano combat support aircraft manufactured by Brazilian aerospace giant Embraer.  Details of the deal were discussed during a Lula visit to Lima, "with a large commercial delegation in tow."  The Peruvians may have been prompted to turn to Brazil out of pure frustration with the United States.  According to leaked documents, the García government was dissatisfied with the "slow and complicated U.S. defense procurement process and high price tags for U.S. equipment." 

 

Humala Act II

 

Perhaps recognizing that Chávez's star was on the wane, Humala saw fit to remake himself politically by cultivating greater ties to Brazil.  Reporting on Peru's recent presidential election, the New York Times remarked, "in a transformation this year that points to the eclipse of Venezuela by Brazil, Mr. Humala has swapped the red shirts for dark suits, explicitly rejected talk of seizing private companies and celebrated Brazil's market-oriented economic model, while distancing himself from Venezuela's president, Hugo Chávez."  In addition, Humala even hired campaign advisers tied to Lula's Workers' Party and paid a whopping four visits to Brazil.      

 

Then, Humala went out of his way to praise Brazilian companies invested in Peru's mines, steel industry and hydroelectric projects, adding that the new boondoggle Interoceanic Highway connecting western Brazil to Peru's Pacific coast was a landmark achievement.   Toning down the rhetoric, Humala started to refer to himself simply as Ollanta instead of "comandante."  Perhaps, the more moderate image helped Humala, who edged out conservative challenger Keiko Fujimori.  As soon as he was elected president, Humala flew to Brazil and met with Lula protégé Dilma Rousseff.  It was Humala's first official trip abroad in his new office and sent a clear sign of Peru's geopolitical priorities moving forward. 

 

Vying for Power in Peru

 

Though Humala continues to forge a partnership with the United States, Brazil could overtake Washington in the Andes.  To be sure, Peru has an important free trade agreement with the U.S. and both countries collaborate on combating drug trafficking.  However, Humala sees Peru as a crucial Pacific gateway and strategic link between the two mammoth economies of Brazil and China.  For years, Brazil and Peru ignored each other diplomatically but now trade has mushroomed into the billions of dollars. 

 

A voracious energy consumer, Brazil is keen on building hydroelectric projects in Peru which would allow the South American juggernaut to stop importing diesel fuel and produce electrical power instead.  A proposed 600 mile natural gas pipeline meanwhile is due to connect Peru's Camisea field with a petrochemical plant proposed by Odebrecht.  Additional firms are operating port concessions and even steel operations.  The owner of Brazilian company Gerdau, which acquired Peru's largest steel plant, is a friend to both Lula and Rousseff.  What is more, an additional Brazilian operation has purchased Peru's largest metal refinery, Cajarmarquilla, which produces indium, a material used to manufacture flat-screen televisions and computer monitors. 

 

In time, might Peruvian nationalists turn against Brazil?  The more Brazil inserts its tentacles into the Andean region, the greater the risk that the South American giant will ruffle feathers and local sensibilities.  Already, one hydro-electric project has led to major opposition and some fear that Humala might favor the Brazilians excessively as 80 percent of the operation's 2,000 megawatt output would be allocated to its giant South American neighbor. 

 

Moreover, Brazil hardly has a sterling record when it comes to hydro-electric power (for more on this, recall the controversy swirling around Hollywood director James Cameron), and one proposed Peruvian dam on the Inambari River would flood 158 square miles of rain forest, displacing some 7,000 people in the process.  Old foreign policy hand Marco Aurelio García, who now serves as Rousseff's top foreign policy adviser, and who had earlier warned Humala about cozying up too much to Chávez, has declared that the project is "very important" for Brazil.  Humala meanwhile says that locals' needs will be respected when it comes to deciding whether to move ahead with the project.  That is, for the time being.

 

Christ Statue of Lima

 

Overlooking the Pacific cliffs of Lima hangs a potent symbol of Brazil's rise on the world stage: a towering statue of Jesus which at first glance looks remarkably similar to Rio de Janeiro's Christ the Redeemer, a famous icon lying on the Atlantic side of the continent.  The statue, which rises 118 feet into the air, was sculpted in Brazil at a cost of $1 million and the cost was footed almost entirely by Brazilian construction conglomerate Odebrecht. 

 

The "Christ of the Pacific" statue was erected even before Humala came into power by outgoing president Alan García, and there was no public consultation surrounding its construction.  For Lima Mayor Susana Villarán, the donated Christ statute is a tasteless eyesore, while Humala has diplomatically remarked that the structure "would improve the Lima panorama."  Odebrecht told the Associated Press defensively that it funded the statue because it "contributes to the diffusion of artistic expression" wherever it does business and because the statue could promote tourism for the poor who live in the vicinity.

 

In a tweet, Peruvian playwright César de María exclaimed, "I have nightmares in which I see that Peru's president is Odebrecht and all we do every five years is elect its representative."  Speaking to Caretas magazine, outgoing Brazilian ambassador to Peru Jorge Taunay remarked "there is not the least risk of Peru becoming a satellite.  It's not in Brazil's nature."  Others, including Guillermo Vásquez, a retired professor at Peru's Center for Advanced National Studies, is alarmed by Brazil's presence but is resigned to his country's fate.  "Brazil is coming," he told the Associated Press.  "What are we going to do about it?"

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Message to South American Left Bloc: Don’t Trust Brazil

As the WikiLeaks scandal drags on, a portrait is emerging of Brazil, and suffice it to say it is not too flattering. A rising power with global aspirations, Brazil has a lot more political and economic muscle than, say Venezuela or Bolivia. Yet, time and again the Lula administration takes a very meek approach toward the United States or, even worse, goes along with Washington's geopolitical machinations.


In previous articles, I discussed the Machiavellian scheming of Brazilian Defense Minister Nelson Jobim, who has sought to thwart the Ministry of Foreign Relations, also known as Itamaraty, in an effort to redirect foreign policy toward the United States. After reviewing those documents, I expected upcoming caches to paint a more progressive picture of Itamaraty's dealings. However, recently released cables certainly don't paint Brazilian diplomats as a particularly principled bunch either.
 
Though American diplomats under Obama fret that "U.S.-Brazil cooperation is often limited by Brazil's unwillingness to speak out against anti-democratic actions in the hemisphere (Venezuela and Cuba)," nonetheless they note that "military-to-military relations are good and growing, and most of the Brazilian military understands the potential benefits of partnership with the United States." Meanwhile, "cooperation on law enforcement issues, such as counternarcotics, container security, and intelligence sharing, is excellent and improving." Diplomats noted other areas of mutual interest including climate change and bio-fuels, neither of which bodes well for the environment [for more on this see my online articles regarding Brazilian obstructionism at the Copenhagen climate summit and its backroom deals with the United States].


Key in solidifying the diplomatic relationship with the U.S. is Minister Jobim, a political figure wielding considerable influence within the Lula administration. During a meeting with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela in late 2009, a "friendly and engaged" Jobim said that Brazil had no problem with the United States signing a defense agreement with Colombia. In another separate meeting with U.S. National Security Adviser James Jones, Jobim "stressed the importance of regional stability for Brazil, but cautioned that Brazil resists being labeled the regional leader because they do not see it as helpful in resolving problems."


One reason that Jobim may have been reluctant to challenge the U.S. within the Andean region has to do with weapons purchases and the expanding role of the military in Brazilian society. During his meeting with Valenzuela, Jobim expressed interest in purchasing Global Super Hornet F18 fighter planes from Boeing. Though many Brazilians have an unpleasant view of the armed forces as a result of the repressive military dictatorship of 1964-1985, Lula has recently moved the defense industry center stage. In tandem with such desires, "Jobim highlighted the fact that Brazil's new National Defense Strategy was crafted to ensure the defense sector would be an 'enabler of development.'"


García, Amorim and Rousseff: A Machiavellian Bunch


Brazilian diplomats are less partial to the U.S. agenda than Jobim, though they clearly don't want to rock the boat too much. In conversations with Valenzuela, Presidential Foreign Policy Advisor Marco Aurelio García characterized Hugo Chávez as a politician who "has no sense of proportion." García however did suggest that Valenzuela head to Caracas in an effort to improve U.S.-Venezuelan relations. In response, Valenzuela was non-committal, noting that it was "difficult to ignore both the provocative statements by Chávez and his authoritarian tendencies." If García pressed Valenzuela any further on the matter, a cable released by Wikileaks makes no mention. As the conversation continued, García sought to reassure the visiting U.S. diplomat that Brazil was a "responsible" partner and dished on other leftist nations in South America. For example, García "described Ecuador's and Bolivia's political systems as 'rotten'; and called the future of Argentina 'a big question mark,' depending on whether the Kirchners recover or not." In the separate meeting with Jones, García stated that Brazil supported a U.S. free trade deal with Colombia. In a revealing aside, Lula Chief of Staff Dilma Rousseff, who succeeds to the presidency of Brazil shortly, remarked that it was "disconcerting" to be confronted with questions from the press regarding United States bases in Colombia. "According to Rousseff," one cable notes, "issues such as this open the door for radicals who want to create problems in the region."

 

Speaking with Jones, the conversation then turned to the matter of the coup in Honduras. Though García supported the return of ousted leader and Chávez protégé Manuel Zelaya, the Brazilian was quick to add that Zelaya should be of little concern to Washington as he was "not a dangerous revolutionary." There was no need to worry, García added, noting that returning Zelaya to power "will not lead to significant changes." At that point, Foreign Minister Celso Amorim chimed in, proudly announcing that even though Chávez had wanted to make Zelaya into a martyr, Brazil had at long last convinced the Venezuelan leader that "only the United States can influence what happens in Honduras" and needed to be consulted. Hoping to mollify U.S. diplomats on Iran, Amorim characterized Brazil's ties to the Islamic Republic as "not deep, but pragmatic" and dominated by commercial concerns. He said the nature of the alliance should not be "overvalued" as the two nations "were not buddies." Echoing Amorim, García added that Brazil's engagement with the Islamic Republic was merely "a bet" which might not work. García described Lula's reception of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as "not warm."
 
What Does Brazil Stand For?

 

Reading the WikiLeaks cables, it is clear that Brazilian officials are exceedingly fixated on their image and on demonstrating to the United States that their country is a responsible player which stands for political stability, i.e. not leftist radicalization or populist rule. Though Lula pursued a quirky foreign policy at times, Rousseff's aside suggests she may opt for moderation rather than adventurism when crafting her own foreign policy over the next couple of years. For Venezuela and Bolivia, the not so subtle message from the WikiLeaks scandal is clear: while Brazil will not destabilize neighboring countries, neither can it be trusted.

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