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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.
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?"
To read my article on the Peruvian presidential election, click here.