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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.
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.
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.
WikiLeaks: The U.S. Must “Neutralize, Co-opt or Marginalize” Radical Latin American Bloc in Climate Negotiations
As activists launch protests at the Cancún climate summit in Mexico, could negotiators be engaged in cynical backroom deals? In light of recent WikiLeaks disclosures, such an eventuality seems more than likely. Indeed, U.S. diplomatic cables show that the Americans have been trying to strong arm other countries in order to get their way at international summits. The cables, which go back to last year's Copenhagen summit, show the U.S. as a manipulative and opportunistic power seeking to water down important environmental agreements.
Judging from documents, the WikiLeaks scandal could well turn into the Climate Gate scandal. When reporting to his colleagues, U.S. Chargé d'Affaires in La Paz John Creamer described Bolivian President Evo Morales' climate justice activism in the most unflattering light. An impoverished Andean nation, Bolivia is poorly equipped to deal with the ravages of climate change and has been a leading critic of the United States and the Global North at international summits like Copenhagen.
In a report, Creamer remarked that Morales "seemed to revel" in his opposition to the Copenhagen summit, which was dominated by the United States and other large powers. The Bolivian, the diplomat continued, made "extraordinary demands" like reparations and aid, thus alienating conference organizers and most delegations. The Danes became "fed up" with Morales and the pesky left-leaning ALBA bloc of countries from Latin America, which kept on mounting "propaganda arguments" against the Copenhagen accord [following the environmental debacle in Denmark, Morales invited international activists to Bolivia for a counter climate summit in Cochabamba].
Blackening Morales' Image
One would expect U.S. diplomats to be critical of Morales in their reporting, but in going over the WikiLeaks cables I've been struck by the remarkably supercilious tone and vindictive accusations hurled at the Bolivian leader. At this point, it's difficult to establish the exact veracity of all the many claims, and diplomatic historians will no doubt look into the charges in more depth in future. Perhaps American diplomats genuinely had high placed intelligence on Morales upon which to base their reports, or maybe they simply wanted to satisfy their superiors in Washington with wishful propaganda.
Not surprisingly, Creamer's own political bias doesn't differ much from that of his colleagues. In a report dating to early 2010, he acknowledges that Bolivia "is already suffering real damage from the effects of global warming." Yet, the diplomat continues sarcastically, Morales is immature as he "seems to prefer to score rhetorical points rather than contribute to a solution." Morales, the diplomat implies, is like a four-year old child for opposing the Copenhagen accord. "Our assessment," Creamer states, "is that Bolivia remains beyond reach on Copenhagen, at least until Morales sees the limits of his approach."
Creamer writes that Morales' activism made him a hero in the eyes of anti-globalization activists, while at the same time alienating neighboring South American nations [Creamer doesn't name the countries, but presumably he is referring to Brazil]. Ascribing cynical motives to Morales, Creamer remarks that the Bolivian leader "views climate change as a vehicle for raising his and Bolivia's international political stature." Creamer cites one senator from Morales' political party who believed that the Bolivian president saw
"environmental issues as one area where he can carve out an international identity independent from that of his close ally, President Hugo Chávez. She recounted to us that an animated Morales told her he was surrounded by well-wishers in Copenhagen urging him 'not to abandon them,' while Chávez was alone in the corner."
Creamer then calls out Morales for environmental hypocrisy, remarking that "many Bolivians" are eager to point out that "Morales's climate change campaign is about enhancing his global stature, not about the environment." Creamer goes on to quote a former Morales cabinet official who says "there is a huge gap between Morales' strident, pro-environmental rhetoric in international fora and his domestic emphasis on industrialization as they key to development. The foundation of this effort is large-scale natural gas, iron, and lithium production projects, enterprises that have historically proven extremely damaging to the environment." Creamer then points out that the Inter-American Development Bank had recently presented the Bolivians with a report detailing serious potential environmental hazards associated with extracting lithium.
Brazil's Environmental Duplicity
To be sure, Creamer makes a number of valid environmental points but needless to say it was the United States, and not Bolivia, which exacerbated climate change over the years. Not only does Creamer's report illuminate U.S. hypocrisy, however, but also that of the other big powers. In La Paz, Chinese diplomats prodded Bolivia, urging Morales to support the Copenhagen accord. However, such efforts were rapidly demonstrated to be "pointless" and the Chinese concluded that Brazil would have to convince Bolivia and the other ALBA nations to come round.
I have always suspected that, behind the scenes, Brazil has played a negative environmental role in the region. In midtown Manhattan, Brazil employs a fancy PR firm to extol the country's green credentials and send out e-mails about Brasilia's progressive programs. At one point, I even got the opportunity to interview Izabella Teixeira, Brazil's Environment Minister. I asked her to clarify Brazil's precise negotiating role at international summits, to which she would respond, time and again, that Brazil was an equal opportunity and good faith player, consulting with Third World nations within the G-77 group, for example.
Perhaps what she really meant to say was that Brazil sought to strong arm Bolivia into coming into line and playing a zero sum game. According to Creamer and WikiLeaks, "Bolivia refused to adopt Brazil's position on Copenhagen," but Brasilia's Foreign Affairs Ministry or Itamaraty would "continue to press Bolivia... hoping that Bolivia's isolation on this issue will eventually bring it around."
U.S. and Europe vs. BASIC and ALBA
For anyone interested in learning how strong arming occurs in advance of climate change confabs, U.S. diplomatic cables make for obligatory reading. In February, 2010, Deputy National Security Adviser for International Economic Affairs Michael Froman met with EU officials in Brussels. The aim of the discussions was to "push back against coordinated opposition of BASIC countries (China, India, Brazil, South Africa) to our international positions." Though the BASIC group had widely differing interests, U.S. diplomats observed, the bloc was "surprisingly united" and would "take turns" playing the U.S. and EU off against each other.
"The U.S. and EU need to learn from this coordination," Froman believed, "and work
much more closely and effectively together ourselves, to better handle third country obstructionism and avoid future trainwrecks on climate." In advance of Cancún, the Europeans and Americans hoped to get BASIC and the G-77 on their side and to "be in close touch with Mexico" which would be chairing the meeting. In one damning passage of the report, it is mentioned that "Froman agreed that we will need to neutralize, co-opt or marginalize" the more radical Latin American bloc including Nicaragua, Cuba, Ecuador and others.
What is ironic about these cables is that the U.S. wants to undermine not just ALBA but also BASIC. Yet, BASIC and Brazil are hardly what we might call a progressive bloc of countries. Indeed, it was BASIC itself which helped to draft the inadequate Copenhagen Accord with the U.S. at the eleventh hour. Clearly, however, the U.S. doesn't even want to put up with BASIC, most likely because the bloc wants the Americans and Europeans to assume most of the responsibility for solving our climate crisis.
Cancún Strategy: No Friendly Overture toward Brazil
If these cables are any indication, Cancún could wind up being a zero sum game with the EU and U.S. seeking to oppose BASIC and all three groups hoping to circumvent the more radical proposals advocated by Bolivia, ALBA, and the small island nations. It all makes for a rather pessimistic scenario, yet perhaps the WikiLeaks documents will shame and embarrass the big powers into making some concessions.
In an earlier online column, I suggested that activists might consider making a friendly overture toward Brazil in the hope that the South American juggernaut might cease its counter-productive negotiations within the BASIC group which is fast becoming a chief obstacle to enacting progressive climate change legislation. I reasoned that Brazil, more than other countries in the bloc, would be more likely to take the side of ALBA and small island nations in international climate negotiations. In the first round of Brazil's presidential election, Green Party candidate Marina Silva garnered 19% of the vote, suggesting that environmental consciousness is on the rise in the South American nation.
WikiLeaks documents, however, reveal Brazil's true colors behind closed doors. In light of the disclosures, it doesn't seem to make much sense for activists to conduct any "friendly overtures." At this point, there's got to be a concerted campaign on Brazil designed to humiliate and embarrass the Lula government so that we can see some movement at Cancún. ALBA and the small island nation group do not constitute a formidable geopolitical bloc, and so activists will have to up the ante and exert more pressure on Brazil in the hope of creating a countervailing force to the U.S. and EU.
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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