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For some time, I have been writing about revelations stemming from correspondence between the State Department in Washington and various U.S. embassies based around Latin America. Leaked WikiLeaks documents have revealed growing U.S. concern over the left tide in the wider region and crucial strategies to derail progressive change. More surprisingly, perhaps, the cables also hint at key fissures within the South American left --- tensions which the U.S. has been all too willing to exploit.
Divide and rule tactics may work to a degree with Ecuador, Venezuela or Bolivia, but the U.S. will have a tougher time managing Brazil. Indeed, what struck me most as I poured through the documents was the marked difference in tone between U.S. embassy cables emanating from Quito, La Paz and Caracas on the one hand, and Brasilia on the other.
It's clear from just a superficial read that American diplomats are much more cautious and level-headed with the Brazilians than elsewhere in the Andes, where U.S. officials tend to be much more direct and confrontational. For Washington, Brazil promises to be the chief geopolitical worry in the decades to come, not Venezuela.
An exporting dynamo and powerhouse with a growing middle class, Brazil is using its newfound economic clout to venture into world politics like never before. Unlike the Andean region, which has been plagued by chronic volatility, Brazil's political institutions look relatively stable. Provided that Brazil's economic fortunes continue to soar, the South American juggernaut will surely be a force to be reckoned with in future.
Behind Mercosur's Façade
Speaking with the Americans, leading members of the Brazilian political establishment remarked that their country should serve as "the natural leader of Latin America, or at least of South America." Leading, however, is obviously a very different concept from standing shoulder to shoulder with smaller nations, and for those who view South America as essentially marching relentlessly toward regional integration along leftist lines, WikiLeaks cables can serve as quite a corrective. Indeed, Brazilian conservatives were reportedly very unhappy with their government's "overly acquiescent approach to Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela."
As one reads the cables, a more complex and nuanced picture emerges of Brazil, a country torn by many conflicting impulses and agendas. To be sure, Brazil is a member of trading bloc Mercosur which has helped to politically align sympathetic leftist regimes in South America. Yet, if the diplomatic cables can be believed, many influential Brazilians view Mercosur with a healthy degree of skepticism and during the era of former president Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva, "most parts" of the Brazilian government were opposed to the trade bloc, seeing little benefit to their country from such integration.
Lula, who himself came up from the ranks of organized labor, favored Mercosur but recalcitrant elements including the Ministries of Finance and Development saw matters differently. Chafing under Mercosur's yoke, these technocrats complained that Brazil provided too much money toward the trade bloc's infrastructure fund, while other countries donated much less. In particular, the influential industrial lobby complained that Mercosur was "selling out" commercial interests for the mere sake of preserving the trade bloc's unity. Like the U.S., then, where Republicans routinely complain about multilateralism, the United Nations and doling out foreign aid to needy countries, Brazilian officials too "complained that underdeveloped areas in Brazil's northeast will get short shrift compared to needy areas" elsewhere in South America.
As Brazil starts to accrue more power, the country may run into an image problem. Like the U.S., which has been criticized for its sorry environmental record on climate change, Brazil too could find itself politically isolated from its more radical neighbors. According to one WikiLeaks cable, environmental subjects within Mercosur are "very messy" with "no cooperation of note." Reportedly, Argentine officials believed that Brazil was "focused on its position as a major player with China and India, not as part of Latin America, while Venezuela, Ecuador, Cuba, and Bolivia form a separate block with their own interests."
The Cocaine Connection
Brazilian skittishness was also evident toward its radical neighbor Bolivia. Publicly, Lula and the Brazilian left proclaimed their solidarity with Chávez protégé Evo Morales, a radical indigenous coca grower. But cables reveal Brazilian concern over political stability and the drug trade. As early as 2004, prior to Morales' election as president, the Brazilians viewed instability in Bolivia with "grave concern," including the "disturbing convergence of an energized indigenous movement with the drug problem."
In some ways, then, the Brazilian relationship to Bolivia echoes U.S. ties to Mexico, a country which has also been convulsed by the drug trade. For years, high level officials at Lula's GSI or Institutional Security Cabinet had viewed Brazil as essentially a corridor country for outbound narcotics to other nations, but "the brutal reality of violent, drug-driven crime in Brazil's cities has shattered that outlook…and huge quantities of cocaine and other drugs appear in large and small Brazilian communities throughout the country."
The GSI, as well as the police were concerned "about the potential for increased cocaine flows into Brazil from Bolivia in the event of a Morales victory." "We are clearly the target," remarked one GSI official, "for the low-grade coca based narcotics produced in Bolivia, which are flooding Brazilian cities, with devastating social consequences." Feeling increasingly frustrated, the Brazilians had sought to convey their concerns to La Paz, via "indirect channels" and even through policy suggestions. When Brasilia suggested that its Andean neighbor should substitute alternative crops for coca leaf, however, Bolivia balked and "fell back on the traditional crop argument," thus "shutting down further discussion."
Brazil's Voracious Energy Needs
Like Mexico, which supplies oil to the U.S., Bolivia is an energy supplier to Brazil and provides natural gas. In 2005, the Brazilian Minister of Mines and Energy said his country was "worried" about the reliability of its natural gas supply emanating from Bolivia. If the gas supply decreased or prices skyrocketed, the official conceded, Brazil would "face a serious problem."
So concerned was Brazilian intelligence that high level officials developed contingency plans. At the GSI, analysts sought to evaluate what the likely impact of an energy shortfall might be. In the midst of Bolivia's presidential election season, Lula hoped that any new regime would "not allow radical new government policies or general instability to damage Brazilian energy industries." If need be, Lula would reportedly take the same tone with Bolivia that "a parent would take when firmly disciplining an errant child."
Brazil to Chávez: We Run Things Here
Publicly, Brazil has demonstrated solidarity with Hugo Chávez and his protégé in Bolivia, Evo Morales. However, WikiLeaks cables suggest that Brazil is ambivalent about the volatile Andean region and skeptical about Venezuelan leadership. In 2007, for example, Brazil was reportedly skittish about Chávez's moves to establish a so-called "Bank of the South" which would counteract the International Monetary Fund. Brazil already had its own development bank known as BNDES, and would "need to be convinced" of the efficacy of further institutions. In the effort to foster its own regional agenda, Brazil has promoted BNDES, which finances infrastructure development through the trans-Andean highway.
Whatever his own interest in BNDES, Lula was reportedly willing to go along with Bank of the South as long as Brazil was given a prominent place at the table. In a snub, however, Chávez reportedly went behind Lula's back and negotiated with Argentina, causing the Brazilians to become "absolutely livid." Perhaps, these types of developments made Brazil even more skeptical of Chávez and determined to assert its own independent leadership in the wider region.
Further cables underscore this subtle geopolitical shift. In August, 2009 Lula traveled to Bolivia's coca growing region of Chapare. There, the Brazilian met with Morales in a stadium "amid a festive atmosphere" of 10,000 cheering coca leaf growers. Publicly, the two praised each other but beneath the surface lurked tensions. Speaking to U.S. officials, Brazilian diplomats said they had grown quite frustrated with Bolivia on counter-narcotics and economic policy, adding that they wanted to "provide Morales with alternatives to the radical advice he is receiving from Venezuela and Cuba."
Are Brazilians the New Gringos?
It would be an overstatement to claim that Bolivia is a Brazilian satellite, but some WikiLeaks documents suggest that the small Andean nation could be quietly moving away from Venezuela in the hopes of gaining a new benefactor. As far back as 2008, Brazilian legislators claimed that Bolivia was "tired of the Bolivarian idea." According to Brazil's Chairman of the National Defense Committee and Senate Foreign Relations, the Bolivian ambassador in Brasilia "apologized…for some disagreements between presidents Lula and Morales a couple of years ago and agreed…that the two countries need to continue their tradition of friendly relations."
The WikiLeaks cache ends in early 2010, so we don't know much about the further ins and outs of this diplomatic game. What's clear though is that Brazil's footprint has only increased in its own "near abroad," leading to new political frictions. Today, the Bolivian left and indigenous peoples are probably just as prone to attack Brazilian imperialism as Washington's dictates. At issue once again is BNDES, an institution which is fast outstripping the World Bank. When BNDES announced it would support road construction through remote indigenous territory in Bolivia, the effort sparked protest from local Indians who accused Evo Morales of being a foreign lackey.
BNDES, which seeks to create strong Brazilian multinationals via below-market loans, could fall under greater criticism in the years ahead. With support from BNDES, companies like oil giant Petrobras, iron flagship Vale, and steel maker Gerdau have been conducting a big push into neighboring countries. The Brazilian wave however has been met with wariness and resistance from Paraguay to Guyana to Peru to Ecuador, where local residents have protested large boondoggle projects.
Big Power Rivalry in the Southern Cone?
As BNDES extends its influence, and Brazil ramps up diplomatic and political ties to Peru and even Colombia, Chávez's Venezuela has become eclipsed. Such developments have not escaped the attention of Argentina, Brazil's historic rival for dominance in the Southern Cone. If WikiLeaks cables are any indication, Buenos Aires has become increasingly alarmed by the unpredictable nature of Brazilian foreign policy, and even fears that its South American neighbor may be tempted to back up its interests through military means.
My interest was particularly piqued by one cable dated to 2009, in which Argentine nuclear non-proliferation officials complained to U.S. diplomats "about the direction of Brazilian security policy in the final years of the Lula Government." The Argentines were concerned about "yellow lights," such as Lula's outreach to Iran and North Korea. Moreover, Argentine officials were worried about "the pace of Brazilian military purchases," and had even pondered what Buenos Aires might do in the event that Brasilia chose to develop a nuclear weapon.
The Argentines were particularly looking forward to Brazil's presidential transition in 2011, because Lula's "unmatched popularity and his late-in-the-term detachment from political considerations had allowed him to become a risk-taker in foreign and defense policy." Any successor, the Argentines hoped, "would shy away from such controversial policies in his or her first years, perhaps retrenching on the Iran relationship and becoming more cooperative on new nuclear confidence-building instruments."
While it's true that Brazil has become somewhat less of a "risk-taker" under Lula's successor, Dilma Rousseff, the South American giant will certainly be a huge force to be reckoned with in the years to come. How Brazil's rise reconfigures South American politics, particularly in regard to Argentina, could be interesting to watch. What is most importantly reinforced from the WikiLeaks documents, however, is the notion that the U.S. may now face a real competitor in the region.
As more and more WikiLeaks cables get released, the Brazilian-U.S. diplomatic relationship has become increasingly illuminated. Though somewhat wary of each other, Washington and Brasilia sometimes saw eye to eye on matters of geopolitical importance. Take, for example, both countries' handling of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez. Under the helm of Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva, Brazil cultivated a strategic alliance with Venezuela and publicly the two nations embraced South America's "pink tide" to the left. Yet, WikiLeaks documents reveal that Brazil may have shared Washington's concern over Chávez's rising geopolitical importance, particularly in the Caribbean theater.
During the Bush years, American diplomats kept a close bead on Venezuela's growing partnerships in areas far afield. In Jamaica, for example, U.S. officials conducted a "sustained effort to dissuade" the authorities from supporting Chávez's bid for a seat on the United Nations Security Council. Concerned over Venezuela's rising star in the region, the Americans met with the Jamaican political opposition. Writing to her superiors in Washington, U.S. ambassador in Kingston Brenda Johnson expressed "concerns over the influence of Venezuelan money and energy supplies in Jamaica in the years ahead."
Monitoring Chávez in Jamaica
During a local cricket match, Bruce Golding of Jamaica's opposition Labour Party approached the ambassador to request a meeting. Asking that the U.S. hold the information in "strict confidence," Golding revealed that his party's concern over Chávez had "heightened in recent weeks." Confidentially, he continued, a "senior person in the government" had passed him "sensitive inside information," and "a number of persons within the government" were "frightened over the secrecy" concerning Jamaica's official dealings with Chávez.
Spinning a rather cloak and dagger narrative, Golding explained how senior officials from the ruling People's National Party (PNP) had recently flown to Caracas. Once in the Venezuelan capital, he claimed, they had been given one or two large packages and thereafter returned to Kingston. The opposition politician alleged that overall the Venezuelans had doled out $4-5 million to the PNP in Caracas in order to finance the electoral campaign of Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller. The very next week, the government magically claimed that it had managed to repay $475,000 to a Dutch-based oil trading firm called Trafigura.
Earlier, the company had made the "contribution" to the PNP, but when the matter came to public attention the news spiraled into a full blown campaign finance scandal. Speaking to the U.S. ambassador, Golding thought it was "logical" that part of the cash which Venezuela had given to the Jamaicans had been later used to pay back Trafigura. Going further, Golding claimed that just before the Trafigura "contribution," the PNP had experienced financial problems and even found it difficult to maintain its own facilities. Recently, however, there had been a "dramatic turnaround," and the party no longer found it necessary to solicit contributions from the private sector.
Because Jamaica already participated in Chávez's so-called Petrocaribe program, which provided liquefied natural gas to the Caribbean nation, Golding feared that "it would be easy to imagine a scenario in which Chávez offered to write off or defer a portion of these debts in return for government of Jamaica support of his positions in international fora." In drawing closer to Chávez, Golding continued, Jamaica was "getting mixed up with something from which it will be difficult to extricate ourselves." In conclusion, Golding thought that Chávez had become a "godfather with money." Jamaica, he said, was "being sucked into an agenda not of our own making. Chávez waves cash, we're mesmerized, and cave in to anything he wants."
While it's unclear whether Golding was speaking the truth, WikiLeaks cables suggest that the U.S. ambassador took the politician's points seriously enough. Reflecting a paranoid anti-Chávez mindset, Johnson told the Jamaican that he should "raise these concerns with U.S. government officials during [an] upcoming visit to Washington."
Grenada and St. Vincent and the Grenadines
Elsewhere in the Caribbean, U.S. diplomats carefully monitored Chávez influence. In St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the Americans sat up and took note when local politicians signed on to Venezuela's PetroCaribe accord. When Chávez sent liquefied petroleum gas to the government of Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves, the American Embassy in Bridgetown remarked that "the timing of the shipments, the first of which arrived just prior to St. Vincent's December 2005 general election, led to speculation that they were also intended to shore up the electoral prospects of the PM. Gonsalves is one of Venezuela President Hugo Chávez's most ardent supporters in the region."
Over in Grenada, meanwhile, the Americans noted that the authorities had signed on to the PetroCaribe deal and hoped to import diesel supplied by Venezuela's state oil company PdVSA. In light of the contentious history of U.S. military intervention in Grenada, Washington would have been interested in keeping Grenada out of Venezuela's orbit. It's not clear from the cables whether American diplomats pressured Grenada to cut its links to Venezuela, but other documents suggest that, overall, Washington had grown concerned about the Caribbean theater.
In 2008, for example, U.S. ambassador to Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean Mary Ourisman sat down with Ralph Gonsalves of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Speaking over breakfast at the U.S. Embassy in Bridgetown, Ourisman pressed Gonsalves on his country's recent participation in Chávez's Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (or ALBA) summit in Caracas. Somewhat defensively, "Gonsalves was quick to deny any military and intelligence agenda or component to ALBA, and appeared to generally want to disassociate himself from Chávez's ideologies. He was quick to thank the United States for its continued military and law enforcement assistance."
Gonsalves' soothing assurances notwithstanding, Ourisman was suspicious. "While the friendly nature of the meeting reflected the Embassy's generally good relations with St. Vincent and the Grenadines," she remarked, "Gonsalves was at his legalistic best, downplaying both Saint Vincent's and the Grenadines involvement in ALBA."
Brazil's Fears over Guyana
While it's not too surprising that Washington during the Bush years kept a careful eye on Chávez in the Caribbean, it's interesting to note that Brazil too had grown concerned. On the surface at least this might seem surprising: publicly, Brazil's Workers' Party President Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva embraced neighboring Venezuela. WikiLeaks documents, however, reveal that powerful figures in Brasilia were growing increasingly restive and nervous when faced with Venezuela's bold assertiveness in the Caribbean.
As part of its efforts to become a "responsible" member of the international community, Brazil has taken a more active role in the Caribbean theater, sending peacekeeping troops to Haiti and beefing up ties to Cuba in advance of the island's post-Castro transition. Speaking to U.S. diplomats, Lula officials threw cold water on the notion that leftist Venezuela would continue to play a significant role in Cuba. Chávez's brand of "strident" populism, they remarked, had "less space to grow in Latin America than you may think." On the other hand, closer to home in the Caribbean Brazilian politicians saw themselves in more direct competition with Venezuela for geopolitical influence, for instance in Guyana.
Chorus of Conservative Brasilia Politicians
In early 2007, former President and sitting Senator Jose Sarney of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party fretted to American diplomats that Venezuela was "becoming a destabilizing military power." Warming to his theme, Sarney remarked that he was "especially concerned about Venezuela's irrendentist claims on Guyana's Essequibo region." Growing even more alarmist, the politician stated that two thirds of Guyana was rich in diamonds and Chávez could "cause trouble over an area of 170,000 square kilometers." A conflict was all but inevitable, Sarney continued, and "in that event, a burden will fall on Brazil's shoulders."
In the following months, a growing number of conservative politicians in Brasilia echoed such alarmist claims until Sarney finally laid down the gauntlet, urging Washington to "do more to counter Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's increasingly destabilizing actions in the region."
Since Sarney's last tete-a-tete with the Americans, tensions had mounted in the Essequibo region, with Guyana accusing Venezuela of militarily invading its territory to stave off gold mining operations. Caracas flatly rejected the claim, arguing that the incursion occurred squarely within Venezuelan territory.
Reiterating his previous arguments, Sarney said that Chávez sought to "create a hotspot of regional conflict like the Balkans," and would seize Guyana's Essequibo region. Speaking candidly, the politician remarked that Lula was "aware of the dangers Chávez presents," but unfortunately the Brazilian Foreign Ministry was "infiltrated" with Chávez sympathizers.
The Mood Begins to Shift in Brasilia
Despite Sarney's claims about the pro-Chávez leanings within the Brazilian government, WikiLeaks cables suggest that many within the political elite had grown tired and impatient with Venezuela. Take, for example, Defense Minister Nelson Jobim, who "expressed a personal concern that if Chávez started to have domestic problems, he could decide to focus public attention on unresolved claims on Venezuela's borders." Rather bluntly, Jobim suggested to the Americans that Brasilia and Washington should "step in and confront Chávez if he did anything extraterritorial."
Though Lula continued to defend Venezuelan democracy, opposition politicians in Brasilia began to see their president's position on Chávez as "weak and fearful of conflict." Overall, the Americans noted, the mood was changing in Brasilia and there was "growing agreement among the political and foreign policy elites that Venezuela represents a threat to stability and that something must be done."
By early 2008, Sarney was openly asking the Americans for any information relating to Venezuela's arms purchases. Elaborating further, the veteran politician added that Chávez's aggressive behavior could pose a threat to a Brazilian road which stretched from the jungle city of Manaus all the way to the Guyanese border.
Interestingly, however, it wasn't just the political opposition which had grown leery of Chávez and Venezuela's regional ambitions. If WikiLeaks cables can be believed, Lula himself was ready to throw in the towel and the president had grown increasingly worried about Venezuela's "serious" border problems with Guyana. Indeed, Lula believed that Venezuela might even want to "annex one third of Guyana's territory."
That, at least, was the claim of one Antonio Delfim Netto, one of Brazil's "most influential economic commentators" and a former Minister of Finance who was said to meet with Lula regularly to provide informal economic advice. Delfim, who the Americans referred to as a "strictly protected" source, told the U.S. ambassador in Brasilia that "if Venezuela were to invade Guyana, Caracas would likely militarize all of Venezuela's south, antagonizing the indigenous populations there."
Delfim added that this would "have an impact on Brazil because the territories of at least one tribe, the Yanomami Indians spills over the Venezuela-Brazil border. Delfim believes that, should Venezuela invade Guyana, the Yanomamis will declare independence, forcing Brazil to get involved in a Venezuela-Guyana war."
Fortunately, the border dispute did not turn into armed conflict but further WikiLeaks cables suggest that Brazil may have seen Venezuela as an ongoing geopolitical rival in Guyana. In late 2009, U.S. Chargé d'Affaires Lisa Kubiske wrote Washington that Brazil was involved in talks with Guyana to build a hydroelectric plant in the disputed area claimed by Venezuela.
To be sure, Lula officials told the Americans, the project would augment energy capacity for both Guyana and Brazil. However, the initiative would also exert an important political impact by allowing Guyana "to establish government infrastructure in the disputed territory." Kubiske added that the project would allow Lula to build upon Brazilian efforts to promote a South American political bloc, "through which Brazil can conduct harmonious regional relations while building a base of support for its larger international ambitions."
In an effort to stay on the good side of most all countries, Brazil is reluctant to offend those nations in its immediate neighborhood. WikiLeaks documents suggest that, for now, Brazil and the U.S. are somewhat ambiguous diplomatic partners. Both reportedly see eye to eye on the need to keep Venezuela in check within the Caribbean theater, with Brasilia frequently taking a back seat and waiting for the U.S. to take the initiative and rein in Chávez.
For the time being, then, an unsure Brazil will continue to play the role of junior diplomatic partner. However, in the not so distant future such an arrangement could be subject to change. As Brazil becomes more economically and politically prominent, the South American juggernaut may seek to exert its influence more assertively, even within Washington's traditional "back yard" of the Caribbean or even Central America. If WikiLeaks cables are any indication, U.S. diplomats are already keenly aware of this growing rivalry and see Brasilia as their greatest competitor in the region.
From the Monroe Doctrine, which was aimed at curbing the encroachments of European powers in the nineteenth century, to Cold War foreign policy, designed to forestall the geopolitical machinations of the Soviet Union in the twentieth century, Washington has stopped at nothing in its bid to maintain power and prestige within its own regional "back yard" of Latin America. But with all of those rivalries now a relic of the past, the U.S. is moving on to the next threat to its own hegemony: Iran. That, at least, is the impression I got from reading diplomatic cables which were recently released by whistle-blowing outfit WikiLeaks.
For Washington, a great concern was that Iran might gain a strategic foothold in South America, recruiting key allies such as Brazil. Much to the chagrin of the Americans, Brazil under former president Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva sought to carve out a more independent foreign policy which even embraced the likes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. By extending cooperation to Iran, Lula aimed to increase trade and boost collaboration on biotechnology and agriculture. In a surprising development, Lula even urged the west to drop its threats of punishment over Iran's nuclear program, a move which proved very reassuring to the politically isolated Ahmadinejad.
Throughout the Bush and Obama administrations, U.S. officials in Brasilia sought to glean more information about this budding relationship, sound out disaffected politicians, and express displeasure about growing diplomatic ties between Teheran and Brasilia when need be. Key in this effort was U.S. ambassador in Brasilia Clifford Sobel, who pressured the Brazilian Ministry of Energy to cut its burgeoning ties to Iran. Speaking to government officials, Sobel expressed deep concern over Brazilian state energy company Petrobras, which had been considering plans to invest in the Iranian oil and gas sector, located in the Caspian Sea.
The Petrobras Imbroglio
WikiLeaks correspondence reveals Brazilian diplomats as walking a very fine tight rope, striking out on the one hand toward rogue nations like Iran but on the other hand very keen on placating the Bush administration and staying within Washington's good graces. Responding to Sobel, the Brazilians argued that if they did not invest in Iran then the Chinese would certainly beat them when it came time to develop deep water exploration and production. However, the Brazilians also "acknowledged the seriousness of the issue [Brazilian-Iranian energy ties] to the international community and, although they did not say Petrobras would halt its… activities in Iran, they did make it clear that they understand the sensitivity of the political moment."
In a further effort to shore up energy ties, Brazilian under Secretary for Political Affairs Roberto Jaguaribe met with Iranian Vice Foreign Minister Alireza Sheikh Attar some time later. "In particular," U.S. diplomats noted, "Iran was fishing for increased Petrobras investment, although the Iranians seem to be growing impatient with Petrobras' unresponsiveness." Concerned about the situation, the Americans again pressed Brasilia to clarify. Petrobras would not be bullied into any rash decisions by Teheran, government authorities stressed, and the company was unlikely to increase its stake in Iran in the near term. "Indications that Petrobras is winding down its operations in Iran is a positive sign," noted Sobel, but the sanguine diplomat was quick to add that Brazil was "playing it both ways" with Washington and Teheran.
In late 2008, Sobel was still pleased that Brazil was "trying to assuage our concerns" on Iran. Nevertheless, the ambassador had grown concerned, writing the State Department that "we will need to intensify our dialogue…if we hope to sway the government of Brazil that this is not the moment for increased engagement with Tehran." Confiding in the Americans, Brazilian officials claimed that their country was "under tremendous pressure from Iran…to increase Petrobras investment." Though Brazilian officials continued to stress that Petrobras was not considering any further investments in Iran, they also believed there was much "trade to be done between the two countries."
At the Rio Defense Fair
In the realm of defense, too, U.S. diplomats were eager to head off any growing ties between Brasilia and Teheran. In April, 2007 the Americans received worrying reports about Iranian participation at a Latin American Air and Defense show to be held in Rio de Janeiro, which had been organized by a U.K.-based firm. When he found an Iranian stand at the event, which stood in violation of United Nations Security Council strictures, an organizer grew alarmed and immediately contacted the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, also known as Itamaraty.
The Brazilians claimed they were unaware of the Iranian presence at the show, and would take steps to shut down the Iranian stand. In Teheran, meanwhile, the Brazilian ambassador was dressed down by the Iranians who vigorously protested the treatment. Why had they been invited to the show and then subsequently shut down, the Iranians wanted to know? Defensively, the Brazilian ambassador countered that the invitation had been issued well before the issuing of United Nations Security Council measures.
It would seem that the Brazilians were acting in good faith and in accordance with international law, but both Britain and the U.S. were still unsure where the Lula government stood. When asked by the British if they would act to seize any assets belonging to the Iranian Defense Industries, Lula officials explained that no such interests existed in Brazil. For their part, the Americans were a bit mystified about Brazilian intentions and wondered whether the authorities actually ordered the closing of the Iranian stand or merely "stood back" and left the closing of the booth to the show's UK-based organizing firm.
U.S. concern over defense-related matters continued well into the Obama era, as evidenced by Hillary Clinton's secret cable to the American Embassy in Brasilia. The new Secretary of State requested that diplomats alert the Lula government to a possible effort by the Iranian firm Machine Sazi Tabriz to acquire machine tools from a Brazilian company called Mello S.A. Maquinas e Equipamentos. Sazi Tabriz, Clinton explained, was the largest manufacturer of machine tools in Iran and had provided tools to the Islamic Republic's nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Brazilian export of machine tools to the company, Clinton elaborated, could therefore be diverted to Iran's weapons programs.
Senator Fortes Sounds the Alarm
Concerned over Iranian-Brazilian ties, U.S. diplomats conferred with dissident politicians opposed to Lula's more independent foreign policy. In Brasilia, a "handful" of legislators had started to worry about the independent trajectory of Lula's foreign policy. One of those politicians, opposition Senator Heraclito Fortes of the Democrats Party, breathlessly called the U.S. ambassador in late 2007. Fortes requested an urgent meeting "to raise a matter he could not discuss on the telephone." As Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations and National Defense committees, he apparently saw himself as the last bastion of hope against Lula's more assertive trajectory on the world stage. Sitting down with the ambassador and other embassy staff, including the assistant U.S. army attaché no less, the Brazilian painted an alarmist picture, remarking that he was "truly concerned" about Iranian, Venezuelan and Russian collaboration in the South American theater, including potential financing of arms sales.
According to Fortes, presidential foreign policy advisor Marco Aurelio García had recommended that Ahmadinejad himself visit Brazil, and therefore the U.S. government should become engaged "before it is too late." Growing even more heated and agitated, Fortes accused the Americans of being "indifferent" to what was happening in the region. "You are children," Fortes declared to the startled Americans. "You ignore a problem until it is well along and then it is too late." In order to counteract Iran, Fortes recommended increased U.S. arms manufacturing partnerships with Brazil.
Internal Dissent on Controversial Policy
Fortes continued to seek out American counsel, as evidenced by a further cable dated from April, 2008. This time the Brazilian sounded the alarm bell about Ali Reza Sheikh Attar, who had traveled to Brasilia in hopes of drumming up support for an anti-U.S. bloc in South America. According to Fortes, the Iranian diplomat complained about UN pressure on Iran's nuclear program, and went so far as to claim that after the Olympics, China would purposefully exert pressure on the American dollar by selling off its U.S. investments. Reportedly, Attar told Fortes that these Chinese actions would "be more powerful than an atomic bomb."
On the whole, Fortes declared, it was unlikely that Brazil would ever join in any anti-U.S. crusade in South America, but the politician was concerned about certain figures within the Lula circle including presidential adviser García who was reportedly receptive to Iranian overtures. Itamaraty meanwhile seemed intent on pursuing a "correct" relationship with Iran, and unfortunately there was little that Congress could do to stop such high level diplomacy, save stalling ambassadorial appointments or appealing to public opinion.
Other cables hint at further dissension within the ranks. According to U.S. diplomats, Lula and Itamaraty "were getting pressured on a near-daily basis by Brazilian religious and ethnic minority groups opposed to the Iranian government's activities." Indeed, Brazilian Jews had lobbied high up officials within Lula's Workers' Party, advising the president not to meet with Ahmadinejad. In addition, Brazilian Baha'is and Syrian-Lebanese Christians who had become alarmed by Iranian fundamentalism registered their concerns on a "more ad hoc basis."
Attempt to Reassure U.S. Diplomats
Eager to exploit internal tensions over Brazil's controversial Iran policy, U.S. diplomats continued to press Lula officials on the growing number of meetings between the two countries. "Iran seems to be placing a significant number of eggs in the Brazil basket as part of its strategy for enhancing relations with Latin America," ambassador Sobel noted, "as indicated by the bilateral meetings, the outreach to congress, and the push for a presidential meeting." When pressed by the U.S., Brasilia authorities admitted to the exchanges but claimed that "Iran's interest in Brazil does not begin to approach the level of Iranian links with Venezuela."
Tensions continued into early 2008, when the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia pressed officials to clarify high level diplomacy reaching out to Ahmadinejad. The Americans had grown concerned, noting that Brazil "often tilted uncomfortably towards the anti-U.S. view of things in the Middle East." Again, Lula officials were defensive, claiming that Middle East diplomacy was "necessary to balance Brazil's high-level engagement with the Arab countries." In another tack, the Brazilians stated that it was Iran, and not Brazil, which was pressing most for greater political and economic engagement.
Brasilia officials declared that they were skittish about a potential Lula-Ahmadinejad meeting, and "they were trying to stall such an encounter but that sooner or later they would run out of pretexts and a meeting would become inevitable." Perhaps, American diplomats noted, the Lula government realized that "evenhandedness [was] critical to remain a credible player." By avoiding a presidential meeting with Ahmadinejad, Brazil seemed to be sending a "positive signal that [it] understands its responsibility as a self-proclaimed neutral player."
Turning the discussion to Iran's wider role in South America, the Brazilians sought to appease U.S. concerns. "Bolivia," they noted, "has nothing to offer Iran, commercially or politically." Even the Iranian-Venezuelan alliance, they continued, had "no substance." Overall, the Brazilians downplayed Ahmadinejad's influence, declaring that the Iranian leader, like Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, was "more bluster than anything."
Despite such reassurances, Sobel remained unconvinced and, in July, 2008 wrote his superiors that Brazil's continued focus on the Middle East was "worrisome." Overall, the diplomat added, Brazil's "almost obsessive interest in pursuing 'balanced' relations tends to come at our expense, leading the government of Brazil to stay neutral on such issues as Iranian support of Hizballah, Iranian activities in Iraq, and Tehran's flouting of United Nations Security Council resolutions, while remaining blind to aggressive Iranian moves in the region."
In Sobel's view, it was unlikely that the U.S. could persuade Brasilia "to take an approach fully in step with ours." Nevertheless, he added, "it is critical to engage the government of Brazil both to ensure they have a complete understanding of U.S. policy and concerns in the region, and to demonstrate that we take Brazil's leadership aspirations seriously." Accordingly, Sobel urged Washington to send high level authorities "to come to Brasilia for detailed discussions with Brazilian government officials, members of Congress, and, where appropriate, press, regarding Iran nuclear proliferation, support for terrorism."
Sobel then detailed the planned charm offensive. In addition to Fortes, a couple of other Senators had expressed concern with Lula's foreign policy, and the U.S. should therefore "take advantage" of this "window opening up to bridge the gap in our Middle East dialogue." Washington should "seize the opportunity to try to steer Brazil away from its usual role of sideline sniper and make an attempt to recruit Brazil into a helpful or at least truly neutral role."
Obama Officials: Whose Side is Brazil On?
Sideline sniper or genuine ally? That seems to be the question on many U.S. policymakers' minds, including newly appointed Secretary of State Clinton, who sent a detailed questionnaire to subordinates seeking more information on Iran's precise role in South America. In particular, Clinton wanted to know what governments in the wider region sought from Iran, and how they were catering to the desires of the Islamic Republic. In addition, Clinton wanted to know, were Latin American governments concerned about Iran's ties to terrorism? If WikiLeaks cables are any indication, the Americans were perplexed by Iran's political offensive in the region, and had precious little intelligence about the Islamic Republic's diplomatic missions or wider strategic intentions.
Sensing American disquiet, the Brazilians again sought to reassure Washington shortly after Obama's inauguration. Speaking to U.S. diplomats, Lula officials said they had tried their utmost to strike a conciliatory tone with Ahmadinejad, urging the Iranians to "respond positively" to Obama's more multi-faceted approach to foreign affairs. Under Secretary for Political Affairs Roberto Jaguaribe then heaped praise on Obama for striking the "right signal" and "right chords" to the Iranians.
U.S. Chargé d'Affaires Lisa Kubiske, however, was unconvinced by Brazil's double game. In late 2009, she wrote Washington worriedly that Ahmadinejad would likely travel to Brasilia and sign bilateral agreements. Lula and his inner circle of advisors, however, did "not appear to fully grasp the negative feedback that will be created by the Iran visit." Kubiske seems to have believed that Brazil was out of its depth and had only a "small number of experts on the Middle East in Itamaraty." As it punched above its weight, carrying out a "frenzied effort" to reach out to many players in the Middle East, Brazil risked committing "missteps and misunderstandings." Without a clear sense of Brazilian loyalties, Kubiske reiterated the Embassy's earlier request to send Washington Middle East experts to Brasilia for a set of thorough briefings.
WikiLeaks documents leave off in early 2010, but one can be sure that American puzzlement over Brazil continues today. Though Lula's successor Dilma Rousseff has been less of a maverick in foreign affairs than her predecessor, Brazil is certainly a rising power on the world stage and the country will likely throw its weight around, not always to the liking of Washington which expects its regional partners to stay in line and not depart from the age old script.