15 January 2009

Brazil Starts To Cast A Long Shadow

With the United States’ political, though not military, influence declining in Latin America, Brazil is aggressively moving in to fill the partial vacuum, presenting both opportunities and inherent risks for the progressive governments of the region.

Brazil, slightly smaller in size than the USA, is branching out in new economic, security and foreign policy directions in President Lula da Silva’s second and final term in office. Lula remains a hugely popular President, more popular than when he came to office in 2003, and no other Brazilian head of state has matched his approval ratings in about 20 years. This despite his cautious centrist policies that neither threaten the bourgeoisie nor empower the social movements on the back of which he climbed to office.

Brazil’s economy is in better shape than ever before: inflation is under control, consumer spending is still growing, the currency remains strong, employment levels are at an historic high and the country has billions in foreign exchange reserves. Its vast Amazonian resources are propelling a new security doctrine that will have consequences for the dominant Western powers and his neighbours.


Brazil is an unlikely actor in Latin American economic integration. Its state and private business houses trample all over Latin America, swamping other markets with manufactured goods and hoovering up oil, gas and other natural resources. It is in disputes with Bolivia over gas, with Ecuador over debt repayments and crooked Brazilian companies, with Paraguay over electricity and Brazilian soya landlords and with Argentina with the latter’s 51/2 years of trade imbalance.

That has not stopped Lula from working to integrate the Latin American market. Lula has ambitious plans for a Brazil-Peru motorway that will connect his country to Bolivia and Chile and link the Pacific and Atlantic oceans with an overland route. It plans a Manaos-Manta (Ecuador) corridor, again with access to the sea. He has been working to put more wind into the sails of the regional trade groupings such as Mercosur.

There are agreements with Nicaragua to promote ethanol, oil exploration with Bolivia and Cuba’s recently discovered oil deposits could not have been far from Lula’s thoughts when he delivered a rousing welcome to Raul Castro. Brazil and Venezuela have agreed on a joint refinery in Recife and the two countries are linked with a new $1.2-bn bridge over the Orinoco built by Venezuela.

Brazil’s economic integration model is driven by its appetite for profits and has little in common with the Venezuelan ALBA model of integrating the popular economies of the region to benefit people rather than private capital. As both approaches to regional integration set in, countries like Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay which lack Venezuela’s economic clout and political drive will find themselves negotiating between the contrasting models and hedge their bets.

Foreign Policy:

Lula has been active in foreign policy like almost no other Brazilian leader before, looking to integrate the Latin American market, building a web of alliances in and outside Latin America, developing a strong voice in international trade talks and supporting progressive governments even as he tries to squeeze them of their resources. In 2007 Lula did 32 international visits, travelling to 29 countries at an average of one every ten days. In 2008, it was 21 visits abroad to 27 countries and in 2009 he is to make at least 50 of these. In the years ahead, Brazil will make more alliances of the type it strikes with India and South Africa in defending common trade interests against the West and use Russia and China as economic levers to balance imperial U.S. demands.

Towards the end of 2008, Brazil hosted an unprecedented gathering of 28 Latin American and Caribbean heads of state, unprecedented in that Cuba was brought in from the cold and the USA, Spain and Portugal were shut out of it. The meeting would have been worthwhile even if only to bring Cuba into the Group of Rio, Lula said at the end of the conference. He has supported Hugo Chavez of Venezuela in the latter’s difficult moments, saying the problem in Venezuela is that there is too much democracy rather than too little. Bolivia, Paraguay and Ecuador are safer with a Brazil led by Lula though that has not prevented him from giving them a rough time.


Brazil fears the West covets its Amazonian resources of water, forests and anything else which might lie under or overground, masking it with environmental concern like that of the former Norwegian premier, Gro Harlem Brundtland, who suggested an international ecological institution to oversee the protection of the Amazon. To this, Brazilian General Sotero Vaz’s riposte was that his country would defend the Amazon with guerrilla warfare. In 2005, a Brazilian military delegation visited Vietnam to learn from its experience.

The country’s National Defence Strategy stretching out till 2030 says it will counteract any attempt at limiting its sovereignty over the Amazon, possibly by a country or an alliance of nations with superior military capabilities. General Cláudio Barbosa de Figueiredo, head of the Amazon’s military command, said his country would adopt a doctrine of asymmetrical warfare as part of a national resistance. The security doctrine says threats rather than goodwill characterise the world and foresees its land borders and sea routes as bridgeheads for a putative invasion.

Brazil plans to concentrate on nuclear, space and cybernetics to prepare for future threats. At the end of 2008, it signed a nuclear and military deal with France. It is also upgrading its navy, including having its own nuclear submarine, to protect its sea traffic. New civilian and military nuclear deals with Russia are likely before Lula leaves office.

Lula’s defence strategy envisions creating a domestic arms industry that would provide most of Brazil’s defence needs. For this, it will invest in upgrading its skill and knowledge base and create a military-business-university axis. The final components are creating rapid deployment capabilities and national mobilisation of a reserve army, including possible compulsory call up for national defence.

The security doctrine compels Brazil to seek allies in Latin America from among the progressive governments, providing them a measure of protection while at the same time neutralising their opposition to Brazil’s own backyard imperialism. As Venezuela is the other country with rapidly developing space capabilities, a Caracas-Brasilia alliance is on the cards. But whereas Chavez speaks of a “socialist satellite” programme for the benefit of the poor, Lula’s orbit is that of strategic and economic interests. In this context, Cuba, Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela, Nicaragua and other countries which swing to the Left will seek to ally more closely among themselves to be able to better negotiate this Latin American behemoth and also ally with in facing up to Washington.

A Centre-Right government might follow that of Lula’s and it can never be ruled out that the Brazilian national bourgeoisie might capitulate to Washington. It appears though that Lula has forged a certain consensus among the Brazilian elite that will outlast him. Lula will be judged as Latin America’s quiet man who nevertheless swished a big, cleft stick.

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