Brazil is Back: Can Latin America’s Divides Be Bridged?
Brazil is Back: Can Latin America’s Divides Be Bridged?
Commentary / Latin America & Caribbean 11 minutes

Brazil is Back: Can Latin America’s Divides Be Bridged?

Lula’s return to the presidency promises a stronger role for Brazil in multilateral diplomacy. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2023, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to make the most of this opportunity.

Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva’s return to the Brazilian presidency could mark a turning point in Latin America’s struggles to overcome its divisions in confronting regional and global issues, including long-running crises in the neighbourhood. With a professional foreign service, a big economy and a widely respected leader, Brazil stands out as a force that could drive cooperation in tackling the region’s most serious challenges and boost Latin American engagement in multilateral diplomacy – much as it did during Lula’s first two terms, from 2003 to 2010. But there is a caveat. Lula is facing far larger domestic difficulties this time around, which should temper idealism about the span of his foreign policy. Brazil suffers from deep political cleavages, as proven by the far-right rampage in the capital Brasília on 8 January, as well as economic hardships, both of which could hinder the new government’s ambitions outside the country. Yet in spite of its turbulent domestic climate, the new government is intent on restoring Brazil’s status as a prominent voice on the international stage, while the country’s economic and geopolitical weight means that it could still make a major contribution to regional peace and stability.

There is no shortage of dilemmas for Brazil to address. Looming instability is a concern throughout the neighbourhood, amid intense public dissatisfaction with political leaders and economic inequality, while disjointed handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and regional rifts over crises in several countries underline the difficulty of addressing shared challenges. In setting its foreign policy priorities, Brasília’s first and overarching goal should be to help rebuild interstate coordination in Latin America and the Caribbean, an objective that is crucial both to dealing with crises and to Brazil’s chances of projecting itself on the world stage and enabling other blocs to engage more fruitfully with the region. Secondly, Lula’s government is well positioned to spearhead efforts to revive regional cooperation to protect the environment, particularly the Amazon rainforest. Thirdly, thanks to his close ties to the left and strong relationship with various global powers, Lula could play a major role in easing the path toward a negotiated settlement to the deadlock in Venezuela. Finally, Brazil’s diplomatic dexterity could raise the profile of Haiti’s crisis in the region and balance the leading role played by the U.S. and Canada, which Haitians tend to regard with misgivings.

In order to support Brazil in its pursuit of these priorities – all of which could contribute to greater peace and security in Latin America – the European Union (EU) and its member states should:

  • Work with the new Brazilian government to bolster regional integration, and in so doing improve European ties to Latin American and Caribbean counterparts. The EU should, for instance, strengthen its existing partnership with the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), among other things through financial and technical support for regional integration.
  • Offer diplomatic and financial support for Brazil’s new efforts regarding environmental protection, and especially revival of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization.
  • Assist Brazil in mobilising regional initiatives to encourage Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro to improve electoral conditions ahead of his country’s scheduled 2024 presidential polls, and seek the support of regional partners for implementation of the key recommendations of the 2021 EU Electoral Observation Mission. Brussels should explore with Brasília, Washington and regional capitals an approach that would emphasise the progressive easing of U.S. and European sanctions on Caracas in exchange for such improved conditions.
  • Work with Brazil and other countries from the region to help address the crisis in Haiti by promoting an agreement between acting Prime Minister Ariel Henry and the opposition that would allow formation of a transitional government, as well as by seeking broad international backing for any eventual international intervention.
(L-R) Minister of Indigenous People Sonia Guajajara, Minister for Racial Equality Anielle Franco, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, and his wife Rosangela da Silva, arrive to the Planalto Palace for Guajajara's swearing-in ceremony, January 11, 2023. SERGIO LIMA / AFP

Rebuilding Latin American Cooperation

Latin America has for years been unable to act in concert on regional crises or to speak with one voice on world events. Ideological divisions – such as those behind the venomous quarrel between Venezuela and Colombia from 2019 until relations were restored in 2022 – have undermined the cause of regional unity. In its place, hemispheric rifts have encouraged the creation of weak, ad hoc and often partisan regional platforms; given greater sway to outside powers, above all the U.S., Russia, China and Iran, over some governments; impeded economic integration; and made it increasingly hard for regional bodies, such as the Inter-American Development Bank, the Organization of American States or the Southern Common Market, to make leadership appointments by consensus.

Cultivating stronger unity of purpose in Latin America and the freedom to establish relations with all global powers, without automatic alignment with any of them, stand out as two of the main leitmotifs of Brazil’s new foreign policy. But because regional platforms have atrophied, there is at present no productive space where all the region’s governments can discuss burning issues and cultivate joint positions. During his address to Congress after taking office, Lula invoked his promise to rejoin the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), a forum he helped create in 2008 but which is now moribund after former President Jair Bolsonaro opted (along with current and former right-leaning governments in Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador and Uruguay) to abandon it. Other alternatives also have problems. The Organization of American States, which includes the U.S. and Canada, has been in steep decline for several years after earning the mistrust of left-wing governments. In his own inaugural speech, Foreign Minister Mauro Vieira did not even mention it.

But there is another option. Lula’s government has already announced Brazil’s return to CELAC – which Bolsonaro left after accusing it of being a “stage for authoritarian states” – and attended the bloc’s summit in Buenos Aires in late January. This organisation is the regional interlocutor that the EU and China prefer, although there is room for it to become more effective: decision-making is presently cumbersome because it requires unanimous backing among member countries, and the organisation currently lacks a permanent institutional apparatus for following up on and implementing agreements. That said, discussions on strengthening it are under way. A meeting between EU officials and CELAC heads of state and government, due to take place in Brussels in the summer, offers the EU a chance to reinforce the fledgling bloc’s role as well as strengthen cooperation with Brazil and Latin America as a whole.

Linked to the question of where Latin American states should hash out difficult issues is the question of what those issues should be. Right now, there is little agreement. Latin American governments diverge sharply in their views of where the main threats to democracy lie and what basic political rights need to be guaranteed. The region, and particularly its traditional left, tends to grant great importance to principles of sovereignty and non-interference in the affairs of other states. But a majority of governments still think these principles have some limits where human rights and respect for democratic institutions are involved. Brazil’s own battle to ensure a peaceful handover of power to Lula underlined the need to rally at home and abroad in protection of democracy. Beyond these basic governance questions, there is a further list of issues that cry out for higher levels of regional coordination. High-level political cooperation in responding to drug trafficking and organised crime is largely dormant. Although governments have started to collaborate better in promoting safe, orderly migration, they differ in their border and reception policies.

Still, before it can address these and other shared concerns, the region first needs to define the best forum for rebuilding coordination and display the political will to respect commitments that governments may assume in that context. Although most governments (especially in South America) share a broadly democratic, left-leaning outlook, neither of these steps will be straightforward. Conditioning regional cooperation on coincidence in ideology with other governments is a mistake that Latin American countries cannot afford to continue committing.

Concrete Steps on the Amazon, Venezuela and Haiti

Alongside efforts to rekindle regional cooperation, renewed Brazilian engagement could prove crucial to addressing several crises in the region.  

First is the state of the Amazon basin. Efforts to forge joint approaches to protecting the environment and addressing climate change languished under the rule of Bolsonaro, who showed brazen disregard for the fate of the river’s surrounds and their Indigenous inhabitants. With the area crucial to efforts to counter climate change, and suffering an increased presence of organised crime and illicit trafficking, Lula’s government has made clear it wishes to assert leadership on these overlapping issues. Foreign Minister Vieira has announced that Brazil will hold a summit to revive the Amazon Treaty Cooperation Organization, formed by the eight countries that are part of the biome (Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela). Lula is also coordinating with Colombian President Gustavo Petro, likely to be a crucial ally in advancing the cause of environmental protection.  

Lula’s priorities for the Amazon include protecting Indigenous peoples’ territory, stopping illegal deforestation and restricting mining activity in specific areas. But a regional initiative in this spirit will stretch Brazilian diplomacy, particularly when it comes to seeking commitments from Venezuela, where President Maduro has allowed a huge expansion of gold and other mining operations in the Amazon, with the complicity of both the military and non-state armed groups, despite nominally endorsing green policies. 

Secondly, Venezuela is generally set to be of keen interest to the Lula government, while posing a serious test of Brazil’s diplomatic sway. In contrast to Bolsonaro’s decision in 2019 to follow the lead of former U.S. President Donald Trump in denying recognition to Maduro, a policy that failed in its goal of ousting the Venezuelan president, Lula has already emulated Petro’s Colombia government in restoring ties with Caracas. Foreign policy experts close to new government, and Lula himself, insist that its approach to Venezuela, as well as to the increasingly authoritarian rule of President Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, will be guided by a belief in dialogue and engagement rather than demands, sanctions and threats. Lula’s affinities with the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez should in theory place him in a good position to persuade Caracas to show a spirit of compromise in its negotiations with the opposition, while his regional stature will help him work separately with Washington.

Lula should urge Maduro to adopt reforms that help ensure the election is competitive.

That said, left-wing leaders in Venezuela, as elsewhere in the region, despite their former friendships with Lula, may not be as willing to restore political rights as Brazilian officials wish. Venezuelan leaders are generally unwilling to risk losing power in the 2024 elections, and despite a return to negotiations in Mexico City in 2022, may well resist the sort of steps toward a level electoral playing field that were recommended in the EU Electoral Observation Mission’s report about the 2021 regional polls. Chief among these are reforms to the judicial system to prevent the partisan political use of the highest courts to ratify or annul election results. Even if the proposal encounters resistance in Caracas, Lula should urge Maduro to adopt reforms that help ensure the election is competitive and assure the Venezuelan government that it will work to support a fair deal respecting the interests of chavismo.

Thirdly, as it did in Lula’s first two administrations, Haiti will pose a test for Brazil’s diplomatic mettle. Brazil stood out for its role in leading and providing troops to the UN peacekeeping mission to the country from 2004 to 2017, MINUSTAH. Although criticism of aspects of that mission is common in Haiti, its departure has been followed by a violent breakdown. Rampant criminal violence, humanitarian emergency and political turmoil, including the assassination of former President Jovenel Moïse in July 2021, have spurred the acting prime minister, Henry, to call for an international force to combat gangs. Crisis Group has previously noted that such a force may be the best way to bring some measure of order to the troubled country but that it should deploy only with support from Haiti’s main political forces, including agreement to work together in forming a legitimate transitional government. Should these conditions emerge, Brazil’s backing for efforts to get the UN Security Council to endorse such a mission would be an enormous boost to the countries that have been leading on this file in New York (the U.S. and Mexico in 2022, although Ecuador has now replaced the latter on the Security Council). It could particularly help win over Russia and China, which are both wary of what they perceive to be U.S. designs.  

There are other ways Brasília could support the mission as well. It could also mediate between Henry and the opposition in efforts to form a transitional government. If a mission forms, it could contribute personnel and technical assistance. At a minimum, Brazilian diplomats could raise the profile of Haiti’s crisis in Latin America and draw attention to the need for deeper consideration of how foreign powers could aid the country.  

What the EU Can Do

The EU and its member states should look for ways to work with Brazil to forge closer ties with Latin America and the Caribbean. Among other things, stronger links between the two regions may depend on reinvigorating cooperation within Latin America itself, through more effective multilateral institutions set up around shared values. Given its size, resources and its new president’s regional profile, Brazil could play a leading role in this effort. The EU should support regional consolidation through diplomatic backing, as well as financial and technical assistance that could help strengthen existing regional bodies, in particular CELAC, which appears to be the Lula government’s preferred platform.

At the same time, the EU and member states should take care to acknowledge the domestic constraints under which the new Brazilian government is operating, including a highly polarised political climate, and not burden it with expectations of immediate breakthroughs. They will also need to accept the new Brazilian government’s probable determination to maintain relations with all major powers, as well as its primary goal of defending the interests of developing nations in multilateral forums. 

Brussels should also explore partnering with Brasília and draw on the region’s support for global initiatives of mutual interest. In particular, the EU should use its diplomatic and financial muscle to back Brazilian moves to rekindle cooperation between all countries with territory in the Amazon, looking for ways to bolster environmental projects funded by Brussels and EU member states. 

Likewise, the EU and member states could express their readiness to work with Brazil toward their mutual interest in helping Venezuela’s feuding political adversaries reach a negotiated settlement. One key role they could play would be coordinating with Lula’s government and the region, as well as with Washington, an approach that would emphasise the progressive easing of U.S. and European sanctions on Venezuela in exchange for improved electoral conditions ahead of the 2024 vote. The conditions to aim for should be drawn from the evaluation carried out by the EU’s 2021 Electoral Observation Mission.  

Lastly, the region’s most serious case of extreme insecurity and humanitarian emergency is to be found in Haiti, where Brazil should be regarded as a source of expertise and a trusted authority, able to mediate between political forces and international powers in a way that European and North American countries find hard. The EU and member states should be ready to turn to Brazil as a crucial partner in shaping their policies toward Haiti, whether that means seeking a pathway to a transitional government, gaining UN endorsement for an international mission, or drumming up regional and global support for increased aid and attention to the country. In this case, Brazil’s re-engagement in multilateral diplomacy is an opportunity that the EU, the U.S. and other Latin American countries should all seize.

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