Brazil’s Foreign Policy and Latin America: A New Chapter?
Brazil’s Foreign Policy and Latin America: A New Chapter?
Commentary / Latin America & Caribbean 5 minutes

Brazil’s Foreign Policy and Latin America: A New Chapter?

Foreign policy has never had a substantial impact on election campaigns in Brazil. Ever since the return of democracy in 1985, the country’s international relations have been less a matter of public debate than the preserve of a competent diplomatic corps. It is no surprise, then, that recent presidential and congressional elections revolved around domestic, not international issues. Nonetheless, the intense debate during the campaign regarding Brazil’s place in the world will have foreign policy consequences for the immediate neighbourhood: Latin America.

The general pattern of Brazilian relations with Latin America corresponds to some of the most traditional elements of its foreign policy as a whole. First, the emphasis has been placed on soft power and multilateralism, mainly understood as a growing involvement in humanitarian operations and other forms of indirect influence, exemplified by the strong presence of Brazilian troops in the UN Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). Second, it has seen its role as one of balancing the influence of other powers in Latin America, particularly through an ambivalent relationship with the U.S.

To this classical approach, former President Lula da Silva (2003-2011) added two personal dimensions: intensifying South-South connections and adding an even stronger presidential component to diplomacy. The search for a more prominent place in international affairs – one which would match Brazil’s impressive social and economic achievements with an increased global role – led to the establishment of the BRICs as an international association, the expansion of the country’s presence in Africa and the Middle East and, in Latin America, to active support for new regional and sub-regional alignments.

Ever since the return of democracy in 1985, the country’s international relations have been less a matter of public debate than the preserve of a competent diplomatic corps

Lula’s policies in the region manifested themselves in the form of a strengthening of the pre-existing South American Common Market (MERCOSUR, 1994) as the primary trading bloc, and the launch of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR, 2008) as a political umbrella. The latter has played an increasing role in political crisis and dialogue, virtually replacing the Organisation of American States (OAS). However, Lula maintained reasonably good relations with the rest of the world, including the U.S. In the region, Brazil played a decisive role in condemning (and seeking to reverse) a coup in Honduras in 2009, remained committed to multilateralism and expanded financial aid to countries such as Cuba and Haiti.

At the rhetorical level, ideology and economic and political interests have proven reasonably compatible. Advocates of this set of ideas argue that the changes were positive as they contested the contradictions of the current global political system, the failure of other regions to build credible international peace and the “uniqueness” of the regional contribution to social participation and a new meaning of democracy. However, contradictions have emerged in some instances in the attempt to translate theory into practice. The relationship with Venezuela is probably the most telling of these.

Former President Lula and President Dilma Rousseff have not hidden their sympathy for the Boliviarian Revolution led by former President Hugo Chávez and his successor, Nicolás Maduro. Brazil pushed hard to have Venezuela admitted as a member of MERCOSUR, in a move that had little to do with economic calculations. After the death of Chávez and the still-unresolved political crisis unleashed last February on the streets of Caracas and other Venezuelan cities, Brazil reluctantly played a facilitating role (together with Colombia and Ecuador) in a UNASUR attempt to offer a form of mediation. But it resisted issuing more convincing calls for a solution to the crisis, which still threatens the stability of this important political ally. The incipient dialogue quickly broke down and inertia has since dominated the scene in Venezuela.

Brazil has assisted humanitarian missions in Colombia, sending unarmed military personnel and helicopters to support the rescue of hostages held by the FARC. President Rousseff has been supportive of the peace talks in Havana, and Brazil is one of the five facilitators of the preliminary talks with the National Liberation Army (ELN). However, its role in this historic peace process could be much more active and central. One possible reason for its lack of enthusiasm was the lack of trust between former President Uribe and Lula, who was openly suspicious of the deployment of U.S. military facilities in Colombia.

Multilateralism plays well in Brazil´s discourse at the UN, and in its important role in MINUSTAH. However, there is some debate over the importance of democracy and human rights in the formation of foreign policy. Brazil´s stance on the Inter-American Human Rights System varies from suspicion to outright hostility and the Inter-American Democratic Charter, signed by Brazil in 2001, is barely mentioned.

Some critics openly question the influence of the ruling Partido dos Trabalhadores, or Workers’ Party, over some areas of foreign policy, especially relations with Cuba and Venezuela [See, for example: “After Brazil´s election: Diehard Dilma”, The Economist, 30 October 2014; “Investors Give Thumbs Down on Brazil Vote”, Wall Street Journal, 27 October 2014; Andrés Oppenheimer, “¿Cambiará Brasil su política exterior?” El Nuevo Herald, 29 October 2014]. They argue that political considerations are damaging valuable trading opportunities in times of economic slowdown. For example, they say, Brazil has not been able to negotiate a trade agreement with the EU because of the constraints imposed by its membership of MERCOSUR and the open hostility of its partners toward free trade arrangements. They also cite strained relations with the U.S. following revelations concerning political espionage by intelligence agencies directly aimed at President Rousseff. From this point of view, Brazil’s alleged lack of leadership in the Venezuelan crisis would only serve to confirm the toxic effect of stressing political and ideological considerations over more rational choices.

(…) Brazil’s aspiration to a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, its desire to increase trade and investment and the likely need for austerity measures may bring about a thorough review of a its role in Latin America

Nonetheless, it could be argued that subtle diplomacy has often prevailed over noisier interventions. In fact, Brazil is concerned about Venezuela and with good reason. It manoeuvred behind the scenes to push Maduro to open talks with the opposition, even as it actively resisted any involvement by the OAS or other external actors in the Venezuelan drama. The signals have, thus far, been contradictory regarding Brazil’s willingness to intervene to prevent a major crisis in its surrounding region.

Dilma Rouseff’s narrow victory over Aecio Neves may reduce even further the scope for the kind of active diplomacy favoured by Lula. If so, this would merely represent a restoration of the main strands of Brazil’s foreign policy. Domestic constraints, mostly economic, might however push the government to be more pragmatic and open trade talks with other partners, regardless of resistance from its MERCOSUR and UNASUR partners. This might also lead to a review of Brazil´s stance regarding Venezuela and to a recalculation of the risk of default and economic meltdown in Caracas. Such a reassessment could push the government into more direct mediation of the political crisis. This would also mesh well with some sort of rapprochement with the U.S. and with hemispheric institutions, including a more active participation in the peace process in Colombia.

There ought not to be major shifts in a foreign policy which has long remained linked to basic guidelines, regardless of the government in place. However, Brazil’s aspiration to a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, its desire to increase trade and investment and the likely need for austerity measures may bring about a thorough review of a its role in Latin America. The decision-making process will undoubtedly prove more complicated in the coming years, but there is a reasonable expectation that the positive side of Brazil´s foreign policy will prevail, providing opportunities to reinforce peace, democracy and human rights in the region, and to make more sense of popular and social inclusion into politics, rather than sacrificing them on the altar of ideology.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.