Renewed Engagement in Latin America

(International Relations and Security Network, 13/02/2007)


The US government has initiated a diplomatic offensive in Latin America, and Brazil is the logical partner as Washington seeks to contain Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, reduce dependence on oil and strengthen ties with regional proxies to push forward its regional agenda.


While there are ideological differences between Brazil and the US, there are also many points for cooperation to close the gap.


Two top diplomats with the US State Department, Nicolas Burns and Tom Shannon, and US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales spent three days in Brazil earlier this month for a series of meetings with officials there. The meetings represented a break from stagnated relations framed by the failed Free Trade Agreement policy and the never-ending war on drugs.


However, it will be tough for US diplomats to make up for lost ground due to a recent history of benign neglect towards the region.


During the recent visit, diplomats in Brazil were all smiles when they discussed closer relations with the US. But beyond the headlines, there remains significant diplomatic tension between the State Department and its Brazilian counterpart, Itamaraty.


Just days before the high-level session in Brasilia, Brazil's former ambassador to the US, Roberto Abdenur, alleged that Itamaraty "brainwashed" its diplomats, according to the Brazilian daily O Estado de Sao Paulo. In an interview with the daily, he spoke strongly against a left-leaning ideological tilt in Brazil's Foreign Ministry cultured by the leadership of the Workers Party (PT), led by Brazilian President Luis Inacio "Lula" da Silva.


The interview was published a second time, on 9 February, during the US diplomats' visit with top officials in Itamaraty.


Abdenur served in Washington, DC from 2004-2006. According to the report, the former ambassador said he had never seen such brainwashing during his four-decade-long career as he had seen under the Lula administration, not even during Brazil’s military dictatorship. His interview revealed a specific anti-American and anti-globalization ideology installed in Itamaraty, one that was not present before 2003.


Observers claim that Abdenur made reference to two individuals in his interview: Ambassador Samuel Pinheiro Guimarães and former presidential adviser Marco Aurélio Garcia. Adbenur's interview suggests that Guimarães orders diplomats to read "leftist" books and then quizzes them to judge their ideological "posture."


Garcia was President Lula's special adviser for international affairs until late 2006. He has been the vice president of the PT and is known to be a significant contributor to the ideology that dictates the party's - and Lula's - international relations.


Garcia is also known to have strong ties with Cuban leader Fidel Castro, Venezuela's Chavez and Bolivian President Evo Morales - not a pleasant reality for US diplomats interested in closer ties with Brazil.


Publication of the interview caused tension, highlighting the unspoken reality that some in Lula's government want nothing to do with the US.


Significant ideological differences remain between Brasilia and Washington, yet both are committed to democracy. It is a common starting point from which both countries can discuss future cooperation.


The future of increased production of ethanol is also a strong point for cooperation.


The US and Brazil are the world's leading producers of ethanol. Increased use of ethanol would benefit both countries. A rise in demand leads to production, translating into more jobs and - particularly for the US - less dependence on Venezuelan oil.


"Energy has tended to distort and expand the power of some countries beyond the power they should probably have," Burns said during his trip to Brazil. "In some cases, this is positive; in other cases it is negative. We could say it is negative in the cases of Iran and Venezuela."


The State Department "thought it very important to start 2007 very quickly with as many trips into the region at a high a level as possible to begin to engage with these governments and to begin to identify our priorities as we go into 2007 and 2008, the final year of the Bush [a]dministration," Tom Shannon, the department's top diplomat in Latin America, said on 5 February before leaving for South America.


Next month, US President George W Bush will travel to the region and plans to visit with Lula on 8 March in Sao Paulo. He will face some resistance from Lula on many issues, but there is potential for friendship. In the end, however, all in Brazil are aware that Bush's term is coming to a close. Many political leaders in Brazil are looking for signs of how the next US president might look upon relations with Brazil and the rest of Latin America.


From that point of view, Washington's diplomatic offensive is a salvage mission. The US' deplorable policy in Latin America has opened a divide that will take years to bridge. It is too late for Bush to do anything much at all, but his efforts can spearhead a new US posture towards Latin America, beginning with Brazil.