Brazil needs to launch a regional charm offensive

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(this article was originally published in Spanish in Asuntos del Sur)

Brazil’s impressive growth is one of the determining aspects of international politics of the past decade; and analysts both at home and abroad are busy debating which role Brazil is to play on the global stage. While Brazil has still plenty of domestic problems to solve – ranging from poverty, a lack of social inclusion, bad infrastructure and deficits in basic education – it cannot be denied that Brazil is on the way to becoming one of the five largest economies of the world in the near future, a role which will require it to assume a lot more international responsibility than many can imagine today.

While Brazil’s growth has received cheers all over the world, Brazil’s immediate neighbors are increasingly wary of the emerging giant in their midst, fearing that it could simply replace the United States as the region’s hegemon, exploiting weaker members economically and bullying them politically. Brazil thus faces the very same challenges as India and China: How to increase economic influence in their respective region without being regarded as a predator?

The question of how its neighbors see it is a growing concern for the Brazilian government. As Brazil’s economic presence in the region grows, politicians in Paraguay, Argentina, Bolivia and elsewhere will be increasingly tempted to use Brazil as a scapegoat for economic woes. Voters may be particularly vulnerable to anti-Brazilian rhetoric in countries where beloved national brands, such as Quilmes, a brewery in Argentina, are acquired by Brazilian firms, or when the BNDS (Brazilian Development Bank) helps Brazilian firms enter neighboring markets, giving them what some say an unfair advantage.

A string of incidents in the recent past serve as a clear indicator that anti-Brazilian sentiments in the region are on the rise. A large project to build a hydroelectric dam by Brazilian firms in the Peruvian Amazon was recently canceled when Peruvians voices their outrage after it became clear that most of the energy generated would be sent to Brazil. In Mendoza, Vale ran into difficulties after the Argentinian government accused it of not employing a sufficient amount of local staff.

While obvious to Argentines or Uruguayans, the potentially negative effects of Brazil’s economic growth on its reputation in the regions are only slowly emerging topics in Brazil’s public discussion. Yet recently, some of Brazil’s leading policy analysts, such as Matias Spektor, have warned that growing economic asymmetry and fear of economic dependence in neighboring countries could lead to a backlash that could seriously hurt Brazil.

As a reaction, Brazilians have begun to debate the need to launch a massive charm offensive to improve its image in South America. Many projects already emphasize technical cooperation, education, cultural exchange, and the financing of social programs that have been successfully implemented in Brazil, such as Bolsa Familia. In this regard, Brazil can copy China, which takes great care to assure its neighbors that they will benefit from China’s rise as much as China itself. Considering that Brazil’s economic growth story has just begun, and that its economic presence in the regional will only increase, its major challenge in the region will be to be seen as a partner, and not as yet another neo-imperialist power.

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