Brazil and the dilemma of regional leadership

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Prior to a recent meeting of Latin American policy makers and academics in Rio de Janeiro, I asked a participant from Ecuador whether he'd prefer to speak Spanish or Portuguese. "Nobody in Ecuador bothers to learn Portuguese", he answered. Ecuador is hardly exceptional. In Argentina, Chile or in any other Spanish-speaking country on the continent, it is probably easier to find people fluent in French or German than in Portuguese. In the same way, very few Brazilians care to learn Spanish, despite the fact that the vast majority of its neighbors speak it. Considering Brazil's dominant economic and political position on the South American continent, this may seem puzzling to outside observers.

In the same meeting, a former foreign minister of one of Brazil's neighbors affirmed that his country was culturally more connected to several European countries, saying he felt "far away from Brazil", which now "has a global focus rather than a regional one". But the increasing presence of Brazilian companies in the region, the opaque nuclear policy (e.g. construction of nuclear-power submarines), "makes us uneasy".

This was very much aligned with the views several Uruguayans shared with me during my visit to Montevideo two weeks ago - Brazil, according to them, sought to be "o mais grande do mundo" (the world's greatest, in Portuñol), but cared little about its neighbors' welfare. "When was the last time Brazil stood up for Latin America?" a Uruguayan minister asked me during an interview.

Much too late has the public debate in Brazil picked up on growing anti-Brazilian feelings in the region. Brazilian policy makers' traditional view, particularly on the left, is still that South America needs to resist North American dominance, something that seems increasingly out of touch from a, say, Bolivian or Paraguayan perspective.


Indeed, while Brazilian policy makers frequently affirm their commitment to their neighborhood (in what seems like a grotesque inflation of pro-regional rhetoric), one cannot deny that many policy makers and analysts are currently too attracted to global issues - the rise of China, India, the conflict in the Middle East, opening embassies in Africa - to engage with its immediate neighbors in a more profound manner. Yet Brazil's frequently mentioned soft power may be more powerful in Luanda and New Delhi than in Asunción or La Paz.

Finally, Brazil's decision to drop the concept of 'Latin America' and focus on South America instead (by, among others, creating UNASUR), is seen as a worrying sign that Brasília would like to exclude Mexico, the only country that could dispute its dominant position, from its sphere of influence. (Brazil’s support for CELAC, a club that includes all of Latin America but excludes the US and Canada, can be understood as a mere gesture, and the Brazilian media rightly treated its recent creation as a non-event.)

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At the same time, when proposing innovative policies that could help Brazil deal with anti-Brazilian feelings in the region, one must be careful not to overestimate Brazil's capacity. It is by far the greatest economy in the region, but its per-capita GDP is still lower than that of countries such as Uruguay or Chile. It is thus too easy to point to Germany's role in the EU and ask Brazil to turn into the region's paymaster. Contrasting Germany's economic dependence on the EU, Brazil's economy is increasingly detached from the region, particularly driven by skyrocketing trade with China.

In order to avoid any unwelcome backlash in the region, policy makers in may need to be more innovative to assure that its neighbors welcome Brazil's rise. For example, Brazil should think about how to combine its regional and global strategy. It could think about establishing an open dialogue with its neighbors about its nuclear policy, energy policy and evolving security strategy and its redefinition of the South Atlantic Space. And most importantly, it needs to lay out clearly what its vision of the region is and how it intends to go about implementing it - as always, transparency is a powerful tool to mitigate fear.

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Photo credit: Ricardo Stuckert/Presidência da República