Why Africa matters to Brazil

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Today the Center of International Relations, based at Fundação Getulio Vargas' School of Social Science and History (CPDOC) in São Paulo, organized a debate entitled "Brasil e África: Uma ponte sobre o Atlântico?" (Brazil and Africa: Bridging the Atlantic?). Fernando Mourão, sociology professor at the University of São Paulo (USP) and Alexandre Barbosa, who lectures on economic history at USP, gave presentations of the state of Brazil - Africa relations.

Brazil’s presence in Africa is growing– nothing symbolizes this reality better than the 37 Brazilian embassies that now exist across the continent, providing Brazil with a stronger diplomatic representation than traditional powers such as Great Britain. Yet what is Brazil’s Africa strategy, and what are its interests? Are we witnessing an intense yet unsustainable rapprochement (as seen before), or is this just the beginning of a long-lasting and ever closer cooperation?

Both speakers contrasted the low point of Brazil-Africa relations in the 1990s, when Presidents Collor and Cardoso put a focus on strengthening ties with the US, with President Lula's decision to make Africa a priority in Brazil’s effort to diversify its partnerships. Brazil's motivations had both idealist and realist elements: Lula pointed to Brazil’s ‘historic debt’ to Africa, saw cultural ties and sought to strengthen South-South relations in general to balance what he saw as overly powerful established powers. At the same time, he recognized that Africa’s markets offered great potential for Brazilian companies.

Both Mourão and Barbosa argued that Lula's decision to strengthen ties to African nations has been wrongly accused of being the outgrowth of an anachronistic developmentalist ideology. Barbosa and Mourão both pointed out that the Brazilian press continues to be overly critical of Brazil's growing presence in Africa, for example by frequently citing the financial burden of opening embassies in little known and relatively poor countries. Barbosa said racist elements were still present among part of Brazil's elites, and that even the Baron of Rio Branco, considered to be the 'father of Brazilian diplomacy', was known to have favored diplomats with Caucasian features to get the top jobs within the Foreign Ministry.

Barbosa cited the many dimensions in which Brazil benefitted from stronger ties to Africa, and said it was thanks to African votes that Brazil's José Graziano da Silva was elected FAO's Director-General. Barbosa rejected the notion that Brazil was running the risk of turning into another China, yet Mourão pointed out that many Brazilian expats living in Africa often do too little to engage with locals, preferring to live in their gated communities far from African reality. That may be too little to maintain the excellent reputation Brazilians still enjoy across Africa.

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