Is Brazil the New Regional Champion of Democracy? (Americas Quarterly)



Don't confuse Brasília's stepped-up profile with U.S.-style democracy promotion.

Addressing the United Nations General Assembly in September 2010, U.S. President Barack Obama appealed to rising democracies around the world to help spread the democratic message, declaring that “we need your voices to speak out,” and reminding them that “part of the price of our own freedom is standing up for the freedom of others.”1

Many observers regarded this as wishful thinking. Democracy promotion, they argue, is a typically Western endeavor. While governments and NGOs in Europe and North America spend billions of dollars every year on democracy-related projects, emerging powers have traditionally avoided such projects—underlining the view held by some skeptics that there is no place for democracy promotion in a “post-Western world.”

Yet even the skeptics might find reason to pause when it comes to Brazil. Latin America’s largest nation has quietly turned into democracy’s “defender-in-chief,” in sharp contrast to emerging democracies in other regions, such as Turkey, South Africa or India—none of which regard democracy promotion beyond their borders as a priority.

This has not always been the case.

Despite Brazil’s dominant position in the region, it usually shied away from intervening in its neighbors’ internal affairs prior to the 1990s. Defending national sovereignty and non-intervention has always been and remains a key pillar of Brazil’s foreign policy, so any attempt to promote or defend democracy and human rights abroad conflicts with the principle of non-intervention. The tension arising from these two opposing visions—respecting sovereignty and adopting a more emphatic pro-democracy stance, particularly in the region—remains one of the important quandaries in Brazilian foreign policy.

Under President José Sarney (1985–1990), the first civilian president after more than two decades of military dictatorship, Brazil supported the inclusion of a reference to democracy in a new preamble to the Organization of American States (OAS) Charter.2 But as recently as the end of the Cold War, Brazilian leaders resisted democracy promotion policies that could be seen to violate its commitment to non-intervention. In 1990, under President Fernando Collor de Mello, Brazil deflected calls for a military intervention in Suriname following a military coup. In 1994, Brazil—then a member of the UN Security Council—abstained from Resolution 940 authorizing the use of force in Haiti to re-install President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who had been deposed in a coup d’état. Strengthening democracy outside Brazil’s borders was less important to Brazilian policy makers than addressing the political challenges at home, partly because of Brazil’s own recent democratic transition.

The Model Breaks

Events and new leadership began to recast Brazil as an increasingly assertive defender of democracy in Latin America. In 1996, President Fernando Henrique Cardoso leveraged regional bodies like the Mercado Común del Sur (Mercosur) and the OAS to roll back a coup attempt in Paraguay, ultimately convincing Paraguayan General Lino Oviedo to back down from his effort to unseat then-President Juan Carlos Wasmosy. In the political crises that followed in Paraguay, Cardoso continued to play a crucial mediating role.

In 2000, when Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori was suspected of violating election standards, Cardoso ostentatiously stayed away from Fujimori’s inauguration. A year later, Brazil supported the drafting and approval of the OAS Inter-American Democratic Charter,4 which established the norm of democratic solidarity—largely aimed at Fujimori— stating that the people of the Americas have a right to democracy and their governments have an obligation to promote and defend it.

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