What would Aécio do?

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As I have recently argued, next year’s presidential campaign in Brazil should include discussions about each candidate’s – and the incumbent’s – ideas about which strategies are both desirable and viable to defend Brazil’s interests abroad. Brazil’s international engagement is far greater today than at any moment in its history, making the topic a key element of any government’s overall strategy. Brazilian troops are in Haiti, Brazil’s National Development Bank (BNDES) lends money internationally, Brazil boosted the number of its embassies in Africa, and it has helped create both BRICS and UNASUL.

This strong international presence raises important questions. For example, what has Brazil’s increased focus on Africa over the past decade really achieved? Can being part of the BRICS grouping increase Brazil’s global influence? How can we convince our neighbors that Brazil’s rise is good for them, too? What is Brazil’s long-term vision for the region? What role does Brazilian development aid, UNASUL and Mercosur play in this regional vision? How can Brazil best promote political and economic stability across Latin America? How should Brazil deal with potential instability in Venezuela and the violation of human rights in Cuba?

On the face of it, all candidates should be capable of powerfully criticizing Brazil’s foreign policy under Dilma Rousseff. Compared to both Cardoso and Lula, who left their mark on Brazil’s international engagement, Dilma’s foreign policy turned out to be lackluster. Foreign diplomats privately lament that she does not seem to care much about international issues. While foreign ministers under Cardoso and Lula thrived, Itamaraty was downgraded under Rousseff, and Foreign Minister Patriota was given little room to take the initiative. Rousseff’s speeches at the UN General Assembly, great opportunities to articulate Brazil’s vision, were uninspiring. The simple promise of putting international affairs back on center stage would probably win a candidate some support among Brazilian voters.

What would Aécio Neves, candidate of Brazil’s Social Democratic Party (PSDB) do were he elected President? Of all candidates, it is the former governor of Minas Gerais who has articulated the strongest criticism of the government’s current foreign policy. Under both Lula and Rousseff, Aécio argues, Brazil has maintained excessively cordial ties with authoritarian regimes such as Cuba and Iran, and has done too little to promote human rights and democracy. In the same way, he argues that inviting Chavez’ Venezuela to join Mercosur was a mistake. Finally, Brazil was wrong to meekly accept expropriations of Petrobras’ refineries in Bolivia – hinting that Brazil’s response was largely determined by the government’s ideological sympathies with Bolivia’s left-leaning Evo Morales. 

On a global scale, he believes Brazil’s emphasis on strengthening ties with other emerging powers and Africa was ill-conceived, ideology-driven, and did not serve Brazil’s national interest.

Aécio Neves therefore not only criticizes the government’s foreign policy, but also offers relatively clear alternatives: Brazil should cease to cultivate close ties with Cuba, Venezuela and other left-leaning governments in the region, and adopt a more critical tone. It would openly condemn human rights violations in Cuba and call for the release of all political prisoners on the island. In this sense, his vision resembles that of Marina Silva, another possible candidate. Brazil would also spend less time strengthening its ties with the Global South, and seek to consolidate its relationship with the United States.

Yet however constructive, his criticism is based on the larger assumption that Brazil’s entire foreign policy edifice rests on purely leftist ideological foundations – a questionable claim considering how relatively little foreign policy changed when President Lula took over in 2002. Neither President Itamar Franco nor Fernando Henrique Cardoso openly criticized Fidel Castro (even though Felipe Lampreia once insisted in meeting an opposition figure during a trip to Cuba). In a similar vein, it was President Cardoso who first proposed inviting Venezuela into Mercosur. Brazil’s close ties with Venezuela during the past decade can be explained by Brazil’s economic interests there, not by a strong ideological affiliation. Dilma Rousseff despised Hugo Chavez’ abrasive style, and she is said to be highly critical of President Maduro’s economic management.

Finally, diversifying partnerships and building a stronger diplomatic presence in the developing world was also Cardoso’s initiative, Lula merely continued and enhanced the strategy. Brazil’s current strategy may be less ideologically driven than some of Aécio Neves’ criticism suggests. Lula’s decision to negotiate with Iran in 2010 was much more an attempt to strengthen Brazil’s global projection than a declaration of love to Mahmud Ahmadinjad – even though Lula’s beaming smiles with the Iranian President, making headlines around the world, may indeed have sent the wrong signal to the global public.

All this does not mean that Aécio’s criticism is misplaced. For example, he is right to point out that ties with the United States reached a low point towards the end of Lula’s second mandate, yet Rousseff’s Foreign Minister Patriota largely succeeded in normalizing relations – before the spying scandal undid his work. Aécio Neves criticized Rousseff’s decision to cancel the state visit, saying that not going to the White House may have hurt business ties.

Regarding Aécio’s regional approach, two questions stand out. First of all, could a more assertive pro-human rights and democracy stance lead smaller states to see Brazil as a regional bully? How would Aécio make sure criticizing the Venezuelan government would not affect Brazil’s massive business interests there? After all, even the Federation of Industries of São Paulo State (FIESP) supported Venezuela’s entry into Mercosul, and Lula’s close ties to Chavez have protected Brazilian investments against political meddling in Venezuela so far.

Secondly, how exactly does he intend to influence Cuban politics? Considering that a US-embargo has not destabilized the Cuban regime nor made it more liberal, is isolating Cuba the right strategy for Brazil? This harks back to one of the most complex questions in international relations: How should liberal democratic countries deal with illiberal non-democratic ones? Should we seek to change them by either isolating them or engaging with them (as different strands of liberal thought suggest), or should we refrain from influencing internal matters of other countries (reflecting a more realist approach)?

It is thus not yet entirely clear in how far Aécio envisions a “pragmatic foreign policy” based on Brazil’s strategic and economic interests (a term he often uses) or a more value-driven foreign policy that promotes democracy and human rights (even if it risks hurting Brazilian business interests). If it is the latter, the term “pragmatic” seems to be out of place. In that case, he would have to explain how he would deal with Brazil’s growing economic ties with kleptocracies like Angola or Equatorial Guinea, or with dictatorships like China.

As Brazil’s international engagement is set to increase over the next decade, and as the well-being of Brazilian citizens is ever more affected by Brazil’s foreign policy strategy, discussing these questions at length is crucial – irrespective of whether one agrees with Aécio Neves’ line of argument, it strengthens the incipient foreign policy debate and forces the government to defend its strategy.

Read also:

Marina’s foreign policy

Brazil and UN Security Council reform: Is it time for another big push?

Can Itamaraty engage civil society?

Photo credit: Veja