Brazil’s Venezuela Problem

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Addressing the United Nations General Assembly in September 2010, U.S. President Barack Obama appealed to rising democracies such as Brazil 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.”

Yet over the past weeks, Western media strongly criticized Brazil's stance on the deepening crisis in neighboring Venezuela.

The Economist wrote that

Most of the region has been uncritical of Mr Maduro since the protests began in early February; Brazil, the regional heavyweight, has been characteristically mute.

The Wall Street Journal, in an article titled "Venezuela Crackdown Meets Silence in Latin America", reported that "Brazil's president Dilma Rousseff has stayed on the sidelines".

The New York Times wrote that "Dilma Rousseff, has not commented on the crisis in Venezuela" and that "Brazil’s foreign minister, Luiz Alberto Figueiredo, has also sidestepped any Maduro critique." The newspaper quoted Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, saying that

Now it’s, ‘We’re focused on democracy in our own country, but if something happens with a neighbor we are not going to say anything.’

Former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso wrote that Brazil's current government was acting with "incredible timidity" in the face of human-rights abuses in Venezuela.

And indeed, the Venezuelan government's response to the demonstrations was entirely unacceptable. Reporters have been detained, beaten and robbed, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. “Media blackouts, arrests and a campaign of harassment against dissenting voices has become a hallmark of this administration,” the group’s deputy director said. As a consequence, the United Nations and its Secretary General have expressed concern about human rights violations in Venezuela and asked for the deaths to be investigated.

In late February, twitter users in Venezuela periodically lost access to photos on the platform, and after that, San Cristobal, an opposition stronghold, reportedly lost Internet connectivity altogether. An association of Spanish journalists denounced the “genuine information blackout” in Venezuela and said in a statement: “The freedom of the press is a fundamental right in democracies, which is why all efforts to cut it off are a grave setback.” The arrest of Leopoldo López, an opposition figure, on trumped-up charges, strengthened international criticism further. The protesters, of course, are also to blame, and it is also the opposition's failure that so many demonstrations turned violent.

Yet rather than specifically pointing out that both the government and the opposition were to blame, Brazil co-issued three rather bland communiqués (through UNASUR, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) and Mercosur). The latter was particularly controversial, as it was generally interpreted as being soft on the Maduro government, characterizing protesters as anti-democratic forces.

In response, Brazil's Foreign Minister Figueiredo on Monday actively defended his country's strategy, arguing in an interview with Folha de São Paulo that the Mercosur statement had been "misunderstood". Yet when the reporter asked whether Mercosur leaders had tried to send a message to President Maduro, the foreign minister replied that "Maduro did not need a message".

International commentators explained Brazil's unwillingness to criticize the Venezuelan government more forcefully by pointing to an ideological affinity with President Maduro and to Brazil's business interests in Venezuela - large Brazilian construction firms have projects in many parts of Caracas. While ideology is unlikely to be of much importance, economic interests certainly play a role.

It would be wrong, however, to argue that Brazil's passive rhetoric so far is proof that it does not care about defending democracy in the region. Quite to the contrary: The consolidation of democracy in the region has turned, over the past decade, into one of Brazil’s fundamental foreign policy goals. Since Cardoso's presidency, Brazil has often assertively engaged in its region, willing to intervene if political crises threatened democracy. Partly to strengthen regional institutions and partly out of fear of being seen as a bully, Brazil usually acts through Mercosur and Unasur - a strategy that, while right in principle, also at times turns out to be less agile than acting bilaterally. In addition, Brazil has been more concerned about constitutional crises and the possibility of undemocratic removal of a president in the region than about "procedural aspects" of democracy such as free speech.

The true test of regional leadership is whether Brazil can help bring the government and the opposition in Venezuela to the table as quickly as possible. A negotiated settlement must oblige the government to disband the armed militia groups (colectivos), release all those imprisoned for taking part in street protests, end restrictions on the media and social media and allow greater measures of free political activity. In return, the opposition must give up any aspirations of ousting President Maduro.

In April 2002, President Cardoso was  active in behind-the-scenes negotiations to return Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez to power, 48 hours after he was deposed by a coup d’état. The incoming Lula government continued to work with all sides in Venezuela to assure continued political stability. While today's situation is different, Brazil will yet again have to engage and assume regional leadership - may it be through Unasur, Mercosur, or bilaterally. It seems increasingly unlikely that Venezuela can solve the crisis on its own.

Read also:

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

Is Brazil a regional hegemon?

Venezuela’s tragedy, Brazil’s challenge

Photo credit: Reuters