Brazilian Regional Leadership Turns Twenty


The crisis in Venezuela during the past months turned out to be Dilma Rousseff's most important foreign policy challenge so far. Critics pointed to Brazil's noticeably soft, even passive line toward the situation, accusing Rousseff of failing to defend democracy and political stability in the region. Brazil's lack of assertiveness, many argued, reflected a larger problem: South America's biggest country has always been, and remains, unwilling or incapable of assuming regional leadership.

Yet it would be wrong to argue that Brazil never promoted regional stability or democracy in the region. Quite to the contrary, in many instances over the past two decades, it played a highly constructive role, such as during crises in Paraguay in 1996/1997 and in Venezuela in 2002.

If one had to identify the first case of visible Brazilian regional leadership in recent history, 1995 comes to mind, when Brazil successfully contributed to ending an enduring rivalry that had simmered between Ecuador and Peru for well over a century. Prior to that, Brazil’s involvement in regional crises (such as the crisis in Haiti in 1991 or Fujimori’s power grab in 1992) was relatively muted, even though it did help mediate between Ecuador and Peru in 1991.

An excellent analysis of the situation that began in January 1995, right after President Fernando Henrique Cardoso took office, is Ecuador vs. Peru: Peacemaking Amid Rivalry, by Monica Herz and João Pontes Nogueira, two Brazilian academics based in Rio de Janeiro. As the authors make clear, it was not the UN or the OAS that led the mediations, but four "guarantor" countries (established in the 1942 Rio Protocol), of which Brazil took the leading role. The episode, they argue, represents a successful instance of peaceful resolution of a conflict that had the potential to involve both countries in a general war, severely undermining regional stability.

Herz and Nogueira describe the factors that led to the so-called Cenepa War: While the episode was initially little more than yet another minor border skirmish, Ecuador's military modernization led to relative parity, which ended up prolonging and intensifying the confrontation. On February 17, 1995, both parties signed the Itamaraty Peace Declaration, but substantive talks would not begin in Brasília until April 1997. Negotiations were complicated by political instability in Ecuador, yet by October 1998, Presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Bill Clinton, Carlos Menem and Eduardo Frei sent the final proposal to both Peru and Ecuador, which was accepted.

Why did Brazil take until 1995 to fully embrace its leading role in stabilizing the continent? A combination of factors can explain the change: When taking office, President Fernando Henrique Cardoso had just, as Finance Minister in the previous administration, successfully controlled inflation. The peaceful transfer of power (he was just the second directly and democratically elected President after the end of the military dictatorship) was a further sign that democracy was in the process of consolidation in Brazil, boosting its legitimacy as a democracy supporter. Finally, in comparison to his predecessors, Cardoso possessed considerable informal authority in the region – as a former exile and internationally recognized intellectual.

1995 clearly was the beginning of a trend. In 1996, Brazil exerted pressure on General Oviedo behind the scenes and convinced him not to overthrow Paraguay’s first democratically elected President in more than a century. Brazil’s engagement in the country continued for years, helping democracy consolidate there. In 2002, it played a constructive role in Venezuela, and Cardoso convinced Hugo Chavez to pardon those who had planned his overthrow. In addition to engaging directly in crises, Brazil also helped build a denser institutional network of rules and norms to help enhance democratic stability. In 2004, Brazil started to lead peacekeeping troops in Haiti, marking a further step towards strengthening its role in the region. While at times controversial, in particular after the coup d’état in Honduras in 2009 and President Lugo’s impeachment in 2012, Brazil has rarely acted in a passive manner. One important exception is Brazil’s decision not to play a role in the dispute between Argentina and Uruguay over the construction of a paper mill. In addition, Brazil’s seeming inertia during the recent crisis in Venezuela may mark a low-point in the history of Brazilian attempts to stabilize the region – although it remains to be seen how the current mediation process, of which Brazil’s Foreign Minister Figueiredo is part, unfolds. In any case, after twenty years of engagement, it now seems clear that no severe constitutional crisis in the neighborhood today would remain without a Brazilian response.

Read also:

Projeto de pesquisa: O Brasil nas Crises Internacionais

Rising Powers and the Future of Democracy Promotion: the case of Brazil and India (Third World Quarterly)

Can Brazil Defend Democracy in Venezuela? (Carnegie Democracy and Rule of Law Program)