The Challenges Awaiting Temer’s Top Diplomat

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Brazil's Vice President Michel Temer is currently assembling his cabinet

Whoever will be chosen by incoming President Michel Temer to head Brazil's Foreign Ministry faces a set of daunting challenges. Above all, he (sadly, there is not a single woman among the candidates) must reassure the international community that Brazil's crisis is under control and that the new government has the means and the legitimacy needed to get Brazil out of its mess. Along with the Chief of Staff (who must deliver a majority in Congress) the Minister of Finance and President of the Central Bank (who must design a viable economic strategy), Temer's Foreign Minister will inevitably play a key role in the new President's cabinet: regaining international investor confidence by orchestrating a global communication strategy will be crucial to stop the currently dominant sensation of gloom.

Temer's top diplomat will have a few things going in his favor: His boss needs no convincing that the Foreign Ministry is a key tool in his plan to get Brazil's economy back on track. In addition, he will lead a global diplomatic network of a size most other developing countries (such as India) can only dream of. Indeed, a Foreign Minister with direct access to and unmitigated support by the President could revive Brazil's international strategy relatively quickly. Finally, the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in August, the UN General Assembly in September and the BRICS Summit in October provide great opportunities to get the message out.

Yet the challenges are mind-boggling. Above all, while there is little doubt that Temer's economic team -- likely to be headed by Lula's former Central Bank President Henrique Meirelles -- has a credible plan, there is great skepticism about whether Brazil's Congress will approve the painful austerity measures ahead of the municipal elections later this year. Temer is a far more skilled political negotiator than Rousseff, who paid too little attention to Congress. But Temer's hands will be tied as cutting public spending and reducing the number of ministries will make pork barrel politics more difficult. If there is one big international consequence of April 17 (the day both Brazil and the world watched, with a mix of amazement and disgust, the impeachment vote in Congress), it is that that even the casual Brazil watcher abroad now has a keen sense of how decisive Brazil's Congress is to understand the country's political destiny. At international meetings, no future Brazilian Foreign Minister will be able to easily brush off questions about the President's capacity to work with Congress. Making matters even more difficult for Temer, he will be the first President since 2002 to face a focused and well-organized opposition, that will make a lot of noise not only at home, but also abroad, where the Workers Party (PT) possesses excellent contacts.

Secondly, while the international community does not regard Temer as a coup-monger, there is a clear understanding that the incoming President, unpopular at home and under scrutiny over testimony linking him to a Petrobras graft scandal, may not be seen as the change the Brazilian public longs for. That is particularly important as corruption has gained, over the past years, a much greater visibility in international affairs. Any attempt by Temer to stifle the Lava Jato investigation will inevitably have international repercussions. Concerns are not only of ethical nature. Rather, many observers regard corruption in Brazil to be so systemic that international investors think twice about betting on Latin America's largest economy. Investigations about corrupt practices by Brazilian companies abroad (primarily in Latin America and Africa) will force Brazil's Foreign Minister to adopt a tough rhetoric on corruption and perhaps even take the lead internationally on the matter -- a balancing act considering that not only Temer, but several of his allies have been accused, in plea bargains, of corrupt practices.

The third challenge is of logistical nature. As Matias Spektor pointed out recently, Temer may be reluctant to travel abroad because, according to Brazilian law, Eduardo Cunha, Brazil's Speaker of the Lower House and the country's most hated politician in recent memory, would temporarily take over in such instances. Considering how toxic the association with Cunha is for Michel Temer, the latter may seek to avoid international travel as much as possible. That increases the importance of the Foreign Minister even further. To compensate for this difficulty, Temer may scale a political heavy-weight as Special Advisor for International Affairs (a type of National Security Advisor), a position held, over the past years, by Marco Aurélio Garcia.

Temer's top diplomat will thus face great opportunities, but also tremendous risks. As the crucial Senate vote on May 11 is approaching (Temer is expected to present his entire cabinet hours after the decision), all applicants for the job are seeking to make their case. While some expect a politician and long-term Temer ally, others point to career diplomats (such as Roberto Jaguaribe, currently Brazil's Ambassador in China), or even the incumbent, Mauro Vieira, who is now openly disassociating himself from President Rousseff. Contrary to his predecessors, Vieira has a keen understanding of the machiavellian world of politics in Brasília. What counts against him is just as powerful. He served under President Rousseff, which would weaken the message Temer will ask his top diplomat to tell the rest of the world: Brazil has turned the page.

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