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Brazilian foreign policy after Lula

João Augusto de Castro Neves


Photo: Courtesy Government of Brazil
The successor of Brazilian President may face some trying challenges. 

Since announcing his bid for the Oct. 3 presidential elections five months ago, Brazilian opposition candidate José Serra has heightened the tone of his attacks on President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s government. This behaviour is to be expected from rival political parties, namely Serra’s Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) and Lula’s Workers Party (PT). However, the novelty lies in the electoral emphasis on foreign policy issues. Over the past months, Serra has accused Bolivia of being complicit in drug traffic entering Brazil; he has denounced an alleged PT link with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC); and he has criticized dealings between Lula’s government and authoritarian regimes such as Cuba and Iran.

As an electoral strategy, this criticism toward Lula’s foreign policy initiatives will have little impact on the ballot. Notwithstanding Lula’s efforts to make his diplomatic actions more visible, historically the political debate in Brasilia has not focused much on international relations issues and this lack of interest is mirrored in public opinion. Yet, Serra’s strategy of politicizing Brazilian diplomatic relations is forcing the country’s main political forces to explain and more extensively discuss their respective foreign policy projects.

This debate is pressing since Brazil has repositioned itself globally during the last decade. In South America, its foreign policy’s increased assertiveness has given way to the creation of new institutions such as the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the South American Defence Council (CDS). Brazil has also intensified its investments in the region. On the international stage, Brazil played an enhanced role in the Doha Round negotiations of the World Trade Organization (WTO), and more recently it was called upon by the G20 Summit on Financial Markets, along with other emerging countries, to discuss recovery measures in the context of the 2008-2009 international financial crisis. Brazil has also been more assertive in climate change and nuclear proliferation discussions.

Part of the significant changes in the country’s traditional stand on the international arena can be attributed to Lula and his political choices and popularity both inside and outside the country. How can one explain Lula’s good relations with presidents of such a mixed bag: France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the U.S.’s Barack Obama and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, among others? Even after making highly controversial declarations in defence of the Iranian nuclear program or against Cuban political dissidents, his charisma seems unabated. In the face of this remarkable leadership, the October presidential election will be an important benchmark for Brazil’s international relations in the coming years. Ultimately, regardless of who wins the elections and takes office in 2011, one thing is for certain: Brazil’s next president will be less popular than Lula. 

Even with a relatively unchanged technocracy —the Ministry of Foreign Relations (Itamaraty)— in conducting the country’s diplomacy, the incoming president will take up an office that now has greater international visibility than ever before and will face difficult international choices both regionally and globally. How will the presidential candidates deal with these challenges?

It is reasonable to expect that the Lula-backed PT candidate and former minister Dilma Rousseff would try to follow in her predecessor’s footsteps; however, her lack of experience and leadership demands caution. First, if she maintains the administrative design inherited from Lula’s administration, Rousseff would likely have to deal with diverging opinions on foreign policy within her own ministerial team, particularly on the Petrobras, the National Development Bank (BNDES), Itamaraty, Defence, Foreign Trade, Agriculture and other ministries. Second, Rousseff would have to deal with a Latin American region susceptible to political disputes and crises and would have to prevent a possible process of regional disintegration, besides defending Brazilian investments in neighbouring countries. Finally, Rousseff would certainly have to invest time and political capital to explain controversial issues such as Brazil’s relations with Iran and other authoritarian regimes.

José Serra (PSDB), for his part, has already voiced some criticism that provides an indication of the nature of his would-be foreign policies. Foreseeable actions include an administration with fewer cabinet positions that could reduce dissident voices on foreign policy. Further, Serra would most likely distance his country from regimes considered authoritarian. However, there are still many doubts about actions on the regional front and commercial policy. In spite of Serra’s harsh words on the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR) and some neighbouring countries, it is difficult to imagine which alternative his government could envisage. After all, even if the PSDB has put forward the idea to render the MERCOSUR more flexible by allowing each member state to decide freely on its own trade policy, it is still uncertain whether a Serra administration would push a free trade agenda with major economies outside the region.  

Many more issues will pose a challenge for the future Brazilian president: participation in multilateral trade negotiations and climate change talks, relations with other emerging economies, Brazil’s role in forums such as BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and IBSA (India, Brazil and South Africa), and relations with the developed world (Canada, the European Union, Japan and the United States). President Lula put Brazilian diplomacy in the spotlight at home and on the global stage; as he steps down in October, it will be possible to evaluate with more clarity the sustainability of Brazil’s foreign policy without his leadership. blue square

João Augusto de Castro Neves is a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of São Paulo (USP), Brazil. He is a founding partner of CAC Political Consultancy, a political risk analysis firm based in Brasilia (www.analisepolitica.com). He currently works as an independent political consultant in Washington, D.C. The author can be contacted at: joao@castroneves.net.

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