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Wikileaks Cables Portray a Different Side of Brazil's Lula da Silva

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This article originally appeared on latindispatch.com

While many on the international left may extol the rise of Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva and his Workers' Party (PT, in Portuguese), which formed part of the so-called "Pink Tide" in South America, Wikileaks documents paint a much more ambiguous picture of Brazil's emergence on the world stage. The leaked U.S. cables, which chronicle Lula's eight years in power, show a leader all too willing to placate Washington and double-cross fellow leftists throughout the region. To be sure, Lula helped to alleviate poverty during his two terms in office, but the documents do not suggest that the Brazilian leader is overly concerned with furthering radical change in the wider region. To the contrary, they depict Lula and his circle as obsessed with promoting regional "stability" under their leadership and reviving the military, all in the name of fostering Brazil's quest for "national development."

Lula Circle Placates Otto Reich

In late 2002, Lula had just won the presidential election and was waiting to assume office. Just a few months earlier, the Bush administration had helped aid rightists in Venezuela as they staged a coup against democratically elected leader Hugo Chávez. In advance of the coup, Assistant Secretary of State Otto Reich reportedly met with alleged coup plotters, including dictator-for-a-day Pedro Carmona, at the White House.

President-elect Lula and senior members of the Workers' Party held a "warm and productive meeting" with Reich in Brasilia, where Lula, who was "upbeat," said he was looking forward to meeting President Bush for the first time on an upcoming trip to Washington. Brazil's image had suffered in recent years, Lula explained, and the Workers' Party wanted to reverse the international view that government officials were a "bunch of irresponsible thieves" and Brazil was "another Colombia."

When Reich expressed concern about Workers Party links to the wider South American left, one PT leader downplayed the contact and remarked that these unreconstructed, "outdated" leftists could learn a lot from the PT model emphasizing economic development. Brazil, the party official added, would be interested in holding talks on Bush's Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and said the country fully supported Washington's right to defend itself against terrorist attack. PT president José Dirceu chimed in on the issue of terrorism, noting that if FARC guerrillas ever crossed into Brazil from Colombia, the authorities would surely flatten them.

The Super Tucano Imbroglio

Lula's political circle desired to portray itself as a responsible player in the eyes of the Bush administration, which would lead it to take some questionable positions in wider South America. One very damning cable from 2006, for example, shows the Lula administration torn between Venezuela on the one hand and Washington on the other. If the document is to be believed, Brazilian diplomats charted a particularly unscrupulous and opportunistic foreign policy [Lula recently came out in support of Wikileaks and Julian Assange, suggesting that the Brazilian may not dispute the actual facts presented in U.S. cables.

Having beaten back U.S.-sponsored destabilization, Chávez was looking to fortify his military. But, Venezuela was in a bind as Washington had put the squeeze on Chávez by delaying the delivery of spare parts for the Andean nation's existing F-16 fighter planes. As an alternative, Chávez turned to Brazil, a country which was fast developing its own aerospace industry. Venezuela, which had friendly ties to Brasilia, requested the purchase of Super Tucano fighter planes from the Lula government.

Yet, Chávez was frustrated once again when Washington disallowed the purchase on the grounds that the Tucanos contained spare parts from the United States. Growing increasingly embarrassed by the incident, Lula sought a compromise. In Caracas, Brazilian ambassador to Venezuela, João Carlos de Sousa Gomes, met with U.S. ambassador William Brownfield and proposed a kind of trade: Lula would offer political support to the Chávez opposition group Súmate and in exchange the Bush administration would provide the necessary trade licensing for U.S. components in the Tucano planes.

In making his pitch to Brownfield, de Sousa sought to cast Brazil as a responsible player in the region. If the United States allowed the military sale to go forward, the diplomat argued, then Brasilia could exercise a "moderating" influence on Caracas. However, if the Tucano deal failed to materialize, then Brazil would enjoy no such political leverage. Brownfield wasn't too impressed by the conversation, remarking that the deal sounded "like a bad trade to us." However, the U.S. ambassador suggested he might be open to a trade if Brazil "would be willing to discuss help regarding Venezuela's push for a non-permanent United Nations Security Council seat."

Lula's Second Term

During a party thrown to celebrate Lula's election to a second term, U.S. Ambassador Clifford Sobel told Lula Chief of Staff Gilberto Carvalho that he was concerned about Brazilian rhetoric stressing the need to develop "counterbalances" to the United States. Carvalho said: there would be "no further discussion" of such matters and "asked for the Ambassador's understanding if rhetoric during the election campaign had occasionally seemed critical of the U.S."

Over the next few years, while Brazil continued to promote friendly ties to the Bush administration though, much to the dismay of U.S. diplomats the South American juggernaut would not move to isolate the South American left. In early 2009, now in the first few months of the Obama administration, Sobel wrote a revealing report concerning the future direction of Brazilian foreign policy. Brazil, he noted, was now assuming an increasingly more prominent role on the world stage and Itamaraty, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, would likely be dominated by three different personalities: the "nationalist" Foreign Minister Celso Amorim; "anti-American" Secretary General (deputy Foreign Minister) Samuel Pinheiro Guimarães, and "the academic leftist" presidential Foreign Policy Advisor Marco Aurelio Garcia.

Itamaraty's "Pragmatic" Team

According to a cable from Sobel, Secretary General Guimarães was an obstacle to the U.S. as the diplomat was "virulently anti-American, and anti-'first world' in general." As a senior official in charge of personnel matters, he issued a required reading list of books which were critical of the U.S. and was furthermore guilty "of using ideological requirements in handing out promotions." In addition, Guimarães was "known to have gone out of his way to provoke and stall initiatives by U.S. and European countries." Fortunately, the diplomat was part of the old guard and was shortly scheduled for retirement.

Other diplomats were more pliable toward U.S. desires. Under Amorim, Brazil had been had rejected cooperation on biofuels, and had "launched a number of initiatives in South America that do not include the United States," Sobel remarked. Yet, even at Itamaraty, one of the more leftist enclaves within the Brazilian government, "a broader, once nearly knee-jerk anti-Americanism has given way to a growing desire to have a seat among global players."

The inherent desire to be accepted by the more "responsible" international powers, and to acquire a coveted seat at the United Nations Security Council, would ultimately act as a check on Amorim, making it very unlikely that Brazil would pursue a more avowedly leftist orientation in its foreign policy. Furthermore, if Itamaraty entertained any notion of pursuing controversial stances on foreign affairs, the private sector would act as a strong countervailing force.

In the words of Sobel, "there is a growing debate among the non-government foreign policy elite in Brazil, and substantial opposition from the private sector, regarding the wisdom of what is widely acknowledged as a heavy south-south focus. This debate expresses publicly the discomfort that many diplomats express privately with the direction of Brazil's foreign policy under Lula." Given the widespread opposition by the private sector, it was not a surprise that under Amorim Brazil had placed "renewed primacy" on a "constructive and engaged role in the WTO negotiations (under pressure from Brazil's private sector)."

Foreign Policy Advisor Garcia meanwhile was one of Lula's closest advisers and exercised an "outsized influence." A longtime leftist, Garcia championed close relations with "Pink Tide" governments throughout the region. Yet even Garcia seemed very self conscious about his ideological stripes, going out of his way to prove his "responsible" bona fides in private. "Talking with Americans," Sobel noted, "he [Garcia] tends to couch negative views of the United States as good-natured jokes from the past ("When I was young, we used to call the OAS 'the Ministry of U.S. Colonies'; "When I was a young man, the joke was, 'Why has the United States never had a coup? Because it doesn't have a U.S. embassy!'").

Whatever his true beliefs, Garcia wound up promoting Lula's "pragmatic" approach toward foreign policy, which is clearly evident in leaked documents. One cable dating to early 2010, during a meeting with U.S. officials, has Garcia assuring the U.S. that Bolivian President Evo Morales was "more moderate than his words or image indicate." Garcia added that Bolivia "should not be viewed as a concern for either the U.S. or Brazil," meaning that the Morales regime would presumably not threaten wider regional stability or big power interests.

Though Sobel acknowledged that dealing with Itamaraty had sometimes proven "frustrating," nevertheless the departure of old guard stalwarts like Guimarães boded well for overall U.S. strategic interests. The U.S. ambassador eagerly looked forward to "shaping the views of a large cohort of younger, more pragmatic, and more globally oriented diplomats who will be moving into senior ranks."

Rehabilitating the Military

Even if Itamaraty presented a viable ideological challenge to U.S. interests, Washington had a number of options on the table when it came to dealing with Brazil. In particular, Sobel recommended that the State Department seek to improve ties to Brazil's armed forces. Though ostracized for decades after the fall of military dictatorship in 1985, Lula had placed renewed primacy on restoring Brazilian military prowess.

Wikileaks cables reveal Brazil as intent on pursuing armed forces expansion, a development which may give pause to many on the South American left. Somewhat ominously perhaps, Brazil wants to promote military expansion as a means of enhancing its own industrial development. "After more than twenty years outside the political mainstream, and twenty years of minimal resources," Sobel remarked, "the Brazilian military is now making a case for its modernization. As it does so, opportunities will exist for improving the U.S.-Brazil security partnership."

Big Power Projection and the Amazon

What will be the role of the Brazilian military in future? Sobel's analysis suggests that the South American juggernaut will act to defend its strategic and economic interests. Take the Brazilian Navy, for instance, which will defend the country's burgeoning offshore oil facilities. According to Sobel, there was no threat to Brazil's oil deposits, but the media and political leaders hyped the issue in an effort to enhance the national security state. In this sense, the power elite in Brazil differ little from their U.S. counterparts who employ similar arguments.

The Brazilian Navy also seeks to increase its presence along riverways. Such policies are reminiscent of the days of the military dictatorship, when the armed forces placed great emphasis on developing the Amazon basin, to the detriment of the environment. In his report, Sobel comments that Lula's strategic plan for the Amazon "indulges in the traditional Brazilian paranoia concerning the activities of non-governmental organizations and other shadowy foreign forces that are popularly perceived as potential threats to Brazil's sovereignty." Sobel assigned a cynical backroom motive to Lula's plans: "The political preoccupation with imagined threats to sovereignty in the Amazon...serves the practical purpose of tasking the military with developing greater capabilities to project power into the region most likely to be affected by instability in neighboring countries."

Hoping to join the ranks of the world's most prominent military players, Brazil seeks to acquire nuclear powered submarines and aircraft carriers. Other priorities include satellite capability, particularly through a space launch, and cybernetics. The entire strategy is designed to promote Brazilian "independence;" that is, the ability to "project its military power as it wishes, able to produce its own military hardware and able to control strategic economic sectors." Though the Lula strategy allows for "strategic partners," outside countries should be willing to transfer key technologies to Brazil so as to contribute to the country's overall independence. Having built up its own endogenous arms industry, Brazil will then seek to export its weapons throughout the wider region.

Geopolitical Significance of Brazil's Rise

The Wikileaks documents suggest that the United States does not view Brazil's rise on the world stage with too much alarm. Indeed, according to Sobel "A Brazilian military that is more capable and deployable can support U.S. interests by exporting stability in Latin America and be available for peacekeeping elsewhere." Wikileaks documents do suggest that Sobel's cynical view may not be so far off base: though Lula and his political coalition came up through the ranks of organized labor, they are certainly not redefining the leftist agenda throughout the hemisphere. To the contrary, Wikileaks cables show the PT and Lula circle as a rather unscrupulous bunch, obsessed with promoting Brazil's public image and placating the U.S. on most issues that matter.

Brazil's rise, then, poses no ideological challenge to the U.S. In the very long-term, however, Brazil may see itself as a rival military hegemon in the wider neighborhood. Already, Wikileaks documents suggest a fair amount of tension over the issue of military technology. Though the chiefs of the Brazilian armed services saw military cooperation with the U.S. as "excellent," they complained about U.S. export licenses.

The officers griped that the State Department's policy of delaying such licenses was "aimed at restricting Brazil's access to military technology," and had created "problems at the political level." Speaking with the U.S. ambassador, Lula smarted over U.S. handling of the Super Tucano fighter plane imbroglio. "Brazil," Lula said, "needs the tools to deal with its neighbors...Brazil can't afford the type of embarrassment caused by not being able to sell Super Tucanos to Venezuela."

For now, the United States and Brazil are friendly allies. But at a certain point in future, Brazil might figure it's had enough of Washington in the wider region and start to challenge the U.S. in a more overt manner. Not, it seems, by encouraging the spread of progressive ideas but rather by throwing its military and geopolitical muscle around so that Brazil, and not the U.S., is the main cop on the beat.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave, 2008) and No Rain in the Amazon: How South America's Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet (Palgrave, 2010). Visit his website, www.nikolaskozloff.com

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