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Nikolas Kozloff

Nikolas Kozloff

Posted: November 30, 2010 09:39 PM

As more and more Wikileaks documents become available, the public has been given a revealing window into the inner machinations of U.S. foreign policy in South America. It's no secret that both the Bush and Obama administrations have sought to halt the leftist advance throughout the wider region, but new evidence fills in crucial gaps in our Machiavellian understanding of American goals. Crucial to Washington's geopolitical effort in the hemisphere is Brazil, a nation which forms part of the so-called leftist "Pink Tide" but which nonetheless has stable relations with the United States. In recent years, the U.S. has sought to drive a wedge between leftist Venezuela and Bolivia on the one hand and so-called more "responsible" progressive governments like Brazil.

Recent Wikileaks disclosures illuminate how the U.S. does business in Brazil: by cultivating high level contacts in the Brazilian defense establishment in an effort to counterbalance more hostile anti-U.S. diplomats at Itamaraty, the nation's Ministry for Foreign Affairs. The most recent document trail begins in early 2008, in the twilight of the Bush presidency. In a cable, U.S. ambassador in Brasilia Clifford Sobel took a clear interest in furthering contact with Brazilian Minister of Defense Nelson Jobim. Sobel, a businessman with longstanding ties to corporate America, took advantage of a breakfast meeting with Jobim to broach serious military related matters. The ambassador noted that since he had assumed his post, Jobim had "challenged the historic supremacy of Itamaraty in all areas of foreign policy."

According to the U.S. ambassador, the power struggle between Jobim and Itamaraty had complicated U.S. efforts to construct a common defense strategy with Brazil. "Although the U.S. and Brazil share the basic goals of fostering hemispheric stability, preventing terrorist activity and strengthening international non-proliferation regimes," Sobel noted, "U.S.-Brazil cooperation is hindered by difficulties in completing a bilateral defense cooperation agreement, providing protections for U.S. personnel involved in training and joint exercises and taking proactive steps to address countries of proliferation concern such as Iran."

Jobim: Part of Rising Defense Establishment

Brazilians don't have fond memories of the 1964-85 military dictatorship which was supported by the U.S. Indeed, Sobel writes in his report that Brazil's defense industrial base has "atrophied" since the end of the Cold War. In recent years, however, the military has undergone a vast renovation and this has given Washington a fresh avenue to exploit. Despite its recent pacifist history, Brazil now sees rebuilding its military as key in its bid to become a global superpower. In 1999, Brazil established a Ministry of Defense, uniting all three services including the Army, Navy and Air Force.

President Lula himself has undertaken a new strategic vision for the armed forces, predicated on increasing investment in technology, including satellites, and even building up a fleet of submarines which could be utilized to protect territorial waters as well as Brazil's valuable deepwater oil platforms. In tandem with modernization, the armed forces are to be expanded and retrained so that they may be rapidly deployed to the Amazon for guerrilla-style warfare.

If the U.S. can become a vital military partner to Brazil, then perhaps Washington can gain important leverage over the South American juggernaut. In accordance with its new military policy, Brazil is actively seeking out partners which may further the nation's technological prowess and defense industry. Clearly aware of the rising profile of the military in Brazil, Sobel remarked that Jobim was "the first strong Minister of Defense in Brazil. He is working to centralize civilian oversight of the Brazilian military and hopes to learn from the U.S. military in this regard."

Hoping to solidify high level contacts with pro-U.S. Jobim, Sobel advised his colleagues about an upcoming meeting between the Brazilian Minister of Defense and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Jobim, Sobel noted, would be seeking "to enhance prospects for bilateral cooperation and explore possibilities for access to U.S. defense technology." The U.S. ambassador also relayed to his colleagues that Jobim was interested in U.S. submarine technology.

Despite the imminent summit, scheduled to take place in Washington, D.C. and Norfolk, Virginia, Sobel fretted about the current state of U.S.-Brazilian relations. Under one subheading reading "Friendly Cooperation, But Not Strong Friendship," the ambassador noted that while Brazil cooperated with the U.S. on counter-terrorism, the South American nation resisted collaborating "on issues of significant interest to the United States."

Washington Summit with Gates

"The difficulty," Sobel complained, "is most apparent in the Ministry for External Affairs (MRE) which maintains an anti-American slant and has tried to block improved DoD-MOD relations." The U.S. ambassador then pointed to fissures within the Brazilian political elite, pointing out that Itamaraty had actually sought to limit Jobim's time in Washington "to one largely ceremonial day with little substance." Sobel's comments about Itamaraty have the ring of truth: according to the Economist, Lula has promoted "ultranationalists" to the Ministry of Foreign Relations, handing over responsibility to Marco Aurélio Garcia, "the foreign-relations guru of Lula's Workers' Party."

Specifically, Sobel lamented, "The current left-of-center administration has studiously avoided close cooperation on pol-mil issues important to us and has kept us at arms length on most security-related issues." If that was not bad enough, the ambassador noted that Itamaraty had "dragged its feet" on completing a Defense Cooperation Agreement [DCA] with the United States. In an effort to cultivate Jobim's support and presumably sideline Itamaraty, Sobel recommended that Gates reinforce the importance of a Brazilian-U.S. military agreement which would reequip and modernize the Brazilian military through vital technology transfer. The agreement, Sobel declared, should "also help to define how we, the anchor of the North America, and Brazil the anchor of South America, may be able to work more closely in the future to enhance hemispheric defense cooperation."

Sobel goes on to discuss rivalry between Itamaraty and the Ministry of Defense, two branches of government which held contradictory views about Brazil's proper relationship with the U.S. Jobim complained particularly about Itamaraty's Secretary General Samuel Guimaraes, remarking that the Brazilian diplomat "posed a serious problem," not only on the DCA but on a variety of other unspecified issues. In a rather surprising confidential aside, Jobim told the U.S. ambassador that Guimaraes "hates the United States" and was "actively looking to create problems in the relationship."

What is more, Jobim was obliged to personally "beat back more than one outlandish proposal by Guimaraes calculated to upset relations with the U.S. and other industrialized countries." Guimaraes had in turn struck back at Jobim, telling the Minister of Defense that he was not empowered to sign a military agreement in Washington. Jobim, who seems to have held the U.S. ambassador in remarkable personal confidence, told Sobel that he did not want to "`win the battle and lose the war' and expend too much political capital on DCA so will have to proceed carefully." In particular, Jobim feared that Foreign Minister Celso Amorim might join forces with Guimaraes to thwart his plans.

Driving a Wedge between Brazil and Venezuela

Perhaps, the U.S. Embassy reasoned that if Brazil wound up signing the DCA that it would be that much easier for Washington to acquire diplomatic support in isolating Chávez in neighboring Venezuela. Confiding yet further in Sobel, Brazil's Minister of Defense confessed that his government shared U.S. concerns about Venezuela "exporting instability" [the Wikileaks documents don't say which other sectors of the Brazilian government specifically shared Jobim's views, and it's possible the Minister was over generalizing. If true, however, then Jobim's admission flies in the face of conventional wisdom about Lula and Chávez's fellow camaraderie and left wing solidarity].

Though concerned about Chávez's rising influence, Jobim didn't offer any easy solutions. Indeed, the Minister of Defense "believed that isolating Venezuela would lead to further posturing from Chávez and a greater risk of spreading instability among neighboring countries." Instead of confrontation, Jobim favored the idea of bringing Chávez into the fold through the creation of a South American Defense Council. Such a force would take its cue from Brazil, and not Venezuela as envisaged by Chávez. Though the Council would not include the U.S., the Americans apparently viewed Jobim's plan as a good one. Undoubtedly, Washington preferred to see Brazil as the main cop on the block since Venezuela would be safely contained.

In the event, Jobim did not sign the DCA while meeting with Gates in Washington, and the agreement wound up getting tabled for future discussion. Instead, the Brazilian Minister of Defense held discussions about the F 35 fighter aircraft. Though Jobim would have preferred to go much farther in his discussions with the Americans, the Minister was constrained as he was constantly shadowed by a "handler" from Itamaraty. In addition, the Brazilian Embassy in Washington sought to curtail Jobim's freedom of movement by changing the Minister's schedule in favor of a shorter visit.

Postscript

The recent batch of Wikileaks documents taper off at the end of the Bush presidency, so we don't learn too much about Obama's approach to Brazil and how it might have differed from his Oval Office predecessor. However, the U.S. certainly continued its high level diplomacy with Minister Jobim. In late 2009, U.S. Chargé d'Affaires Lisa Kubiske met with Jobim once more to discuss progress on the DCA talks. By securing purchase of vital U.S. fighter aircraft, Kubiske argued, Brazil would only deepen its military and commercial relationship with Washington. Though Chávez and Morales surely hoped that Brazil would oppose Obama's construction of military bases in Colombia, Jobim at least declared that he understood and had no disagreement with the wider U.S. agenda in the Andes.

Though certainly scant up to this point, the Wikileaks documents suggest that the U.S. has read Brazil well and is constantly looking for political advantage and ways to exploit internal rivalries. Under Lula, Brazil has vaulted to South American juggernaut status yet the country's foreign policy remains muddled and perverse, as I have discussed elsewhere. Without a clear vision for the future, the U.S. has leapt into the breach by cultivating the retrograde Brazilian military.

It's an unfortunate development. For far too long the U.S. held the Brazilian military in high esteem, much to the detriment of progressive political and social change. While the Brazilian military fell into justifiable disrepute after the end of the dictatorship, it is now staging a comeback. Yet, the military is just one political actor in the Brazilian drama and in recent years social movements and labor have played a prominent role in the nation's affairs. The Wikileaks documents do not give a complete accounting of which parties the U.S. diplomatic corps has favored over time, though it's probably a safe bet that Washington has invested more effort cultivating the likes of Jobim than the Landless Peasant Movement.

Judging from the documents, Itamaraty and the more leftist elements within Lula's coalition are aware of Jobim's designs. How long can such fissures go on within the governing coalition? Brazil would like to pursue friendly relations with everyone --- the notion forms part of the country's mystique. It will now fall to Brazil's next president, Dilma Rousseff, to reconcile these diverse interests which have come under strain. Will Brazil tilt left toward its allies in South America or drift into the U.S. orbit? It's certainly a vexing question which further Wikileaks documents will hopefully illuminate.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave, 2008). Visit his website at http://www.nikolaskozloff.com/.