As more and more U.S. diplomatic cables get released by whistle-blowing operation WikiLeaks, researchers are developing a clearer picture of Brazil's rise on the world stage. A South American powerhouse displaying stunning economic growth, Brazil caught many by surprise as former President Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva sought a greater role for his country in global affairs. While WikiLeaks documents generally reveal Brazil to be a willing U.S. diplomatic partner, the cables also suggest that Lula saw opportunity in the wider neighborhood and tried to muscle in on Washington's traditional sphere of influence.
The recently disclosed cables show that Brazil has aggressively pursued narrow-minded self interest in order to further Machiavellian geopolitical and economic goals. In the Andean region, for example, the Lula administration bullied and cajoled smaller and more fractious countries such as Peru and Colombia. In the wake of Peru's presidential election in 2006, Lula met personally with incoming president Alan García in Brasilia in what insiders termed a "love-fest." Though both leaders had political origins on the left, García and Lula had long since jettisoned such ideals in pursuit of their respective careers.
Indeed, during the campaign, García ran on a conservative platform and had vocally criticized leftist president Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. For his part, Lula had publicly embraced Chávez but behind the scenes the Brazilians saw García's victory as a "needed reverse" for Venezuela. According to WikiLeaks cables, Brazil viewed the election as a necessary corrective which would help to restore "regional equilibrium" and to curb Chávez's increased geopolitical profile.
Perhaps, Lula sensed that Chávez's star had waned and that it was now time for Brazil to press its own strategic advantage. The Brazilian president stressed the need for greater physical integration between Peru and Brazil, including the dreaded Inter-Oceanic Highway which stood to exacerbate deforestation in the Amazon (for more on this, see my book No Rain in the Amazon: How South America's Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet). Lula also spoke of the need for a regional, military, and political alliance between Peru and Brazil. Lest García get the wrong idea about Brazilian intentions, Lula stressed that his country did not seek regional "hegemony" but merely sought to transform South America into "a global actor on a par with China and India."
Responding to Lula, García candidly admitted that he preferred Brazilian regional hegemony to that of the United States. Peru, the new president added, would surely be interested in forming joint ventures with Brazil and benefiting from Brazilian technological know-how. Judging from other cables, Peru sought to extend cooperation in yet other areas. In 2009, U.S. diplomats reported that Lima was interested in purchasing a dozen Super Tucano combat support aircraft manufactured by Brazilian aerospace giant Embraer.
Details of the deal were discussed during a Lula visit to Lima, "with a large commercial delegation in tow." The Peruvians may have been prompted to turn to Brazil out of pure frustration with the United States. According to leaked documents, the García government was dissatisfied with the "slow and complicated U.S. defense procurement process and high price tags for U.S. equipment."
If Peru proved a willing partner, Colombia turned out to be somewhat more recalcitrant. In April, 2008 Brazilian Minister of Defense Nelson Jobim met with his Colombian counterpart (and future president) Juan Manuel Santos to discuss the creation of a so-called South American Security Council. Brazil had been lobbying hard for the new institution, which would include all South American nations and address regional security concerns. The body would initially serve as a consultative mechanism among Defense Ministers, but would eventually adopt certain operational response capabilities.
The Santos-Jobim meeting took on somewhat frosty overtones when the Colombian expressed concerns that the new body might result in South American distancing from the United States. Fundamentally, Santos added, Colombia did not want its armed forces "subjugated to an institution whose details it does not understand." None too pleased, Jobim retorted that Colombia would be "completely isolated" in wider South America if it did not join the new Brazilian-sponsored organization.
Judging from WikiLeaks documents, Brazil has employed a wide spectrum of political strategies as it seeks to become the dominant player in the region. Taking a leaf from the U.S. playbook, Brazil employs strong arm tactics at one moment and subtle pressure the next. It's too early to say whether Brazil will fully eclipse Washington's influence in the wider neighborhood, but clearly this South American powerhouse is willing to play hardball in its backroom political deal making.
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