Robert Amsterdam Headshot

What Kind of Global Player Does Brazil Want to Be?

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Brazil in the 21st century is impressive to international observers for its dynamic economic growth, low inflation, and firmly established democratic institutions. How the country overcame the global economic crisis so swiftly is just one demonstration of their brilliant efforts. But the question remains: what kind role in the world does Brazil want to play?

[A version of this article was first published in Portuguese in the Brazilian newspaper O Estado de São Paulo]

For some, the question is irrelevant. Security analysts from Madrid to New Delhi are perplexed by the relationship between Brazil and Venezuela. They have come to formulate an unfortunate theory: that the country has become a 21st century economic power, but continues to practice a 20th century foreign policy.

The theory is backed up by the facts. Earlier this month the Brazilian Senate confirmed Venezuela's ascension to Mercosur, literally in the same moment in which President Hugo Chávez launched an attack on the country's judiciary, while at the same time bringing the dispute with Colombia perilously close to outright armed conflict.

There are those who argue that the Brazilian Senate did not vote for Chávez, but rather voted for a future partnership with the Venezuelan people. This may be true, and there is nothing wrong with Brazil welcoming Venezuela into the region's most important trade bloc. But it is not convincing. We have seen a fundamental lack of political will to confront the government of Chávez and protect Brazilian interests in the region.

The jailing of Judge María Lourdes Afiuni on Dec. 10 is proof that the presidency of Venezuela is dismantling the constitutional separation of powers. The incident occurred moments after Afiuni had ordered the release of the businessman Eligio Cedeño, a political prisoner who had been held in jail for almost three years without trial or sentence. The judge was defamed on national television by the president himself, who demanded the maximum sentence of 30 years.

Chávez ordered the arrest of Afiuni, publicly attacked her and Cedeño and demanded the maximum punishment against both of them. The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, formed by three independent human rights experts, rendered an opinion condemning the detention of Cedeño and qualifying it as arbitrary. The Chávez government has a long history of reprisals against judges and prosecutors involved in this case. In 2007, one judge suffered the attempted kidnapping of her son and was forced to flee the country to seek asylum. All this for having independently performed her duties as a judge and admitting one complaint by Cedeño against representatives of the prosecutor's office. Another striking example is that of a prosecutor who lost her job after opining that the arrest of Cedeño was unfounded.

Afiuni is the most recent victim of Chávez. When Cedeño legally entered the United States on Dec. 19 to voluntarily submit himself to their jurisdiction, the judge was moved from a pre-trial holding center to a maximum security facility, filled with prisoners she had sentenced (which is against the law), where she has already survived two attempts on her life by inmates who have threatened to "burn her alive."

Chávez's mask has slipped off and we can no longer consider Venezuela as a normative and democratic rule-of-law state. To everyone's surprise, one judge had the courage to observe the law and agree with international opinions on the illegality of a political prisoner's detention.

In spreading misinformation about arrests, extraditions, and alleged illegal acts, the Chávez administration is clearly making moves to stake out a position as an aggrieved party, and invent a hyped-up dispute with their favorite imaginary enemy, the United States of America. The Venezuelan president has appropriated both the courts and the military as personal instruments. He has been able to do this thanks to the international acquiescence of key countries such as Brazil.

It is also important to consider that many of Brazil's top companies are deeply invested in Venezuela, but they are still owed billions of dollars, thanks to the country's corrupt currency exchange regime, CADIVI, controlled by Chávez. Perhaps the Brazilians think that they will somehow be the only ones not to suffer broken contracts, expropriation, or non-payment? If this is the assumption, then they are profoundly naïve. As we have seen by Chávez's personal attack against Cedeño and the judge who freed him, Brazil cannot count upon any fair decision in a court on these business matters. Chávez's Venezuela provides for no judicial security.

One must also remember that an armed conflict between Venezuela and Colombia would be catastrophic for Brazil, leading to capital flight, an economic crash, and the high possibility of escalating regional violence, given the close ties Chávez maintains with extremist groups. The regrettable events in Honduras this year showed just how much trouble can be created by any departure from constitutional order.

There is great merit in Brazil's ability to maintain friendly relations with so many different nations of different values. The South-South diplomacy, pioneered by the Lula government, should continue long into the future, and help to redefine a multipolar approach to global affairs. This tactic, however, has its limits. When taken to an extreme, there are high costs.

Brazil is better than that, and deserves much more. Its ambitious view toward the future is not compatible with the tolerance of outright tyranny on her borders. It's decision time: one can't have a foot in the 21st century while maintaining retrograde views.