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Why Obama Should Bet on Brazil

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Despite the well worn campaign slogan, so far Washington's new foreign policy under President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seems to embody a blend of both continuity and change, depending on the situation. By and large we have seen a reactionary series of policies, as the new president has been thrust into a game with the cards already dealt. However, with the visit to Washington on Saturday March 14 of Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva -- the first Latin American head of state to be received by Obama at the White House -- a fresh hand is being dealt, giving the president a chance to define his administration and mark a clear departure from the policies of the past.

For years Latin America has been waiting for its day in the sun as a privileged partner of the United States; to be treated fairly, with respect, and joined in action toward the fulfillment of mutual goals for the Western Hemisphere. With the visit of Brazil, now graduated to the status of a true regional and global power, the administration should seek to support and enhance its role of responsibility, proving to the skeptics that we don't need or want a unipolar hemisphere, but rather a multi-lateral and institutional framework for stable and prosperous relations.

There are many compelling reasons for Obama to seek a close relationship with Brazil and establish a new partnership, one that would bring immediate benefits to both parties (while carrying very low risk and political costs). Despite being diplomatically stretched thin by Mideast conflicts, Brazil is a sure bet that Obama should not pass up.

The first reward of a new partnership with Brazil would be felt in terms of regional security. This South American nation of 196 million citizens is enjoying the benefits of four consecutive successful democratic governments, making it one of the top BRIC economies with a decade of growth and strong forecasts for the future, despite suffering the current woes of the crisis along with everyone else. The economic growth has been matched by proactive diplomacy, as Brazil has grown into a much stronger regional leadership role over the past 10 years.

In terms of military and defense matters, they are an essential player, having just overseen the historic first meeting of the NATO-like South American Defense Council of UNASUR (Union of South American Nations). When incidents arise between Latin American countries, such as the recent Colombia-Ecuador conflict, it is Brasilia, not Washington or the OAS, that is called in first as the trusted mediator.

The second imperative for Obama to give the Brazilians a red carpet welcome is economic. Amid the uncertain breakdown of global financial institutions, where governments find themselves learning how to be bankers, Brazil is ironically ahead of the curve. As noted by a recent article in the Economist, analysts such as Goldman Sachs have praised Brazil's state involvement in the banking sector, which combined with lower public sector debt and responsible fiscal policy has prepared the country for a better survival than most. Mohamed El-Erian, chief executive at Pimco, has even been quoted by Reuters as saying that China and Brazil offer better stock investments for the future than the United States: "The case for optimism comes from the fact that these countries entered today's global crisis with better initial conditions."

In terms of trade, the partnership is a natural fit with room to grow. The United States imports the most from Brazil and exports the most (about 15.7% and 16.1% respectively for 2007). Furthermore, if the Obama administration has any hopes of beating back a worldwide return to protectionism, Brazil's cooperation is essential. According to a new report from the Inter-American Dialogue, Brazil is now one of the most influential participants in the Doha talks and shares many U.S. objectives: "By eliminating critical stumbling blocks that have frustrated regional negotiations, a breakthrough in Doha on agriculture could facilitate U.S.-Brazilian bilateral trade discussions and perhaps set the stage for reviving hemispheric trade talks."

Energy and climate cooperation could also revolutionize the U.S.-Brazil relationship, however I am not confident that the Obama administration has the political will at this juncture to recognize that Brazil is the solution to energy independence -- at the cost of cutting tariffs and U.S. farm subsidies for ethanol. It is notable that Brazil is in the position of lecturing the United States on protectionism, and it would be a helpful first step for Obama to show that he is listening.

Nevertheless, if the security, economic, and trade benefits of this relationship were not motivation enough, there is also the fact that Lula is ideally positioned to help Obama handle the most challenging and dangerous threat to the hemisphere: President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. After more than a decade in power and several constitutional revisions to consolidate power and weaken democratic and legal institutions, developments in Venezuela are rapidly worsening. Private property seizures are accelerating (not just oil, but food companies), crackdowns against the opposition and media are intensifying, the state increasingly tolerates violent attacks against the student movements and the Jewish community, and President Chavez is holding a growing number of political prisoners beyond the reach of law (disclosure: I represent one such political prisoner, Eligio Cedeño).

We need to understand that Chavez is neither a dictator nor a model democrat, and any effort to improve the situation cannot be carried out alone. As Chavez has already empowered Lula to serve as an interlocutor to Washington, Brazil has the opportunity to become the most effective and pragmatic voice to speak to the Chavez government, helping to reign in the more destructive trends, if not subtly assisting the U.S. effort to isolate the world's foremost petrocrat (though friendly with Chavez, the Brazilians aren't thrilled about $6 billion in Russian arms coming into the region). Dealing with the regional problems presented by Venezuela is not about punishing Chavez or causing collateral damage to its citizens, but rather seeking engagement with Bolivia, opening the door to the new government in Cuba, and encouraging economic initiatives from Central America to the Andes. If Washington is able to run from the same playbook as Brasilia, Chavez will have a much more difficult time dismissing these efforts to promote stability and democracy as a malicious neoliberal agenda.

Lastly, there is an important synergy to the social context and visionary ambition of these two presidents. When Lula first became president in 2003, there were wild accusations and pessimistic predictions of the damage his "socialist" leanings would bring to the economy, a tone of criticism that is mimicked in the United States today.

For what it is worth, like Obama, Lula has risen to the country's highest office from very humble origins, riding a narrative of hope, possibility, and the sudden sense of enfranchisement of politically excluded groups. Overcoming the odds to reach the presidency, both Lula and Obama have sought to conquer fears of radicalism with measured pragmatism. Lula has successfully surrounded himself with capable advisors able to maintain good relations with countries as different as Venezuela and the United States, such as Minister of Strategic Affairs, Roberto Mangabeira Unger, who upon observing Chavez's attempt to use Moscow as a lever against the United States, told the New York Times "Unlike other South American countries we don't go around buying things, and we are not interested in some kind of balance-of-power politics to contain the United States."

So far the Brazilian strategic approach has been successful and constructive, and one that the United States should want to see replicated across the region. Among the young democracies of Latin America and beyond, two alternatives are currently on offer -- the traditional, lackluster offer from the United States, and the alternative coalition led by authoritarian petroleum exporters (Russia, Venezuela, Iran, and others), united mainly by anti-Americanism, and vaguely pursuing some form of non-institutional multilateralism. It should be no surprise that the latter is winning over many converts, especially in light of the fact that Venezuela is pouring three times the amount of aid into the region than the United States, whose paltry contributions to humanitarian projects outside of the war on drugs is negligible.

The time is now for Obama to launch a new partnership with Latin America's biggest and best democracy, and for once in history make the region a top priority for U.S. foreign policy. Unlike dealing with Moscow over Iran or meting out carrots and sticks in the Mid-East, with Brazil efforts are much more likely to be met with a serious and genuine response to achieve progress. It is certainly a bet worth taking.