Brazil is learning the hard way that when you embrace and assist the most vile and murderous dictatorships in the world, it is impossible to wash off the stench of death.
Brazil’s foreign policy stance leaves it in wings on global stage
This month, Brazil marks a particularly grim moment in its history. Fifty years ago, the country’s military took power in a coup that ushered in two decades of brutal dictatorship.
President Dilma Rousseff, who as a young leftist guerrilla fighting the generals was jailed and tortured, marked the occasion with a speech at Rio de Janeiro’s Galeão airport earlier this month.
Shedding a quiet tear, she cited a song by the bossa nova artist Tom Jobim, “Samba do Avião”, that recalls the emotions of a Brazilian landing in Rio, saying the lyrics were about exiles returning home with the end of the military regime.
This was a gaffe – the song was written in 1962, before the coup. But the sentiment was clear: democracy may be messy, but it is far better than the horrors of dictatorship and authoritarianism.
How strange then that on the international stage, Brazil sometimes seems more at odds with the US and Europe, whose governments share its political and cultural values, than it is with countries averse to them – such as Venezuela, China, Cuba and Russia.
This apparent contradiction between Brazil’s identity as the world’s fourth-largest democracy and its stance on foreign affairs could eventually inhibit its attempts to establish itself as an important force in global geopolitics.
The latest incidence of fence-sitting by Brazil was during the UN vote last month on Crimea. Brazil was one of the countries that abstained – others included China, India and Argentina – on a UN resolution declaring invalid the Crimean referendum that led to its annexation by Russia.
Brazil has been silent on the issue of Ukraine and Crimea, aside from limited statements describing the issue as “complex” and calling for a “pacific” solution.
While Brazil has a right to its opinion on Ukraine, its apparent tolerance of Russia’s interference in Crimea runs counter to its previous opposition to what it saw as meddling in the internal affairs of other countries. It has regularly abstained on western initiatives to criticise Iran, Libya and Syria, although on the latter it has recently become more vocal.
It also occasionally finds itself befriending and defending dictators, such as those in Venezuela and Cuba.
The need to engage authoritarian regimes is a reality for all democracies. But Latin America’s largest nation can seem a soft touch for some of the world’s strongmen. They can expect little criticism, at least publicly, from Brasília, while enjoying the increased legitimacy their diplomatic contact with Brazil affords them.
This is perhaps the most perplexing aspect of Brazil`s external relations. In contrast to its delicacy when dealing with Russia or China, Venezuela or Cuba, Brazil seems unafraid to lash out at Washington or Europe.
When the former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed that Washington had been spying on Ms Rousseff and her staff, she cancelled a state visit to Washington. When the Brazilian leader visited Europe two years ago, she clashed with Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, over monetary policy and trade.
Such a willingness to speak openly about the US and EU may indicate the maturity of Brazil’s relationships with fellow western democracies. But its seeming inability to contradict authoritarian partners in the developing world may be a sign of the brittleness of those relationships. Few know better than Ms Rousseff how sensitive to criticism dictatorships can be.
While Brazil’s bland neutrality made more sense in the bipolar world of the cold war – allowing it to stay aloof from the zero-sum games of the great powers – the policy seems increasingly obsolete today.
With the role of the US as the sole superpower receding and others, such as Russia and China, asserting themselves, geopolitics is becoming more fragmented. As John Kerry, US secretary of state, told a Republican antagonist recently: “This is a complicated world, my friend.”
For a nation that hopes one day to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council, always trying to be everyone`s friend all of the time is no longer an option for Brazil.
In a multipolar world, everyone’s vote is important. Those reluctant to stand up to make their voices heard risk becoming irrelevant. Worse, if they let aggression go unopposed, they also jeopardise the thing they claim to cherish – world peace.