Over the last decade an epoch-making political change has taken place in the Western Hemisphere: Latin America, a region that was once considered the United States’ “back yard,” is now more independent of Washington than Europe is.
But while Latin America has changed, U.S. foreign policy has not — even now, with the election of President Obama. Hence the region, including Brazil, finds itself increasingly at odds with Washington. The military coup in Honduras is just one recent and glaring example.
The elected president is kidnapped at gunpoint and flown out of the country; his supporters are arrested by the thousands, beaten, tortured, and some even killed by security forces; media outlets opposing the coup are intermittently shut down, their equipment confiscated. Despite widespread condemnation of these crimes from human rights groups worldwide, the coup regime now tries to legitimate itself with an “election.” Almost every country in Latin America says no, we must first restore democracy, civil liberties, and basic human rights; Washington supports the “election.”
It is not only on the question of democracy that Washington finds itself on the wrong side of history. It has also gotten the economics wrong. From 1960-1980, when according to Washington folklore the region’s governments couldn’t do anything right, the average Latin American’s income grew by 82 percent. From 1980- 2009, a much longer period filled with Washington-sponsored neoliberal reforms, it grew by about 18 percent. No wonder that most of the electorate in the region has voted over the last decade to reject neoliberal policies. It is little comfort that the U.S.-based authors of failed policies in Latin America have now managed to tank the U.S. economy as well.
It is enough to just mention Washington’s “war on drugs” in the hemisphere as another colossal failure that has trampled on the sovereignty of various nations. The Obama administration now continues the Bush policy of punishing Bolivia with trade sanctions for dubious “offenses.” As for security policy, the Obama administration’s decision to expand its military presence in Colombia, once again in opposition to almost every government in South America, has made Washington into more of a destabilizing force in the region.
Brazil cannot afford to sit on the sidelines while the United States causes trouble in Latin America — most menacingly in the case of Honduras, threatening to push the region back to an uglier era when the military could overthrow elected governments that Washington and the local elite did not like. As for policy outside the region, Brazil’s interest in reaching out to all parties in the Middle East will be more than welcome there, as well as throughout the world. Brazil has advantages that could enable it to play a positive role: Lula is one of the most popular leaders in the world, the government has a skilled diplomatic corps, and Brazil has no conflicts of interest that would prevent it from being an honest mediator.
Lula’s Brazil has politely but firmly rejected the United States’ policies on a number of important issues, including the proposed “Free Trade Area of the Americas”; Washington’s attempt to ram through a bad deal for developing countries at the 2003 WTO negotiations; and the Bush Administration’s failed attempt to isolate Venezuela in the region. On all of these issues and more, Brazil turned out to be correct, and needed. With no major changes in U.S. foreign policy or international commercial policy on the horizon, an independent and assertive Brazilian foreign policy is likely to be more important than ever.
Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C. He received his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Michigan. He is co-author, with Dean Baker, of Social Security: The Phony Crisis (University of Chicago Press, 2000), and has written numerous research papers on economic policy. He is also president of Just Foreign Policy. This article was published by CEPR on 28 November 2009 under a Creative Commons license. Em português: “Divergências inevitáveis – e positivas.”