Brazil’s Presidential Election: Opposition Tries “Republican Strategy” on Foreign Policy

Four years ago, when the government of Evo Morales re-nationalized its hydrocarbon industry, the Brazilian media was spoiling for a fight.  After all, Petrobras, the Brazilian oil and gas company, had major interests there.  But President Lula Da Silva was calm.  “I haven’t had a fight with George W. Bush,” he told the press.  “Why should I fight with Evo?”

In four months Brazil will elect a new president, and the main opposition candidate, Jose Serra of the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB), has shown more interest in this kind of a fight.  Last month he declared: “Eighty to ninety percent of the cocaine [here] comes from Bolivia. . . .  Do you think that Bolivia could export 90 percent of the cocaine consumed in Brazil without the government being an accomplice?  Impossible.  The Bolivian government is complicit in this.”

He has also attacked Brazil’s mediation efforts and relations with Iran and indicated he would weaken MERCOSUR, the South American regional trading block.  Serra is running against Workers’ Party candidate Dilma Rousseff, a former Energy Minister and Chief of Staff for President Lula, who strongly defends the government’s foreign policy.

The Brazilian right has also been hostile to Venezuela, with right-wing Senators holding up its membership in MERCOSUR for more than three years and joining U.S.-led propaganda campaigns against President Hugo Chávez.  Much as in the United States, the major media has presented a caricature of Venezuela and the Chávez government, with some influence on public opinion.  Serra has so far avoided attacking Venezuela, perhaps because he knows that Chávez could hit back hard and push these foreign policy issues to a higher profile than he may want for the campaign.  In elections over the last few years in Peru, Mexico, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and other countries, the right-wing candidates — successfully in the first two contests — literally ran against Chávez as if he were their opponent.  It is unlikely that the PSDB would want this to be the center of their campaign; it would not sway many Brazilian voters.

Indeed, the PSDB may be treading a fine line.  There has been a huge historic transformation in Latin America, and especially South America, over the past decade.  The region has become vastly more independent of the United States, and has clearly benefited from this enormous, epoch-making change.  Although there is a powerful part of the Brazilian political and media elite that is uncomfortable with these changes, and would prefer to roll things back to a cozier relationship with Washington, this is risky.  The PSDB would not want to be perceived as being on the wrong side of this historic transition.

Even with respect to Bolivia, most of the voters that the PSDB is trying to reach would probably understand that it makes no sense to attack Bolivia for the illegal drug trade in Brazil.  The government of Evo Morales has fought against drug trafficking with more effort and less corruption than predecessors; there is a clear distinction for the Morales government between coca, which is a legal, mild stimulant that has been part of Bolivia’s culture for centuries, and cocaine.  Try telling Americans to give up their coffee.  If Brazil wants to reduce drug trafficking it will find in Bolivia a willing partner.  If the decades-long failure of Washington’s so-called “war on drugs” has proven anything, it’s that drug trafficking is overwhelmingly a demand-side problem, and eradication of one source of raw materials leads to geographical shifts in production.

It is not clear that Serra’s attacks on Lula’s diplomatic efforts in the Middle East will be any more successful.  The nuclear fuel-swap agreement that Brazil and Turkey negotiated with Iran last month was a historic breakthrough in international diplomacy.  It was also what Obama had asked Lula to try and arrange just three weeks earlier, although the Brazilian government had to leak a letter from Obama to prove it, after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reacted with hostility to the agreement.  Nonetheless, the end result is that Brazil helped preserve a space for a negotiated settlement at a time when the Obama Administration is caving to pressure from right-wing elements in Congress who want him to abandon this strategy, thus escalating the chances of eventual military confrontation.  And although some trigger-happy columnists whined, the Obama Administration ultimately had to accept Brazil’s efforts without even a hint that U.S.-Brazilian relations would be negatively affected.

José Serra is not a right-wing politician by nature; as health minister he stood up to powerful foreign pharmaceutical companies backed by the United States in order to secure lower prices for generic essential medicines.  So why would he, and his party, promote such a right-wing foreign policy?

The answer is most likely that the economy has done much better during Lula’s eight years than during the previous eight years of the PSDB, including its growth.  With major real increases in the minimum wage, an expansion of the bolsa familia program for the poor and a mortgage credit for home buyers of modest means, it won’t be that easy to campaign against Rousseff and the Workers’ Party on economic issues.

The Republicans in the United States have long targeted swing voters on non-economic issues, including the pretense that their party was somehow “tougher” on foreign policy.  It was their best possible strategy for most of the last four decades, and of course when the recession finally focused these voters’ attention on economic issues in 2008, they lost everything.

But Brazil is not the United States.  Lula and his foreign minister Celso Amorim have made a strong case for trying to prevent another horrible, unnecessary war in the Middle East; and for the benefits of solidarity, independence, and regional integration in South America.  This positive message is more likely to win votes in Brazil.

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 has written numerous research papers on economic policy, especially on Latin America and international economic policy.  He is also co-author, with Dean Baker, of Social Security: The Phony Crisis (University of Chicago Press, 2000) and president of Just Foreign Policy.  This article was first published by the Guardian on 17 June 2010 and republished by CEPR under a Creative Commons license.  See, also, Farid Marjai, “Mr. Lula Goes to Tehran — Brazil’s Neocons React” (MRZine, 19 May 2010).

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