The Woman of Balkan Descent Who May Lead Brazil to Follow in Tito’s Steps


In 1961, the Non-Aligned Movement was founded in Belgrade, led by such leaders as Tito, Nehru, Nasser, and Sukarno, who were seen as champions of the developing world.  Now, on the eve of its 50th anniversary, the movement is a forgotten quasi-bloc, a rather loose league of nations ranging from extremely impoverished Malawi to emerging powers like India.  Serbian President Boris Tadić has offered to hold its golden jubilee summit in Belgrade in 2011, but in terms of geopolitical significance the NAM was long overshadowed by fora such as G77 and G20.

Brazil was never part of the Non-Aligned countries.  Only three years after the NAM was born, the nation succumbed to a military dictatorship, hopelessly submitted to the United States, as happened with most South American republics back then.  “Alignment” meant siding with Washington at all levels, and cooperation with socialist states was out of question.

Yet, the legacy of Non-Alignment is now being upheld again, by a politician who has risen from humble metalworker to labor union leader and then to a world leader: Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, better known as Lula, the outgoing president of Brazil.

Next year, when Tito’s project will celebrate its 50th anniversary, Lula will hand over power peacefully to his successor, to be elected today.  And, if polls are to be trusted, the successor will be a woman.

Dilma Rousseff, the daughter of a pre-Dmitrov Bulgarian immigrant, is set to be elected as the first female president of Brazil.  She is expected to keep Lula’s foreign policy, based on South-South trade and cooperation, a path deeply rooted in Tito’s Non-Alignment and national development.

For many parts of the then so-called Third World, Non-Alignment was more than mere rhetoric and goodwill.  It was an actual chance to meet development demands, such as building human resources and infrastructure, through exchange and training provided by fellow members of the movement.  The memory of that remains alive — for instance in the gratitude felt for many Yugoslav doctors, engineers, journalists, and other professionals who worked and taught in nations of Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Lula — just like Tito, a former lathe-operator — has pursued the joint development of the South by extending technical cooperation to least developed nations in Africa, boosting joint ventures with South American neighbors (particularly in oil and energy projects), and making integration prevail over competition (in such groups as the Mercosur, a regional bloc with Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay).  Lula’s Brazil also joined India in taking a hard stance at the Doha Round against the kind of free trade that would benefit the rich nations only.

For Brazil, it was not a matter of ideology but rather of strategic survival for its economy to move away from dependence on American and European buyers and turn to the huge insatiable market of China.  (Goldman Sachs believes that BRIC — Brazil, Russia, India, and China — will outgrow the economies of the historically dominant powers in the age of imperialism, 1870-1945).  Brazil’s politics developed in part as a consequence of that, which has turned out to be quite positive.  The success of the Brazilian strategy meant that, when the economical crisis hit most of the Euro-American markets and their dependencies like a tsunami in 2008-2009, its effects in Brazil were so mild that Lula jokingly described them as a “marola” — a minor ripple.  The same strategy pushed Brazil into forming the IBSA with India and South Africa and G4 with China, India, and South Africa.

More controversially, Brazil’s drive to build an alternative power network led to co-sponsoring with Turkey the uranium-swap agreement reached with Iran last June.  Dismissed by the old powers in the UN Security Council, which approved new sanctions, it nevertheless was a landmark diplomatic move, treating Iran as a respectable negotiating partner and showing that the “international community” is far larger than the Atlantic axis of Europe and the United States.

Finally, Lula’s commitment to broaden partnerships, including rather than excluding more peers with whom to make business and open channels, was behind the recent visa-free travel treaty signed with Serbia (yet to be ratified by both parliaments) and the newly established Brazilian embassies in Croatia and Slovenia.  Moreover, it was more than a matter of principle for Brazil to uphold the decision not to recognize the unilateral independence of Kosovo but also a means to tell the old powers that they can no longer redraw borders on a map of the world as they please.

If elected, Dilma Rousseff at the helm of the ship of state is expected to stay the course while revving up the ship’s engines, which may mean an ever greater support for cooperation between new democracies, struggling economies, and nations either disdained or mistreated by the West.

In 1964, as a youngster, Dilma saw Brazil swept under the military dictatorship which killed and tortured many of her fellow students, intellectuals, and progressive politicians, and she joined the communist urban guerrilla movement against it.  After being hunted, arrested, and tortured, this “tropical partisan” rebuilt her life in the late 1970s as a local political advocate for Leonel Brizola, an old-fashioned leftist leader in Brazil who was then vice-president of the Socialist International.  It was not until the late 1990s that she would join Lula’s Workers Party, an avant-garde post-Marxist party which, interestingly, had “self-management” among its original program’s key points.

Will this woman of Balkan descent be able to achieve the world envisioned by the Non-Aligned Movement, where poorer states would be respected and listened to, because they had learned to act, move, and speak as a bloc?  Too soon to know, but the odds are that she will at least try hard.

Pedro Aguiar, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  A version of this article was published in New Yugoslavia on 2 October 2010.

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