Monthly Archives: September 2013

Spying scandal sends US influence on Latin America into nosedive

(published originally at Russia Today’s Op-Edge)

Democratic leaders from Mexico to Argentina are so resentful of American influence that they are now willing to take action. Spies did the trick.

America for the Americans is a cornerstone of United States’ foreign policy. That doctrine, introduced 190 years ago by President James Monroe, means this: foreigners keep out of the US’ backyard. For decades the US foreign policy also sat well with the elites in Latin America. They even promoted generals to dictators if the men in uniform loved Washington enough. Well, those days are long gone.

Unlike Europeans, who complicitly give a wink and a nudge to the US in the mass surveillance scandal, Latin America is angry. In a drastic move, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, a moderate, decided to call off a State visit to Washington. Leftists in the region are now more aggressive and right-wingers have been pressured to speak out. American experts may insist their focus is on Syria, but the so-called backyard is rising in revolt. The National Security Agency (NSA) scandals have made it impossible for regional leaders to keep quiet without looking weak.

Brazil’s snub has the biggest implications. The decision was taken after Ms Rousseff discovered her personal communications were being spied on. Every South American leader called to support her, including Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos, the only close ally Barack Obama has left in the region. She promised to attack mass surveillance at the United Nations. Boeing is now likely to lose a US$4 billion deal on fighter jets.

Without the Brazilian buffer, leftists are emboldened. Bolivia’s Evo Morales said he will sue Obama in the international courts for human rights violations after Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro was blocked for a few hours from flying over Puerto Rico. These two and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa are likely to push more for bringing leaker Edward Snowden to South America. After Hugo Chavez passed away they needed a joint agenda to improve their chemistry.

Europeans have taken no stand on the NSA scandal. No stand at all.

NSA revelations also made Argentina’s Cristina Kirchner reach out to Brazil to improve their cyber defense. Countries in the region are now paying attention to this project in order to develop their own email systems: specifically designed for those who don’t want Google and Yahoo accounts which allow US intelligence in. That is open retaliation, but much more might happen behind closed doors. American presence is still important; but now that China’s star is rising rapidly as Latin America’s trade partner, the pressure is on the US.

US influence is so low at the moment that even Mexico’s conservative President Enrique Peña Nieto was forced to speak out and demand an investigation. Political pressure gave him no alternative but to condemn the NSA for stealing data on his ministerial picks. Chile’s Sebastián Piñera also had to come out fighting. These leaders aren’t surprised with the surveillance itself, but the reach of it was just too bold.

The times are definitely a-changing. America might be on the way to belonging to all Americans, and that includes Latin Americans as well.

Brazil’s debt relief in Africa shows how confusing our foreign policy is

Dilma CongoAverage Americans are probably confused now President Dilma Rousseff decided to cancel her State visit to Washington. After all, the Monroe doctrine preached that the Americas were theirs and a Brazilian leader should take for granted there is spying going on in her country. But the times they are a-changing and Brazil is adapting to a more prominent role. That includes calling off visits to the almighty United States. That includes pictures like this one, where a human rights champion shakes hands with people like Denis Sassou-Nguesso, Congo-Brazzaville’s violent and intolerant dictator.

Brazil is no typical super power.  But it clearly doesn’t accept being tamed as it used to. It doesn’t accept being entangled in Latin American issues only. That, of course, leads to a more “proud and active” diplomacy. And makes room for mistakes.

The decision to write off about US$ 1 billion debt of African nations is one of those that make internationals wonder what are Brazilian leaders really up to. No doubt they are seeking more global influence, but real politics isn’t enough to explain the ways of our diplomacy. Democratic Senegal is on the list. But so is Sudan, whose dictator may end up in The Hague. Congo-Brazzaville is also there, despite being an oil producing nation — and these debts are very rarely forgiven. Same for Angola, a country where a dictator has ruled for more than 30 years (by the way, he was recently reelected with the help of a Brazilian spin doctor, Joao Santana, a close friend of Dilma’s). Human rights, which were supposed to be Brazil’s cornerstone in diplomacy, don’t mean much by now. But they aren’t completely our of the equation.

Debate I took part on Al Jazeera’s The Stream on Brazil’s role in Africa

Before taking office, then President-elect Dilma Rousseff made an effort to distance Brazil from the Iranian nuclear crisis. She thought the risks were too big and Barack Obama’s disapproval was too obvious to insist on that. Unlike her predecessor, who traveled to Tehran to build an agreement with Mahmmoud Ahmadinejad, she criticized the Persian theocracy from the beginning. It was fair to think she would care about a less aggressive internationalization process.

In November 2010, when she was asked about the case of Sakineh Ashtiani, an Iranian woman who was to be stoned for adultery, Dilma said she was “radically against” that decision. She even called it “barbaric.” Iranian autocrats hated it. Eventually Sakineh would be released. Because of that statement Brazil wasn’t sitting on the wrong side of the fence anymore. But it surely did during the Green Revolution in 2009, when Lula — Dilma’s main ally — came out to defend Ahmadinejad from his critics. How confusing is that?

It was reasonable to believe Dilma would have human rights as a boundary. She was a victim of torture herself. She created a Commission of Truth to investigate crimes of the Brazilian dictatorship (1964-1985). But little by little the president gave up on the values and adopted pragmatic policies towards nasty regimes at the same time she boasted democracy. She never condemned Bashar al-Assad for his crimes in Syria. Her diplomats abstained in many votes on violations in Iran. Brazilians also voted to spare Libya from a no-fly zone at a moment Muammar Gaddhafi was bombing insurgents.

When it was the case to look more democratic, Dilma also sent her her signals. Also in confusing fashion. After neighboring Paraguay hosted a coup, she decided to cut ties. She pushed them out of Mercosur, the region’s trade bloc. She only took them back after Venezuela were accepted as new members — against Paraguayan will.

When Bolivian president Evo Morales was forced to land his plane in Austria under the suspicion of carrying Edward Snowden, Dilma was the last Latin American leader to condemn Spain and France for closing their air space to Morales. All these things don’t make a natural regional leader. And that is the only global role Brazil fits in.

It is probably high time Brazil starts getting clear on its message. As GDP forecasts flatten, Brazil’s economy won’t be enough to keep a rising power status. It is the moment to engage more positively with the world instead of repeating policies that rich countries are criticized for.