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.

About Mauricio Savarese

I am a Brazilian journalist who got tired of reporting only in Portuguese. Politics and football, these are my turfs. Twitter: @msavarese. Email:

Posted on 17/09/2013, in Business, Politics, Social and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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