Brazil Is Back
Foreign leaders have rallied around Lula after his win. How will he navigate a changed world?
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.
The highlights this week: Lula begins to revive Brazil’s global standing, Colombia pushes Venezuela to make a key concession, and the international community slams the 60-year-old U.S. embargo on Cuba.
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Lula Aims High
When former—and now incoming—Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva took to the podium in São Paulo on Sunday night following his razor-thin election victory over incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro, he first stressed that he would govern for all Brazilians. Then he proceeded to speak extensively about foreign policy.
In his recent international travels, Lula said, “What I hear the most is that the world misses Brazil. They miss that sovereign Brazil that talks to the richest and most powerful countries like an equal and at the same time contributes to the development of poorer ones.”
Lula alluded to his role in past efforts to integrate South America and Latin America by strengthening customs union Mercosur and the now-defunct regional organ Unasur; carry out technical cooperation with African countries; and create the BRICS grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. Going forward, he pledged to work for fairer international trade, take an active role in fighting the climate crisis, and campaign for including more countries as permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. Brazil has for decades sought a permanent seat on the council.
Celso Amorim, Lula’s foreign minister during his 2003 to 2010 presidency, has often described Lula’s foreign policy of that period as “tall and active”: Brazil opened 35 new embassies and launched new cooperation initiatives with countries including the United States, Iran, and Russia. Amorim remains Lula’s top foreign-policy advisor and stood near him on stage on Sunday; he is expected to continue to advise Lula on foreign policy in the new administration.
But the world has changed dramatically since the two were last in office: Sharp geopolitical tensions between Washington and both China and Russia make Brazil’s previous constellation of alliances more difficult to maintain, and Brasília’s global standing has also diminished dramatically under Bolsonaro. Still, Lula appears set to try to resurrect his wide-ranging foreign policy.
In an early sign of goodwill, Lula received a stream of congratulations from the leaders of countries including the United States, France, and Australia in the minutes after his election victory was confirmed. In at least the U.S. case, Reuters reported that the quick recognition was an effort to stave off any potential attempt by Bolsonaro to contest the election result. Bolsonaro’s chief of staff said Tuesday that the administration had agreed to a transfer of power, but some of the president’s supporters have continued to demonstrate against the election results.
In his calls with foreign leaders such as U.S. President Joe Biden, Lula has emphasized climate cooperation. He pledged in his victory speech to reach zero deforestation and, according to Reuters, has been in talks with authorities in Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo about creating a global alliance for forest protection since before his victory. Norway and Germany have already signaled they plan to unblock environmental aid that they froze over Bolsonaro’s poor climate record. The president of Lula’s Workers’ Party also said Lula will attend next week’s U.N. climate conference in Egypt; Bolsonaro, who presided over soaring deforestation in the Amazon, had not announced plans to attend by Thursday.
In an interview in the September/October issue of Nueva Sociedad, Amorim waded into today’s thornier foreign-policy topics, offering clues as to how Lula may navigate them in office. He expressed a nonaligned position on U.S.-China tensions. On trade—with both China and the European Union—Amorim said Latin American countries should push for guarantees that help local industry. He also emphasized the threat of nuclear weapons use in Russia’s war in Ukraine; in a separate interview, Amorim supported negotiations to end the conflict and said BRICS members could back them.
Latin American countries should especially work to strengthen their ties with Europe, Amorim said, calling the continent “very important in the multipolar game.” As a starting point, it now appears far more likely that a long-stalled trade agreement between the EU and Mercosur—paused in part over concerns about Bolsonaro’s environmental record—will be approved.
Amorim has stressed that Latin American integration is crucial to Lula’s foreign-policy doctrine. True to form, Lula’s first in-person meeting with a head of state as president-elect was with Argentine President Alberto Fernández on Monday. “I want to give him the hug he deserves,” Fernández said, calling Lula a “leader in the region.”
Sunday, Nov. 6, to Friday, Nov. 18: Lula and the presidents of Latin American countries such as Colombia are due to participate in the COP27 climate conference in Egypt. Former Grenadian environment minister Simon Stiell is the United Nations’ lead climate negotiator.
Sunday, Nov. 20: The FIFA World Cup begins in Qatar. We’ll be covering Latin American soccer teams’ trials and tribulations in this newsletter.
What We’re Following
Ecuador’s security crisis. Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso was supposed to travel to the United States this week on the heels of the announcement on Tuesday of a new fair trade working group between Quito and Washington. Although it’s short of the full-blown trade deal that Ecuador sought, both sides say that agreeing to new trade regulations could increase business between the two countries. The countries have not publicly spoken about the specifics of the working group.
Lasso canceled his trip to Washington, however, following a dramatic string of car bombings and killings of police officers in Ecuador early this week that prompted him to declare a national emergency. Lasso attributed the bombings to the growing presence of drug trafficking groups in the country. On Tuesday, he declared nighttime curfews in two provinces and said he was “prepared to act harshly” in response to the violence.
Overture on U.S.-Cuba policy. This week, for the 30th consecutive year, the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution condemning the 60-year-old U.S. economic embargo on Cuba by a vote of 185 in favor to 2 against. The United States and Israel opposed the resolution, while Brazil and Ukraine abstained.
Ahead of the vote, The Associated Press reported, 18 former Latin American and Caribbean leaders sent a letter to Biden calling for an end to the policy in light of the destruction that Hurricane Ian wrought on the island in September. The sweeping economic embargo made it difficult for Cuba to rebuild after the hurricane, they wrote.
The leaders also called for Washington to end its classification of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism. Former U.S. President Donald Trump applied the label to Cuba in January 2021 just before he left office, citing Cuba’s sheltering of leaders of a Colombian militant group, the National Liberation Army (ELN). The ELN, Colombia’s largest remaining guerrilla group, is now entering into peace talks with the Colombian government.
Trump also sharply intensified U.S. economic restrictions on Cuba during his term. Biden on the campaign trail promised to reverse “the failed Trump policies that inflicted harm on Cubans and their families” and has since dialed back some—but not all—of them.
The U.S. midterm elections next Tuesday could further empower several Cuba hard-liners in the United States. They include Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is expected to handily win reelection and is seen as a possible 2024 Republican presidential candidate. DeSantis has also pushed for more hard-line U.S. immigration policies, Amelia Cheatham wrote in Foreign Policy last week.
Unconventional protest-busters. Although Brazilian soccer star Neymar made headlines for endorsing Bolsonaro ahead of Brazil’s election, his position did not speak for the whole Brazilian soccer world. This week, organized fan squads of local Brazilian soccer clubs in the states of São Paulo and Minas Gerais went to the streets to remove highway barricades set up by Bolsonaro supporters in the wake of his defeat.
In some locations, soccer fan squads carried out this task before Brazil’s federal highway police, which had been ordered by the Supreme Court to do so. Pro-Bolsonaro sentiment is prevalent among parts of the police force.
Some participants at ongoing protests across the country called for a military intervention to overturn the results of the presidential election. Bolsonaro’s vice president, Hamilton Mourão, a retired general, tweeted Wednesday that a military coup would “put the country in a difficult situation among the international community.”
Bolsonaro posted a video message calling the protests “welcome” but also asked demonstrators to unblock highways. Millions of dollars in fines have been issued since Sunday to drivers of vehicles blocking traffic.
Question of the Week
Lula has four fingers on his left hand; he lost his little (pinkie) finger in a workplace accident in his youth, and the loss grew into a symbol of his working-class identity. What kind of trade union did Lula lead?
The São Paulo metalworkers’ union helped found Brazil’s Workers’ Party in the 1980s.
FP’s Most Read This Week
• Iran Is Now at War With Ukraine by John Hardie and Behnam Ben Taleblu
• Ukraine’s War Is Like World War I, Not World War II by Anatol Lieven
• U.S. Immigration Has Become an Elaborate Bait and Switch by Edward Alden
In Focus: Petro and Maduro Meet
On Tuesday, the presidents of Colombia and Venezuela met in person for the first time in six years. The countries severed diplomatic relations in 2019 and closed their land border to commerce amid a Colombia-and-U.S.-backed effort to oust Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro. Current Colombian President Gustavo Petro has made reestablishing relations one of his foreign-policy priorities.
Petro has stressed the need to reestablish ties for business purposes, to fight organized crime in the border area, and to better negotiate a potential peace deal with the ELN guerrilla group, which is partially based in Venezuela. Petro once again emphasized these goals in a joint communique with Maduro released after the meeting.
The two leaders also voiced support for a return to the stalled Mexico City talks between Maduro and the Venezuelan opposition. And in a press conference, Maduro said he had agreed to “reconciliation” between Venezuela and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, a body of the Organization of American States. Caracas withdrew from the court in 2013 when it denounced human rights violations in the country.
Many analysts interpreted Maduro’s comments to mean he will fully rejoin the court—though there is skepticism as to whether he will accept its rulings. If he does, it would be a significant concession on Maduro’s part, as the court has a history of trying cases against his government. Petro had pressed for the commitment before agreeing to his trip, El País reported, in part as a response to criticism from Colombian hard-liners who opposed his reengagement with Venezuela.
Caracas’s commitment comes as Venezuela’s opposition and parties that back the Mexico City talks—such as the United States—look for evidence that Maduro is open to making concessions related to democratic accountability. If those talks restart, they could compel Maduro to issue guarantees around the conditions for fair 2024 Venezuelan elections in exchange for the United States issuing Venezuela humanitarian aid and lifting sanctions that block the country from profiting from some of its oil reserves.
Maduro’s regime has survived economically with the U.S. sanctions in place until now. But the Wilson Center and Institute of Advanced Studies in Administration’s Michal Penfold pointed out in an interview with Efecto Cocuyo this week that Russia’s war in Ukraine is hurting its profit margins on the oil that Venezuela does manage to sell. Before the war, Venezuela would sell its oil at a heavily discounted rate to help clients compensate for the risk of buying a sanctioned product. But now that heavily sanctioned Russia is discounting its own oil exports for the same reasons, Venezuela has been pushed to slash oil prices even further, up to 40 percent, Penfold said.
If U.S. sanctions on Venezuela are lifted, the country could sell its oil legally and reap higher government tax revenue. Maduro’s government would probably like to be able to offer more benefits to voters before standing in elections in 2024, Penfold suggested. “If you’re going to run in an election, you need to be able to spend.”
Catherine Osborn is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Latin America Brief. She is a print and radio journalist based in Rio de Janeiro. Twitter: @cculbertosborn
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