By Michael Fox, New America Media
RIO DE JANIERO—On New Year's Day, Brazilian Worker’s Party President-elect Dilma Rousseff took over from her mentor, outgoing President Luis Inácio "Lula" da Silva. She has big shoes to fill.
Lula has an approval rating over 80 percent. His social welfare programs and economic policy have lifted millions out of poverty, paid off the country's debt to the International Monetary Fund, and sailed South America's largest economy through the world financial crisis while maintaining more than 7 percent annual growth.
Lula also set a new precedent in Brazilian foreign policy, lifting his country into the international arena like few have in Brazilian history. He increased dialogue with the emerging BRIC powers (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and, in May 2010, negotiated the Iran-Turkey-Brazil nuclear deal.
But it was in Western Hemispheric relations where Lula truly made his mark and where Dilma will be expected to pick up where he leaves off. Lula quickly broke with the historic Brazilian position of bowing to U.S. dominance in the region, and paved a new path for Brazilian foreign policy.
"Under Lula, Brazil began to see South America as an autonomous geopolitical region, separate from the United States and not subordinated," Igor Fuser, analyst and professor at the Cásper Libero University in São Paulo, said in an interview.
With Foreign Minister Celso Amorim, Brasilia shouldered its historic ties with the United States, blocking the U.S.-sponsored Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and turning toward regional cooperation and integration. Under Lula, Brazil joined the Latin American leftward tide, embracing radical neighbors such as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Bolivian President Evo Morales.
Yet Lula was also willing to walk the line, negotiating and courting friendly relations with everyone, including the Unites States. In 2007, Lula signed ethanol agreements with then-President George W. Bush. This April, Brazil signed a bilateral military cooperation agreement with the U.S.
"It is a pragmatic foreign policy,” Fuser said. “It is a progressive, reformist, autonomist foreign policy, but it is not a foreign policy to challenge the center of global power or the United States.”
Foreign Policy Under Dilma
Brazil has been a driving force behind the BRIC group. Dilma has promised to continue Lula's policies, "but it is going to be a lot more difficult than on the domestic front, because Lula's foreign policy is highly personalized. It has been probably one of the most personalized foreign policies in the history of Brazil," said Oliver Stuenkel, visiting professor in international relations at the University of São Paulo and a fellow at the Global Public Policy Institute. "For example, being at an IMF meeting and declaring that Brazil would start lending money to the IMF and then at home criticizing the IMF. I think Lula was really able to align with developing countries and position himself as a leader of the South and also get along fairly well with the European countries and America."
Dilma lacks the personality of the charismatic Lula da Silva, which will make her job more difficult. However, she "is a good manager and a good technocrat," Adam Isacson, Regional Security Program Director of the Washington Office on Latin America, said. "Her foreign policy all depends on her choice of foreign minister."
At the beginning of the month, Dilma announced that she had picked 56-year-old career diplomat Antônio Patriota to fill the position of foreign minister. The move was expected and was seen as a continuation of Lula's foreign policy under the Dilma administration. Patriota has worked with the current foreign minister for 15 years.
In another sign of continuity, Marco Aurélio Garcia will remain at his post of special foreign policy adviser under Dilma. In an interview in November, Garcia said that there will be no change in foreign policy under the new government, and that the president-elect won't shy away from intervening on the international scene as Lula has.
Patriota—A Boost for Washington?
Patriota is Brazil’s current Secretary General of Foreign Relations, but he spent more than two years as Brazilian ambassador to the United States and he remains on good terms with Washington.
"There is no doubt that Patriota was very loved and respected in Washington," Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue Institute, recently told the Brazilian newspaper O Imparcial. "But he will have to modify at least the style of Amorim and Lula, adopting less conflictive positions with the United States, because in the best of the circumstances, the two countries are going to collide on many issues, while Brazil grows in importance."
Lula befriended the U.S. but disagreed with Washington over Iran and criticized the U.S. for its continued blockade against Cuba. In 2009, he denounced the Honduran coup d'état against President Manuel Zelaya. For four months Lula housed ousted-president Zelaya and his advisors in the Brazilian embassy in Teguciglapa, despite criticism from the United States.
Washington insiders say they are looking forward to the change in Brasilia. But president-elect Dilma has made it clear that the U.S. is not at the core of Brazilian foreign policy as it once was. While Patriota may be a force of moderation in U.S. -Brazilian relations, Brazilian insiders say that both the economic crisis and the U.S. midterm elections will likely push Brazil to distance itself further from the United States.
"The first prognosis made by sectors close to the Lula government is that the Republican victory in the legislative elections in the U.S. strengthened the certainty of maintaining more autonomous Brazilian foreign policy," Fuser said. "The political sector that supports the Dilma government is also very skeptical of U.S. measures to combat the economic crisis."
Brazil wants to be the region's powerhouse
Over his nearly eight years in power, Lula has mediated international conflicts between Venezuela and Colombia and overseen the inauguration of the EU-inspired Union of South American Nations (Unasur) in Brasilia. The Unasur South American Defense Council (SADC) was promoted by Lula's Defense Minister Nelson Jobim and approved in late 2008. The region's countries have increased trade and collaboration over energy and development.
All signs point to continued policies of regional integration under Dilma. "Mercosur and South America will continue to be among the top priorities," Dilma's foreign policy advisor Garcia said in November.
But like her predecessor, Dilma is going to face resistance to both Mercosur and Unasur from Brazil's private sector - by far the largest in the region.
"The problems of regionalism in South America do not just depend on the political will of the Brazilian government. In terms of international affairs, Brazilian relations is represented above all by the businesses," Fuser said.
Brazilian companies are interested in increased access to new and expanding markets. Despite their involvement in the Southern Cone trade block, Mercosur (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay), Brazil's closest neighbors are not necessarily keen on powerful competition from their much larger competitors. And despite increased commercial ties in the region, the U.S. is still Brazil's largest trading partner, followed closely by China, and then Argentina and Germany.
It is clear that with the planet's eighth-largest economy, and a population of just under 186 million people— nearly equaling all the other South American countries combined— Brazil is key to any regional projects. But there is a question over how much Brazil itself is willing to sacrifice to make integration a reality.
"If you look at Brazil in Mercosur, it's like Germany and France combined in the EU. It's by far the most important player, so everything basically depends on Brazil. Germany, for example has made huge efforts to promote integration. Germany has, to a large part, financed integration. It has really given up sovereignty. Brazil, in my opinion is not willing to do either," Stuenkel said.
Despite Brazil's newfound international prominence, Latin America's largest country is still wrestling with its own problems— poverty, inequality, violence, a failing education system and an antiquated tax system—that Dilma says she will tackle first. For most Brazilians foreign policy was not even an issue in this year's elections.
"For us Brazilians, it wasn't of central importance, but in reality it is one of the most important points," Fuser said. "This Brazilian election was of huge international importance, with global implications."
Dilma may not have the charisma of President Lula, but after five years as Lula's chief of staff, she has proven herself a powerful woman. While some analysts believe that Lula will be directing the new government from behind the scenes, Dilma appears to have already found her own voice on several issues, albeit within the framework of Lula's policies.
"In South America, the Lula government was a force of change and moderation at the same time," Fuser said. "The new Dilma government doesn't see any reason to change direction. At the same time, it also doesn't see any reason for a radicalization."