By Greg Grandin · 6 Apr 2011
Tensions over Middle East policy are increasing, despite Barack Obama's recent visit to Latin America
At some point in the run-up to Barack Obama’s just concluded tour of Latin America, which included stops in Brazil, Chile, and El Salvador, the US press decided that coverage of the trip would focus on expected friendly meeting with Dilma Rousseff, Brazil's recently inaugurated president.
The Washington Post, the New York Times, and National Public Radio, along with a host of other newspapers, cable news commentators, and blogs, all predicted that Obama, the US's first African American president, and Rousseff, Brazil's first woman leader, would find common ground, reversing the deterioration of diplomatic relations that had begun under Rousseff's predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
The bad blood started, or so the story went, when Lula refused to listen to the administration of George W. Bush and isolate Venezuela's populist leader, Hugo Chávez. Before long, Brasilia was opposing or, worse, offering alternatives to Washington's position on a growing number of issues: climate change, opposition to the 2009 coup in Honduras, Cuba, trade and tariffs.
Lula declined to criticise Iran and opened up a separate negotiating channel, outside of Washington's influence and much to its annoyance, with Tehran to discuss Iran's nuclear ambitions.
Differences on Middle East
The former Brazilian president also welcomed the president of the Palestinian National Authority, Mahmoud Abbas to Brazil, leading the rest of Latin America to recognise the Palestinian state and calling for direct talks with Hamas and Hezbollah.
Various explanations were posited in the US press for Lula's behavior, which, for a Latin American leader, was unprecedented considering the historically subservient role Latin America has long played to Washington. At times it was described as a personality disorder, a striving for attention on the world stage; at other moments it was explained away as Lula's need to play to his party's rank and file, which, apparently, always enjoys a good tweaking of the US's nose.
In any case, Obama's visit just after Dilma's election offered a chance for a reset. Rousseff, it was reported, would be eager to use the trip to distance herself from her political patron, Lula. Though she was a member of a Marxist-Leninist guerrilla organisation opposing a US-backed dictatorship during her youth in the 1970s, Brazil's new leader had, according to the Washington Post, a "practical approach to governance and foreign relations after eight years of the flamboyant Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva".
"She's a different person and has a different style," remarked the chairman of Goldman Sachs asset management.
She was "warm" and would welcome Obama cordially (has it really gotten to the point where the US, which for decades presided imperiously over the international community, is today just happy that foreign leaders aren’t rude when its presidents come calling?). Nearly all major news and opinion sources thought that she would be more accommodating to Washington's concerns than her predecessor, in Latin America but especially in the Middle East.
Unfortunately for Washington the reality has departed from the narrative. Brazil, under Rousseff, continues largely to follow its own diplomatic lights.
Libya and the UN
Even before Obama landed in Rio, Brazil, as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, joined with China and Germany to abstain from the vote authorising "all necessary measures" against Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.
Since then, its opposition to the bombing has hardened. According to the Inter Press Service News Agency (IPS), Brazil's foreign ministry – still, for the most part, staffed by the diplomats who charted Lula's foreign policy – recently issued a statement condemning the loss of civilian lives and calling for the start of dialogue.
Lula himself has endorsed Dilma's critical position on Libya, going further in his condemnation of the intervention: "These invasions only happen because the United Nations is weak," he said. "If we had twenty-first-century representation [in the Security Council], instead of sending a plane to drop bombs, the UN would send its secretary-general to negotiate."
His remarks were widely interpreted to mean that if Brazil had been a permanent member of the Security Council – a position it has long sought – it would have vetoed the resolution authorising the bombing rather than, as it did, merely abstaining from the vote.
These comments were the first indication that the ex-president, still enormously popular and influential in Brazil, planned to continue to openly weigh in on his successor’s foreign policy.
Argentina and Uruguay likewise have voiced strong disapproval of the intervention. On one level, this censure reflects Latin America's commitment to the ideal of non-intervention and absolute sovereignty. But on another, less elevated and more commonsensical level, it reflects a belief that the diplomatic community needs to return to a standard in which war is the last rather than the first response to crisis.
"This attack [on Libya] implies a setback in the current international order," IPS reports Uruguayan President José Mujica as saying. "The remedy is much worse than the illness. This business of saving lives by bombing is an inexplicable contradiction."
Social inclusion vs IMF demands
On other important issues as well, Brazil continues push back against Washington.
The US-controlled International Monetary Fund (IMF), for example, is demanding that Brazil, one of the world's fastest growing economies, calm bond market concerns about inflation by reining in social spending.
Dilma's economic team has so far balked. It argues instead that inflation can be controlled by government regulation of "hot money," that is, the ability of foreign capital to place speculative bets on, and reap enormous profits off of, Brazil’s currency.
This might sound a bit technocratic, but it is in fact a big obstacle to the IMF's bid to restore its lost role as what economist Mark Weisbrot has described as a "creditor’s cartel" in Latin America, the chief mechanism through which Washington imposes "discipline" on economies, like Brazil's, that shows too much independence.
Likewise, Brazil continues to be the main obstacle to jumpstarting the Doha Round of the world trade talks, demanding that the US and Europe lower tariffs to the products and commodities of the developing world. While graciously hosting the US president, Rousseff nonetheless strongly criticized Washington’s ability to preach free trade while practicing protectionism, demanding that the US open its markets to Brazilian imports such as ethanol, steel, and orange juice.
However "warm," "practical," or "cordial" Dilma, Brazil’s first woman president, may be, she'll be no push over when it comes to matters of war, peace, and economics.
Grandin is a professor of history at New York University and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is the author of a number of prize-winning books, including most recently, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City (Metropolitan 2009), which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in History, as well as for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.