Pete Souza

How to Improve U.S.-Latin American Relations

During his attendance at a recent African Union summit, former Brazilian president Lula da Silva critiqued the structure of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC): “it isn’t possible that Latin America, with its 400 million inhabitants, does not have permanent representation. Five countries decide what to do and how to do it, regardless of the rest of the humans living on this planet.”

Such statements are nothing new. The UNSC’s structure has come under heavy criticism in recent years, with repeated calls for its expansion. Countries like India, South Africa, and Brazil have become the usual suspects as possible new permanent members. And the Portuguese-speaking giant has emerged as the de facto representative for Latin America and the Caribbean to the UNSC. If the United States backs Brazil’s bid, it will gain considerable political capital in Latin America.

Brazil’s UN Qualifications

Brazil has been a rising star in Latin America and the world for several decades and boasts a number of successes that support its quest for becoming a permanent representative to the UNSC. For starters the country has a history of involvement in UN missions: one of the first Brazilian UN deployments occurred in 1956 when Brasilia, under President Juscelino Kubitschek, sent peacekeepers to the Sinai.

Brazilians have also served in the UN Observer Mission in El Salvador and the UN Mission in Angola. More recently, Brasilia took a leadership role in the UN Stabilization Mission to Haiti (MINUSTAH) to aid the transitional government that took control of Haiti after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s ouster. Brazil has provided the military commanders for MINUSTAH along with a significant number of troops.

In addition, Brasilia has also provided personnel for the UN peace mission efforts in East Timor, which separated from Indonesia in 2002. Leading up to East Timor’s independence, Brazilian diplomat Sérgio Vieira de Mello served as the special representative of the UN secretary general and as UN transitional administrator (a sort of de facto governor) from December 1999 to May 2002.

De Mello spent most of his career working for the UN instead of the Brazilian diplomatic corps and he was even thought to have been a likely candidate for the position of UN secretary general, which would have been a great honor for him and his country. He was tragically killed in the Canal Hotel bombing in Iraq on August 2003 while working as the secretary general’s special representative to Iraq.

In addition, Brazil already appears to be a de facto semi-permanent member of the UNSC, without the crucial veto power, due to the number of times it has held a temporary seat. Brasilia had a seat in 1946-1947, 1951-1953, 1954-1956, 1963-1965, and 1967-1968. Because the country had a military government from 1964 to 1985, it would not return to the UNSC until 1988-1989. Since returning to democratic rule, Brazil has had a seat almost non-stop: in 1993-1995; 1998-2000; 2004-2006; and currently in 2010 until the end of 2011. Furthermore, in another diplomatic victory, former minister José Graziano da Silva has been elected to be the next director general of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.

Besides its role in the UN, Brazil today has strong relations with different countries and regions of the world. For example, under former president Lula da Silva, Brazil became a major supporter for the creation of UNASUR (Union of South American Nations – Union de Naciones Suramericanas), a South American political bloc that has all 12 states as its members.

Regarding non-hemispheric inter-state relations, Brazil, along with Russia, China and India form the BRIC countries, regarded as rising, non-Western economic and political powerhouses. In addition, with India and South Africa, Brazil has formed a loose alliance known as IBSA; which aims to promote political and economic integration between its members. In September 2010 the three states carried out military maritime exercises in South Africa. Furthermore, Brazil has historical ties with Sub-Saharan Africa as well as fellow Portuguese-speaking countries. The African countries that Brazil has approached include Nigeria, Angola, and Mozambique through the agreements reached between them appear to be mostly focused around commerce and/or tourism. Only with South Africa has there been a special, more multi-dimensional relationship.

Likewise, Brazil has taken steps to promote the Community of Portuguese Language Countries (CPLP), which Angola, Brazil, Cape Verde, Guinea Bissau, Mozambique, Portugal, and São Tomé and Príncipe established in 1996. Of primary importance to Brazil may be the fact that the CPLP countries, including East Timor now as an independent state, have supported Brazil’s candidacy for a UNSC permanent seat.

Brazil’s Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota has said that CPLP countries support each other in all their claims in international institutions like the United Nations, adding that “the idea is that we mutually support our bids. When a country from our family is a candidate for a position in an international organ, it will have our support.”

Finally, Brazil has a booming economy, with offshore oil fields, recently discovered that will make the country’s maritime industry grow even more. This may actually turn out to be the decade of Brazil, as it will also host two major sporting events: the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Drawbacks and Criticisms

Nevertheless, Brazil’s has drawn criticism for some of its foreign and domestic initiatives. Brazil has had a controversial role in MINUSTAH as the UN mission has been regarded as a type of colonial government by the UN in the wake of the ouster of former president Aristide. MINUSTAH troops have been accused of human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings during operations in areas like Cite Soleil while battling criminal gangs and rebels. Although Brazilian peacekeepers have not been singled out for responsibility for the violence, the country provides up to 1,300 troops to the mission, more than any other country, and a Brazilian commander has continuously led the effort. Ironically, during the 2005 riots in Cite Soleil and Bel Air, the Brazilians faced complaints that “[they] don’t seem like they want to get too involved.”

In addition, Brazil’s domestic security policies have come under criticism for police crackdowns on gangs that operate in shantytowns in an effort to rid Brazil’s major cities of crime in time for the FIFA World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. Local residents also fear that when the Rio Olympics are over, “the state will take less interest in the favelas, allowing the drug trafficking gangs to re-establish control.”

Furthermore, groups like Amnesty International have expressed concern “as Rio de Janeiro carries forth large scale ‘urbanization’ plans in preparation for the sporting events.” These organizations argue that Olympic projects “ranging from the Trans Carioca to the Trans Olimpica and parking, have been blamed for the planned as well as already executed forced removal of partial or entire communities.” Finally, as strong as the Brazilian economy is today, the country’s overvalued currency will eventually lead to some kind of correction. According to Bloomberg, the valuation of the real “is prompting analysts to predict the currency will tumble 10 percent by 2013, which would make it the worst performer in the world.”

How the Rest of America Feels

In recent years, besides Brazil, countries like Mexico and Venezuela have increased their regional influence. It is debatable, however, if either of them are possible candidates to be permanent representatives to the UNSC. Regarding Mexico, the country has strong influences in Central America, and it has an expanding economy. It also has a growing role in organizations like APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) and is host to a relatively unknown but important organization: OPANAL (Agency for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America). However, one of the concerns is that Mexico is regarded as too politically close to the United States due to close economic and security ties through Plan Merida and NAFTA. Hence Mexico would have difficulty being independent of Washington’s influence.

On the other hand, Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez has made it a foreign policy priority to distance his country from Washington, a 180 degree turn from Venezuela before Chavez, when the South American state was a reliable U.S. ally. Chavez certainly has some international support, but he has also been a divisive figure. It’s not likely that Chavez could win sufficient international support for Venezuela’s bid for a seat.

In general, most Latin American states have expressed their support for Brazil’s UN bid. In May 2011, President Chavez met with Brazil’s new president, Dilma Rousseff, and expressed his support for his Portuguese neighbor’s UNSC quest. Other countries like Paraguay, Uruguay, and Chile have also voiced their support. “So far Brazil’s claim has gone largely uncontested, except for minor murmurings of dissent,” according to the UPI.

A May/June 2011 article in Foreign Affairs adds that “many Latin American officials quietly reveal that they are not eager to see Brazil replace the United States as the hemisphere’s hegemon. As one diplomat recently put it, ‘The new imperialists have arrived, and they speak Portuguese.’” It would seem that Latin American support for Brazil to the UNSC is not simply due to good relations between regional governments and Brasilia but also due to the lack of any other regional candidate to counterbalance Brasilia’s ambition.

Regarding Washington, President Barack Obama has not carried out a concrete policy toward Latin America. He has occasionally traveled to the region, and he visited Brazil this past March. But his priorities are someplace else (i.e. the American economy and U.S. military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya). During his recent trip to Brazil, he recognized “Brazil’s extraordinary rise” and he “expressed appreciation for Brazil’s aspiration,” to have a permanent seat at the UNSC, nevertheless he stopped short of openly supporting Brasilia’s bid.

Improving Washington’s Relations with Latin America

The United Nations Security Council is long overdue for a general restructuring, and controversial decisions like the authorization to begin a military operation in Libya (officially to protect civilians but it’s widely understood that the coalition of warships in the Mediterranean is indirectly aiding the rebels against Muammar Gaddafi) have brought about accusations that the Libya mission is just another example of how UNSC permanent members use the UN to project and protect their national interests.

An expansion of the UNSC is an obvious recommendation and several of the permanent UN members have expressed support for powerhouses that aspire for a seat: Britain, for instance, supports Brazil while China and Russia support India. Nevertheless, according to several specialists, the major issue with UNSC reform is not a lack of potential models, but a lack of political will. None of the permanent members has prioritized a change the UNSC structure in the immediate future.

Regarding Brazil, the country does have most of the basic requirements, including backing by several states, to be a UNSC permanent member, making it the self-evident representative of Latin America and the Caribbean. This doesn’t mean that Brazil is the perfect candidate to represent the region, but so far it is the only real option. The country should continue its version of good neighbor diplomacy and for that, it might want to respect decisions by international bodies even if its government does not agree with them.

One perfect example of this is Brasilia’s challenge and rejection of a report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, part of the Organization of American States, which had asked Brazil to stop the construction of the Belo Monte dam, as it hadn’t taken into the account the opinions and needs of local indigenous groups. The world already has too many powerhouses doing what they want, irrespective of the wishes by weaker states or international bodies. If Brazil really wants to be a representative powerhouse with a seat at the UNSC, it would help if it became the exception to the rule and actually respected decisions by the international organizations that it belongs to, instead of making claims that the OAS suggestions were “precipitated and unjustifiable.”

Finally, more open Washington support for Brazil’s UN aspirations would certainly help improve relations between the United States and Latin America. The election of Barack Obama was very well received by the Global South in general but, at least regarding the Western Hemisphere, not much has happened during his tenure. A stronger endorsement by the White House stating that Latin America does deserve a permanent member at the UNSC table would be a very important positive step in making the Washington-Latin American relationship a partnership of equals.