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Mixed Messages from Brazil

Questioning President Rousseff’s and Foreign Minister Patriota’s Focus on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce during their Washington Visit Today

SOURCE: AP/ Pablo Martinez Monsivais

President Barack Obama meets with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff at the United Nations in September 2011.

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Remarkable for its youth and multiethnic character, Brazil, South America’s largest country, boasts the world’s fifth-largest population and sixth-largest economy with good prospects for even greater future growth. Quite simply—Brazil is important.

Understanding that Brazil is a major player on the world stage, President Barack Obama shrugged off significant domestic political pressure and visited newly elected Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff very early in her tenure in March of last year. It was a show of support for an aspiring leader in Latin America as well as an expression of the importance that the Obama administration attaches to this bilateral relationship.

Many viewed the timing of the president’s visit as inopportune given the uprising in Libya and the looming NATO Libya mission. President Obama, however, chose to travel to Brazil as planned while closely monitoring events in Libya. The president even found himself commenting on NATO airstrikes in Benghazi while standing in front of Rio de Janeiro’s iconic Sugarloaf Mountain.

With President Obama’s visit, the White House aimed to strengthen President Rousseff as she consolidated power within her own Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores) after taking over from her wildly popular predecessor, two-term President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known as Lula. During his two-day visit, President Obama spent substantial one-on-one time with President Rousseff and pointedly snubbed her most important political adversaries in the Brazilian Social Democracy Party. The message was clear—Rousseff is our chosen partner.

Obama’s visit to Rousseff—a little known former political activist of Bulgarian descent who was jailed during Brazil’s military dictatorship—just three months into her first term constituted a massive vote of confidence for Brazil’s new leader and was not without political risk for the White House. Clearly, from the perspective of the Obama administration, Rousseff’s election offered a unique opportunity for a renewed partnership between the two governments. With the emergence of a new global geometry and new centers of economic and political clout, it is clear that the United States has a vital interest in reaching out to democratic powers like Brazil. Likewise Brazil’s interests are served by a strengthening of this relationship as well.

Expertly scripted and executed, President Obama’s visit was exceptionally productive. A number of important cooperative agreements were signed or advanced on issues ranging from defense and peacekeeping to biofuels, science and technology to education. If a clear strategic vision for the future of this partnership has not yet been defined, the presidential visit represented a bold beginning and underlined the willingness of the United States to be an equal partner with Brazil in the Western Hemisphere.

Returning the president’s gesture, President Rousseff will pay an official visit to Washington today, with a strong focus on business relations and higher education. Certainly Rousseff will be able to share an impressive success story: Over the past decade, her Workers’ Party has presided over amazing economic growth and an impressive and necessary redistribution of wealth in Brazil through the wildly popular bolsa familia program—a conditional cash transfer plan designed to fight poor living conditions.

As a result of these progressive economic initiatives, more than 40 million people have been lifted out of poverty. In addition, infrastructure investments have increased and economic growth has improved, even in the poor and long-neglected northeast region of the country.

Under the leadership of the Workers’ Party, Brazil’s gross domestic product per capita doubled during the last decade, poverty was reduced by half, and economic growth, though slowing, remained substantial through 2011. In short, Brazil under the Workers’ Party has become a model for emerging democracies of what progressive politics and parties can achieve.

Consequently, in the international arena, Brazilian politicians regularly emphasize the need for the United States and Europe to get their fiscal act together, including mastering the crises in Greece, Ireland, Portugal, and Spain, and overseeing reforms in global governance and to international financial institutions.

President Rousseff will deliver a major speech on the economy in Washington today at an event hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, followed by public appearances at two of America’s most prestigious private universities, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At first glance, these venues seem like good choices, particularly if the aim is to sell Brazil to the U.S. business community and emphasize educational exchange at the highest level. But a closer look raises doubts about the picture these settings will paint, both from the perspective of U.S.–Brazilian bilateral relations and in light of President Rousseff’s own domestic political concerns.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has been one of President Obama’s fiercest antagonists, and President Rousseff’s decision to closely align with the organization must be perplexing for those inside the White House seeking close ties with the Brazilian leader. The chamber has made no secret of its opposition to President Obama and his agenda and has been vociferous and persistent in its criticism. Chamber President Tom Donohue vigorously criticized President Obama “for his lack of leadership on the economy and in creating jobs and the right atmosphere.”

Under Donohue’s leadership, the Chamber opposed equal pay legislation, minimum wage increases, financial sector regulation, and workers’ rights. It has gone on record denouncing global warming and opposed legislation to fight climate change. Many if not all of these policies are diametrically opposed to the broad political consensus in Brazilian society and are counter to positions and principles that are at the core of the Workers’ Party’s political agenda:

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce opposes the right to form unions—a matter of course in all Western industrialized nations and across Latin America and acknowledged by the industrial sector in most countries. The Chamber aims to remove the United States from this consensus block and, to that end, it lobbied against the Employee Free Choice Act in 2009, sending letters to lawmakers and unleashing a sustained media campaign against the measure.

In contrast, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce actively lobbied against the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and against the Paycheck Fairness Act—legislation designed to address income disparities between men and women attributed to systematic discrimination against women. The Chamber called the fight for equal pay for females a “fetish for money” and said that women should focus on “choosing the right partner at home.

  • In Brazil health care is a guaranteed constitutional right. While Brazil’s decentralized health care system faces challenges, more of the country’s health care is delivered through the private sector than in the United States. Under bolsa familia, payments are made with the condition that recipients obtain certain levels of care, which includes such basics as vaccinations and prenatal visits. 

Yet here in the United States the Chamber of Commerce has mounted a vigorous campaign against President Obama’s signature health care bill—the Affordable Care Act—establishing itself as a leader in the crusade against health care reform in 2009 and the repeal efforts of 2010. The Chamber has received $86.2 million from the health insurance industry to finance its massive effort to block the most important health reform legislation in recent U.S. history. 

  • Lastly, President Rousseff has been a strong and vocal supporter of financial reform and regulation. In her speech before the United Nations General Assembly last September, she said “It is necessary to reinforce the regulation of the financial system and to control this inexhaustible source of instability.” And in recent essays for The Economist and The Financial Times, Rousseff makes the argument that “market self-regulation is no substitute for government regulation” and calls for “further regulation of the financial system, to minimize the possibility of new crises.”

Yet the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has fought tooth and nail against the Obama administration’s Wall Street reform legislation and decried what it has dubbed a “federal takeover of our financial industry”. The Chamber ran a $3 million advertisement campaign against the reform effort and previously supported Wall Street deregulation under the Bush administration.

More than a little confusing

It is tempting to speculate who is advising President Rousseff to visit Washington in an election year and seemingly align herself with an organization that is such a fierce opponent of President Obama and opposed to so much of her own and her party’s political philosophy. There are several potential explanations, though none of them are entirely satisfying or consistent.

It could be reasoned that since Brazil has been reluctant to be seen as aligning with the United States in recent history it is keen to maintain that stance, never mind President Obama’s substantial political investment in the relationship. Still, Brazil and the United States have greatly enhanced their cooperation during the last three years despite whatever differences may exist concerning particular issues. In 2010, for example, the United States and Brazil settled an eight-year trade dispute over U.S. subsidies to cotton growers and signed an expansive Defense Cooperation Agreement. Further, during President Obama’s visit last year, he and President Rousseff launched a bilateral Strategic Energy Dialogue that enables the Overseas Private Investment Corporation and the U.S. Trade and Development Agency to provide financing to U.S. firms.

These important achievements, however, should not be overinterpreted as leading toward shared views on hemispheric or global policy issues. For the moment, economic pragmatism seems to accompany political attitudes on the Brazilian side of the ledger, which is still shaped at times by the legacy of U.S. policies in Latin America during the 1970s and 1980s.

Ironically, as Brazil becomes more powerful, it is being cast in a similar unflattering light. Some regional neighbors resent what they see as a proprietary feeling emanating from Brazil regarding South America. And a few neighboring countries are fearful of former Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim’s strategy to “minimize U.S. influence in South America” and assert Brazil’s own influence in the region.

Whatever the political realities, Brazil finds itself in an exceptional moment. President Rousseff has established an excellent domestic track record in her fight against corruption at home and has asserted herself internationally by making human rights an important facet of her foreign policy.

Even with what might be construed as political gamesmanship in light of the upcoming visit, the Obama administration was right to offer Brazil a broad, open-ended strategic partnership. Last year, in his Rio speech, President Obama pointed out that in the past Brazil’s potential had been “held back by politics, both at home and abroad.” The president then went on to hail Brazil as a “country that shows that a dictatorship can become a thriving democracy. … A country that shows how a call for change that starts in the streets can transform a city, transform a country, transform a world.”

President Obama was right to offer Brazil a broad strategic partnership and the U.S. government is right in asking Brazil to assert influence in global governance. It will be interesting to see if the Brazilian leadership takes the U.S. president up on his offer to have a strategic conversation about the future of the hemisphere.

Michael Werz is a Senior Fellow at the Center for  American Progress, where his work as a member of the National Security Team focuses on the nexus of climate change, migration, and security and emerging democracies, especially Turkey, Mexico, and Brazil. Peter Juul is a Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress, where he specializes in the Middle East, military affairs, and U.S. national security policy.

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