Brazilian Foreign Policy under Dilma: Interview with Igor Fuser

By  |  23 / November / 2010

On Oct. 31, Brazilians elected their new president, Worker’s Party (PT) candidate, Dilma Rousseff. Over the last eight years, President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, has turned the world’s attention to Brazil like never before, as his country has increasingly participated on the international scene.

To understand what this will look like under the Dilma government, I sat down with Igor Fuser, international journalist and Professor at the Cásper Libero University in São Paulo. Fuser has a Masters degree in International Relations and is the author of the book “Petroleum and Power: U.S. Military Involvement in the Persian Gulf.”

What are some of the things that most stood out in Brazilian regional foreign policy under Lula. How was it so different from foreign policy under previous Brazilian governments?

Lula’s election and the eight years of the Lula government profoundly changed Brazilian foreign policy. It is one of the areas where the contrast between the policies of the Lula government and [the previous government of] Fernando Henrique Cardoso was most evident.

Historically throughout the 20th century, Brazil acted in a way that was rooted in recognizing U.S. hegemony. From the beginning of the Baron of Rio Branco[1], the founding father of Brazilian diplomacy in the beginning of the 20th Century, Brazil recognized the leadership of the United States and was a candidate to be number two after the U.S.—to be a sub-hegemon. So it was a partner with the United States, and by delegation, a leader in South American or Latin America, but always with the auxiliary support of the U.S. and this caused a lot of resentment and conflicts with the neighbors, above all Argentina, which never accepted Brazil’s position.

Under Lula, Brazil adopted another position. Brazil joined with other countries like Venezuela and Argentina and—although they don’t say this in their diplomatic discourse—they put themselves in opposition to the Monroe doctrine. Brazil began to consider South America as an autonomous geopolitical region, separate from the United States and not subordinated to the hegemony of the U.S.

The defining moment in Brazilian foreign policy was the thumbs down to the FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas). Former president Fernando Henrique had been in favor of the FTAA, but he didn’t have the conditions to carry it out. The Lula government adopted a position clearly against the FTAA and pointed Brazil in another direction, under the banner of Unasur (the Union of South American Nations), the push to strengthen relations within Mercosur (The Common Market of the South), and a series of positions contrary to the United States on many levels in the region. Other examples are the support for [Venezuelan President Hugo] Chavez against destabilization attempts, and rejection of the coup d’état in Honduras that had the implicit support of the U.S. government–not necessarily the entire Obama government, but very influential sectors of the Obama administration. The posture of the Brazilian government in Honduras was another defining moment of Brazil’s autonomous position in the regional and hemispheric context.

What are the possibilities for Dilma to be able to continue this? How will foreign policy be under her government?

The outlook is for the continuation of the policies of the Lula government. In Brazil, Itamaraty, the Ministry of Foreign Relations, has a lot of autonomy, and the group that is in charge of Itamaraty should remain at the helm. The most notable person in this group is the Minister of Foreign Affairs Celso Amorim. He won’t necessarily be the next chancellor. We’ve heard the name Antonio Patriota, who is part of Amorim’s group.

So the outlook is for the continuation of the same foreign policy. However, this is a foreign policy that cannot be summed up in two or three words. It is not an anti-American foreign policy. It is a foreign policy that looks for cooperation with the United States, and looks for the best possible relations with the United States, but not in terms of subordination.

A good way to understand Brazilian foreign policy is to compare it with the defeated candidate, Jose Serra. What was Serra’s proposal? To reduce South-South cooperation and relocate the political axis of Brazilian foreign policy to the traditional partners, basically the United States and Western Europe, in detriment to initiatives such as Mercosur and Unasur. So with the defeat of Serra and the Dilma government, Brazil should expand its ties with the so-called South. With India, China, South Africa. The emphasis of multipolarity should be maintained and eventually increase, depending on the current international context.

What does the recent U.S. midterm congressional elections mean for U.S.-Brazil relations?

The first prognosis made by sectors close to the Lula government is that the Republican victory in the U.S. legislative elections strengthens the certainty of Brazil depending less on its ties with the United States.

The political sector that supports the Dilma government is also very skeptical of U.S. measures to combat the economic crisis. The expectation is for the crisis to continue and to become even worse over the coming years in the United States. An intensification of the crisis in the United States makes the U.S. less important for the Brazilian market or as a source of investment for Brazil. This evaluation confirms the Brazilian decision to try to combat the crisis basically with its own means.

The comparison can be made between Brazil and Mexico. The country in Latin America that most tied itself to the United States was Mexico and when the U.S. went into crisis, Mexico was hit even worse. Mexico is drowning in a profound crisis; the U.S. crisis completely dragged Mexico down.

On the contrary, Brazil came out of the crisis really well. Brazil based itself on its domestic market, with its own accumulation of capital, with its state businesses, with its ties to its South American neighbors, and the government is convinced that this is the way to go.

The new government doesn’t see any reason to change direction. At the same time, it also doesn’t see any reason for a radicalization. In South America, the Lula government is a force of change and moderation at the same time. It is an extremely cautious foreign policy. It is a pragmatic foreign policy. It is a progressive, reformist, autonomist foreign policy, but it is not a foreign policy that challenges the center of world power, or the United States. It is not a leftist foreign policy or in any way a revolutionary foreign policy. But it is a foreign policy that creates a more favorable context for more transformations in South America.

Can you imagine if Serra had won? We would have a right-wing conservative foreign policy, aligned with the most conservative sectors of the United States. A foreign policy that would put itself immediately in a hostile position toward the most progressive experiences in South America. If Serra had won the Brazilian elections, and not Dilma, it would have been a disaster for Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Argentina, Paraguay, Cuba, the Mexican left and for the possibilities of progress in Peru.

For us Brazilians the international dimension of these elections in Brazil wasn’t that important, but in reality it is one of the most important points. This Brazilian election was of huge international importance, with global implications. The possibility of a multipolar world is dependent on having a center-left, left-wing government here in Brazil, which was the Lula government and now will be continued by Dilma.

In April of this year, Brazil and the United States signed a military cooperation agreement. What does this mean, what will it mean for Dilma, and what exactly is this military agreement?

As much as I know, it has to do with Brazilian access to American military technology and arms. I don’t know how far-reaching it is. You can understand this agreement within the pragmatic vision of Brazilian foreign policy, which is a foreign policy that isn’t against cooperation with the United States. The United States is seen as a friend and partner, like many other friends and partners. Lula said, “my friend Bush” when George W. Bush came to Brazil. But he also says, “my friend Chavez.” He even said, “my friend Ahmadinejad.” Everyone is Lula’s “friend.” This is a partially Lula’s personal style, but it also reflects the pragmatism of Brazil’s position in the world.

You said that everyone is a “friend” for Lula. Will it be the same thing for Dilma?

Without a doubt. Of course Lula and Dilma have very different personalities. But Dilma thinks the same way as Lula, and Dilma would never distance herself from what Lula would do. To the contrary of what the conservative press says, Dilma is a woman who is very well prepared. She has her own ideas. She thinks with her own head. She isn’t just a bureaucrat that Lula chose and put there. She has a history. She was a left-wing activist in her youth. She was an activist in the Democratic Labor Party of Leonel Brizola, before the PT, but at no point will she distance herself from Lula’s direction.

Lula is still the great figure in Brazilian politics, even if he has no position in the government. I don’t think he will comment often, because Lula is interested in Dilma truly exercising her role in the presidency. So Lula will not be the Brazilian “Putin.” Vladimir Putin is no longer president, but he is the Prime Minister. Lula will be traveling around the world. He’s going to set up his Institute. He’s going to give an interview every once in a while, but he’s not going to interfere in the daily Brazilian affairs. Lula will only be called upon if there is really a moment of crisis, and Dilma is attacked by the opposition. Then it is possible that he will be called to support Dilma. But on the other hand, Dilma is going to follow his lead. Dilma’s team in the government is going to be made up of the same people that already hold positions in the Lula government.

With respect to regional integration, Unasur, Mercosur, and Bilateral cooperation between Venezuela and other countries. Do you believe the forecast is that all of these are going to continue?

Yes, but that is not necessarily an optimistic forecast. The problems of regional integration in South America do not just depend on the political will of the governments. The Brazilian government is not Brazil. Brazil is much more than the government. Brazil is the government, society, and in terms of foreign affairs, Brazilian relations are represented above all by the businesses.

There is a lot of resistance of Brazilian businessmen to Mercosur. There is even greater resistance to Unasur. And the policy of regional integration in Brazil is in itself contradictory. It is a policy that has an element of solidarity and cooperation, and there is another element that is the expansion of Brazilian capitalism into the neighboring countries, which is hegemonic. So this contradictory aspect of Brazilian foreign policy is going to be inherited by the Dilma government. And nothing indicates that the Dilma government is going to take decisive action to overcome this contradiction.

The problem is the following. Any project of regional integration that involves the commercial sector, automatically means that Brazilian industry invades the neighboring countries, asphyxiating the possibility of local development. So the question of asymmetry[2] is very serious, it’s a huge obstacle to be removed.

Brazilian foreign policy, especially over the last few years of the Lula government, has emphasized that our integration needs to be less commercial and more structural, geared towards physical infrastructure, energy projects, joint development and industrial projects, but this is very theoretical. Physical infrastructure has progressed, albeit less than expected. However, at the end of the day, the defining areas of integration continue to be in commerce.

So, the goal of region integration should be maintained by the Dilma government, but at the same time, there are obstacles. And in order to remove these obstacles, you would need a new coalition of forces, which doesn’t exist. Dilma’s electoral victory took place within the framework of a coalition of forces that isn’t essentially different than the previous. It’s slightly more favorable. We can’t forget that it wasn’t just Dilma’s victory. The government, led by the PT, has a very significant majority in the congress. This gives the government more freedom to act. The capacity of an effective opposition of the conservative forces in the congress is less than it was under the Lula government. At the same time, this isn’t a left-wing congress. It is allied to the government, which is united above all by very specific interests, but it does not necessarily support the government ideologically.

Brazil’s foreign policies will also depend on the economic situation. The maintenance of favorable macroeconomic conditions in Brazil will leave the government with more freedom to act. The opposite is also true. If conditions of the Brazilian economy get worse, this will fuel the opposition and will take Brazil into a more cautious position on every level, including foreign policy.

Michael Fox is a freelance journalist, reporter and documentary filmmaker based in Brazil. He is co-author of Venezuela Speaks: Voices from the Grassroots, and co-director of Beyond Elections: Redefining Democracy in the Americas. His work can be found at


[1] José Maria da Silva Paranhos, Jr., (1845 — 1912). Brazilian Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1902-1912. He is recognized for successfully defining the country’s borders with all of its neighbors.

[2] In this case, speaking of the asymmetrical relations between the South American countries. Brazil is by far the largest country in the region, with the strongest economy. As Fuser points out countries like Argentine and Uruguay experienced periods of de-industrialization during the Neoliberal 1990s and it is difficult for them to compete with Brazilian big business.

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One comment

  1. Hey bro, this is a good article on Brazil and a good site for all Mexico;Latin America;South America information that is NOT in mainstram media.

    Comment by Terri on January 19, 2011 at 12:56 pm

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