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Colin Powell Visits Brazil, But Why?

I recently took the presumptuous step on behalf of the Brazilian people of inviting President George W. Bush to visit Brazil, in the form of an open letter. Until now I have received no reply.

This is not surprising since Mr. Bush has other priorities at the moment, including getting himself re-elected by the American people.


In my letter I complained about the lack of interest Mr. Bush had shown in Brazil and Latin America in general during almost four years in the White House.


I also expressed my disappointment at his failure to send some of his top staff, such as vice president Dick Cheney, secretary of state, Colin Powell, or national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, to visit us.


So, it came as a pleasant surprise two weeks ago to receive a press release from the American embassy in Brasília announcing that Powell would visit Brazil in the second week of October.


I was too modest to think that my jibes had persuaded Bush to send his Foreign Minister here but I thought that if anyone could break the ice it would be Powell.


Although Powell has backed the Bush administration’s policies on Iraq, he was initially reluctant to support the invasion and subsequent occupation.


He is seen as a “nice” guy who doesn’t try to hector or bully other countries to toe the Washington line. His background is in the military so presumably he is a man of principle and discipline and not a weasel-like politician. 


In many ways, he seemed the perfect person to try and mend the strained relations between the two largest nations in the Americas.


Limp Handshake


Unfortunately the visit, which lasted less than two days, was so fleeting and flimsy that one cannot help but wonder why Powell came and what he thought he had achieved.


He had a meeting with Lula at which nothing of any substance was discussed or decided. Nothing was said officially about the most important outstanding issue between the two countries – the proposed establishment of the Free Trade Area of the Americas.


This was a golden opportunity to try and get this crucial matter back on track but it appears that neither side was interested.


We can look forward to more squabbles and name-calling and be sure that the FTAA will not come about in January 2005 as was originally intended.


Powell later made some conciliatory comments about the host nation’s longstanding desire to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and described Brazil as a “leading candidate”.


However, this comment was made in response to a question raised at a meeting of the US-Brazilian Chamber of Commerce in São Paulo and did not form part of any kind of initiative.


Powell was merely being diplomatic and made it clear that the Bush administration would not be making any efforts to help this come about. This issue was part of any future general reform of the UN, he said. 


He also showed no concern about Brazil becoming a nuclear power, despite a row between the Brazilian government and the International Atomic Energy Agency over the Agency’s desire to inspect a nuclear enriching plant.


He told us that while the US was concerned about North Korea and Iran, it was certain that Brazil was not thinking of developing nuclear arms. 


Presumably this means that people in the town of Resende in Rio de Janeiro state, which contains the nuclear fuel enrichment plant, can sleep safely at night without worrying about being bombed in their beds by American planes.


Role Model for Black and Mulatto Youngsters


Perhaps the most successful part of Powell’s visit was a trip he made to a social project for poor children and teenagers, which is partly funded by an American multinational.


Many of the children were black or mulatto, as Powell would be regarded in Brazil. These children have few role models, apart from footballers like Pelé and Robinho, athletes like Daiane dos Santos, and, of course, singers and dancers.


Powell gave them a pep talk. He spoke of his boyhood, as the son of Jamaican immigrants in New York, and his first job cleaning floors in a Pepsi plant.


He reminded them that only 30 years it would have been impossible to have a black US secretary of state and he encouraged them to do their best in shaping their own lives.


It is rare for black children in Brazil to see one of their own in a position of authority. Lula’s Workers Party government has done little to change this. It has only one leading mulatto member, the culture minister Gilberto Gil, who was not present at Powell’s visit.


Lula, for his part, made no effort to make Powell’s trip worthwhile. It could be that Lula feels it is not worth trying to improve relations since Bush may be defeated in the presidential elections in November.


The American President’s unimpressive performances against Democrat candidate, John Kerry, in the two debates held so far and the damning evidence that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction may prove his downfall.


However, the chances are that Bush will win and Brazil will have to continue to cooperate with him for the next four years. If so, we can look forward to the continuation of the current limp friendship between the two largest democracies in the Americas.


From Russia with Love


Meanwhile it was interesting to note that Lula and the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, have had a telephone conversation. According to the Itar-Tass news agency the two presidents discussed some pressing issues of bilateral cooperation in the context of the preparations for the Russian President’s visit to Brazil, which will be the first in the history of Russian-Brazilian relations.


Tass said the telephone conversation had been initiated by the Brazilian side. Putin is due here shortly. Presumably Lula will roll out the red carpet for him in a way he did not do for Powell.


John Fitzpatrick is a Scottish journalist who first visited Brazil in 1987 and has lived in São Paulo since 1995. He writes on politics and finance and runs his own company, Celtic Comunicações—www.celt.com.br—which specializes in editorial and translation services for Brazilian and foreign clients. You can reach him at jf@celt.com.br.


© John Fitzpatrick 2004

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