Briefing Bush on Brazil the CIA Way

Brazilian protesters's sign against US president: Off with BushAhead of President George W. Bush’s visit to Brazil I thought I would try and find out how he might be briefed by his advisers. Unfortunately I have no contacts at the White House or the American embassy so I had to seek out public sources such as the CIA, the State Department and the Library of Congress. Presumably Washington has learned a lot since Ronald Reagan’s embarrassing toast "to the people of Bolivia" during a visit to Brasília in 1982 and Bush will be provided with up-to-date, accurate advice.

If this advice is based on what is available on these official US sites then Mr. Bush should be very careful in what he says publicly since he risks upsetting his hosts. If, on the other hand, he decides to rely on the Brazilian foreign ministry then he will not learn much at all since not only is its English-language site amateurish and outdated but, at times, baffling.

There are many American sites on Brazil, often from academic institutions, but I chose the three official ones mentioned in the introduction. Overall they are quite impressive and comprehensive although it is difficult to imagine Brazilians agreeing with many of the statements and conclusions.  The Library of Congress site has not been modernized since 1997, so is of no value in terms of current affairs, but it does have a lot of interesting more general material.

I wonder if Bush will handle Lula in the light of its comment on dealing with Brazilians on a personal level: "At the level of interpersonal relations, in contrast to what is usually found in Spanish-speaking Latin America, where behavior tends to be more formal and rigid, there are in Brazil strong cultural values in favor of conciliation, tolerance, and cordiality. To the extent possible, direct personal confrontation is avoided.

"This Brazilian style of behavior may be derived from an Iberian and colonial heritage of diverse ethnic groups living together, weaker central authority exercised by the Portuguese crown, and day-to-day practical forms of resistance to exploitation. It may also have an element of popular emulation of the genteel behavior of the elites. Whatever its origins, Brazilians are known for their informality, good nature, and charm (simpatia), as well as their desire not to be thought unpleasant or boorish (chato). They place high value on warmth, spontaneity, and lack of pomp and ceremony."

Lest the visitor gets the wrong idea, this is followed by an immediate warning. "Though they are cordial and magnanimous at the interpersonal level, Brazilians as a whole are exploitative with regard to the environment. This attitude has been explained in terms of the bandeirante or conquistador mentality by authors such as Viana Moog and Jorge Wilheim.

"According to this interpretation, the general spirit of the colonizer of yesteryear or today is to accumulate as much wealth as possible as quickly as possible and then move on. Whatever its roots, the result of this kind of behavior is individualism, transience, and disregard for others and for nature as opposed to stability, solidarity, equilibrium, and equity. It has led to both human and environmental degradation."

Those Selfish Brazilians

The writer goes on: "In a similar fashion, Brazilians tend not to think in terms of the common good. Discourse invoking mutual benefit for all concerned is often mistrusted as a disguised justification for colonialism or exploitation. The result of widespread evasion of rules imposed by the central authority is a vicious circle involving crackdowns and inspections (fiscalização) to enforce ever-tougher rules and ever more sophisticated and ingenious ways of evading the rules (burla). This tendency often blocks the efforts of those who are well-intentioned, without creating major obstacles but rather making their work easier for the truly dishonest."

Brazilians may find remarks like this patronizing if not downright offensive but, like it or not, that is the impression many foreigners have. No doubt many Brazilians would describe the American attitude as being marked by an exploitative, get-rich quick culture and "individualism, transience, and disregard for others".

Race is another issue where you would imagine there would be a common understanding, since both the US and Brazil have a large black population, but the differences are apparent. The modern American view that one drop of black blood in your ancestry makes you black, rather than white or mixed race, highlights this difference. A good example of this simplistic approach to race is the problems the Democratic presidential candidate, Barack Obama, is having in the eyes of some blacks who think he is not black enough or black at all.

Mixed Up Over Mixed Race

In its section on the ethnic make-up of the population, the State Department site says:" Despite class distinctions, national identity is strong, and racial friction is a relatively new phenomenon." I don’t know how the writer reached this conclusion since I have never seen a single example of "racial friction" in Brazil.

This does not mean that there is no discrimination or prejudice but there is none of the ill-feeling here that is prevalent in the US since Brazilians are not as quick as identifying themselves as black. The self-indulgent American cult of being a "victim" or explaining unsocial behavior on racial grounds is also absent.  

Even in the US, this Afro-centric attitude is relatively recent. Well into the 60s many Americans of mixed race tried to conceal their black ancestry, lighten their skins and straighten their hair. The Walter Mosley novel "Devil in a Blue Dress" set in Los Angeles in the 40s is a good example. The story revolves around what appears to be interracial couple – a black man and a white woman – who turn out to be brother and sister of mixed race.

This racial ambivalence still happens today but it is not politically correct to mention it. Michael Jackson is a freaky example of a black man who wants to be white. Compare a singer like Beyoncé with Aretha Franklin and you can see how Beyoncé has virtually turned her back on her race in terms of skin color and hairstyle, with only her features showing her African descent.

In the early 90s I wrote an article about Washington for the internal magazine of a multinational company in which I mentioned how many "black" people I had seen who were obviously of mixed race and made a comparison of race relations in the US and Brazil. The response from the American division of the company was almost hysterical and I was vilified for daring to raise a subject that the Americans regarded as taboo.

To say that people like Muhammad Ali, Denzel Washington or Colin Powell obviously had some white forebears was like committing a sacrilege. By contrast, there was not a peep of protest from readers in Europe, Asia or Latin America.     

The Library of Congress highlights the different approaches to race and makes an interesting point when it says that that claiming to be "black" could even be seen as being unpatriotic in Brazil. "Because of the lack of a clear color distinction and a strong cultural tradition of tolerance and cordiality, as well as longstanding explicit laws against racial discrimination, Brazil has been touted as a "racial democracy."

However, "racial democracy" is a myth. There is a very strong correlation between light color and higher income, education, and social status. Few blacks reach positions of wealth, prestige, and power, except in the arts and sports. Although discrimination is usually not explicit, it appears in subtle forms: unwritten rules, unspoken attitudes, references to "good appearance" rather than color, or simply placing higher value on individuals who are white or nearly white.

In the 1960s, black consciousness began to grow, although the very lack of a clear color line in biological or social terms weakened racial solidarity of the nonwhite population. The prevailing notion that Brazil was a "racial democracy" also made it easy to dismiss black movements as un-Brazilian.

For the most part, the movements did not press for changes in government policy, which was already officially against racial discrimination. Instead, they emphasized racial pride and the struggle against subtle forms of discrimination and the often covert violence to which blacks were subject."

Sex, Drugs and Slavery

This is what the CIA has to say about trafficking in two areas – sex and drugs – and forced labor i.e. slavery. "Brazil is a source and destination country for women and girls trafficked for sexual exploitation within Brazil and to destinations in South America, the Caribbean, Western Europe, Japan, the US, and the Middle East, and for men trafficked within the country for forced agricultural labor; child sex tourism is a problem within the country, particularly in the resort areas and coastal cities of Brazil’s northeast; foreign victims from Bolivia, Peru, China, and Korea are trafficked to Brazil for labor exploitation in factories  Brazil has failed to show evidence of increasing efforts to fight trafficking, specifically for its failure to apply effective criminal penalties against traffickers who exploit forced labor."

On illicit drugs, Brazil is described as an "illicit producer of cannabis" and the site refers to: "trace amounts of coca cultivation in the Amazon region, used for domestic consumption; government has a large-scale eradication program to control cannabis; important transshipment country for Bolivian, Colombian, and Peruvian cocaine headed for Europe; also used by traffickers as a way station for narcotics air transshipments between Peru and Colombia; upsurge in drug-related violence and weapons smuggling; important market for Colombian, Bolivian, and Peruvian cocaine; illicit narcotics proceeds earned in Brazil are often laundered through the financial system; significant illicit financial activity in the Tri-Border Area."

Yankee, Go Home!

Latin America has always had mixed feelings about the US, loving and hating it at the same time. One of the reasons many Brazilian do not like the US is because they believe Washington helped install the military government which ran the country for two decades. The CIA site steers clear of any controversial historical claim that it was behind the coup which brought the military to power in 1964 but the Library of Congress pulls no punches. Its description of events ends with a sting in the tail for the US.

This is what it says: "In late 1963, Washington, alarmed that Brazil might become a hostile, nonaligned power like Egypt, reduced foreign aid to Brazil. The exact United States role in the March 31, 1964, military coup that overthrew Goulart remains controversial.

However, the United States immediately recognized the new interim government (before Goulart had even fled Brazilian territory); a United States naval task force anchored close to the port of Vitória; the United States made an immediate large loan to the new Castelo Branco government (1964-67); and the new military president adopted a policy of total alignment with the United States."

"The Castelo Branco regime broke off relations with Cuba (while enhancing them with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe); purged or exiled leftists and alleged communists; adopted a more discreet position in the UN vis-à-vis Portuguese colonialism; duly compensated expropriated foreign capital investments; passed a new profit remittances law; and sent a 1,200-man battalion as part of the Interamerican Peace Force to the Dominican Republic in 1965.

"Brazilian foreign policy centered on combating subversion and contributing to the collective security of the hemisphere. Brazil ranked third after Vietnam and India as recipients of United States aid; it received US$ 2 billion from 1964 to 1970. Nonetheless, Castelo Branco’s all-out support for United States policies only served to increase anti-Americanism rather than to lessen it."

This is exactly what President Bush will have to deal with this. He is probably the most unpopular US president in the history of Brazil and will have a hard job trying to improve this image. 

The CIA site shows that it still has a lot to learn in terms of handling Latin American sensitivities. For example, it describes the area where Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina meet as an "unruly region" which is the "focus of money laundering, smuggling, arms and illegal narcotics trafficking, and fundraising for extremist organizations."

This echoes an American government claim that Muslim extremists are using this region to raise funds in support of terrorism. There may well be some truth in this claim but no hard evidence has been found to justify it and the statement could be qualified to say so.

Watch out for Voodoo!

In a short item on religion, the CIA site claims that 0.3% of the Brazilian population practice "Bantu/voodoo", whatever that is. Perhaps this explains why the US was so keen on Brazil sending peacekeeping troops to Haiti under the UN banner. No doubt the Brazilian voodooists among the troops  will be getting on well with their co-religionists in Haiti, dancing round fires at midnight, biting off chickens’ heads, falling into a trance before turning into zombies and terrorizing the bad guys in Port-au-Prince. Maybe when the troops come home they can try this tactic out in the favelas in Rio de Janeiro.

Paraguayans and Argentineans also get short shift from the CIA. For example, the CIA’s map of Brazil shortens the name of neighboring Paraguay to Para, a rather careless abridgement since Para is also the name of one of Brazil’s Northern states. Does the CIA know something we don’t? Is Brazil about to invade Paraguay and cut it down to size not only territorially but also nominally? (By the way, many Paraguayans do believe Brazil wants to take over their country.)

The CIA map of Argentina is also somewhat insensitive. It describes the South Atlantic islands which led to a war between the UK and Argentina in 1982 as the "Falkland Islands", with the Argentinean name "Islas Malvinas" underneath and an explanatory "administered by UK claimed by Argentina" in brackets. Since Argentineans are absolutely fanatical about their claim to the  Falklands is this why Bush is not visiting Argentina on this trip even though he will be just across the River Plate from Buenos Aires in Uruguay?

Anyone Got an Atlas?

Despite these failings of the American sites, Bush should just ignore the English-language site of the Brazilian foreign ministry which has a dusty, neglected look. The latest press release is from September last year. The section on bilateral relations with the US dates from 2001 and does not even mention Lula despite the fact that he has been President since 2003. Not only are some of the links out of date – a section on the economy provides no hard statistical information after 1999 – but others are dead.

There are also some oddities which make you wonder if the foreign ministry owns an atlas or a globe of the world. Under the bilateral section for "Africa" we find distinctly non-African countries like Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan and Syria, along with the Palestinian Authority. The "Asia and Oceania" section does not mention China, India or Australia although surely Brazil must have some agreements with these countries.

The "South America" section does not even mention the Mercosur partners, Argentina, Paraguay or Uruguay. Mexico is included under "North America" while "Central America" includes Jamaica, Cuba, Haiti and Trinidad and Tobago. The "Europe" links takes you to page which says "Alemanha, Andorra, Austria" and directs you to another page in Portuguese which gives you the address of a department responsible for relations with 54 European countries.

Bem-vindo ao Brasil,  Sr. Bush!


1) Sites referred to:,,,

2) In reply to Reagan’s remark, an advertisement was placed in a São Paulo newspaper the following day with the headline "The people of Bolivia appreciate the visit of the President of Canada."

John Fitzpatrick is a Scottish writer and consultant with long experience of Brazil. He is based in São Paulo and runs his own company Celtic Comunicações. This article originally appeared on his site He can be contacted at

© John Fitzpatrick 2007


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