During his lightning visit to Brazil George W. Bush was hardly recognizable as the man who toppled the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, engineered the overthrow and execution of Saddam Hussein, and gripped Iran, Syria and North Korea by the throat. He set in motion the procedures leading to a bilateral agreement on biofuels, heaped loads of praise on Brazil and President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in particular, and even danced spontaneously at an event for poorer children.
Apart from some scattered violence at a demonstration in São Paulo, the visit went very smoothly. As a PR exercise, it was highly successful but it is doubtful if it will bring any real breakthroughs, particularly in dismantling trade barriers or safeguarding the environment.
Lula looked a little ill at ease at times as though he did not want to be praised in public by Bush who is detested by his Workers Party (PT) and viewed with suspicion by a large sector of Brazilian society. He also sounded a little desperate when he repeated his "willingness to participate in a meeting in any part of the world to bring together leaders if this can help us overcome the final difficulties between us and a truly historic (trade) agreement", as though half a dozen world leaders locked in a room can suddenly solve one of the world’s trickiest problems.
At times, he also looked more like the guest than the host as Bush set the agenda. At one point Bush said "I’ll answer that one for him" in reply to a question from a journalist to Lula before Lula could open his month. Bush also wrapped up the press conference as though he were back in Washington.
In one comment, Lula spoke of the "G" point, a sexual reference which may be acceptable when horsing around in a bar with your pals but hardly appropriate to a press conference with the President of the United States.
America’s Security Comes First
Bush also made it clear that while he was in favor of expanding biofuels like ethanol, where Brazil has great expertise, his main reason for doing so was the US’s national security. The US wants to reduce its dependence on imports of foreign oil, much of which comes from volatile areas like the Middle East and, closer to home, Venezuela.
This is what he said: "People have wondered why the President of the United States would be so interested in diversification of our energy supply, and here are the reasons. One, if you’re dependent upon oil from overseas you have a national security issue. In other words, dependency upon energy from somewhere else means that you’re dependent upon the decisions from somewhere else.
"And so as we diversify away from the use of gasoline by using ethanol we’re really diversifying away from oil. Secondly, dependency upon oil creates an economic problem for not only the United States, but anybody else who imports oil. In a globalized world, if the demand for oil goes up in China or India, it runs up the price of gasoline in our respective countries.
"And therefore, diversification away from oil product is in the economic interests of our respective countries. And finally… we all feel incumbent to be good stewards of the environment. It just so happens that ethanol and biodiesel will help improve the quality of the environment in our respective countries."
Lula Turns Green
The priorities show that Bush is still a Texas oil man at heart and president of a country which intends looking after its own interests and one in which the car is king. It was left to Lula, who started his political career as a labor union leader in a car plant, to attempt to salvage Brazil’s tattered reputation in environmental matters and show some unconvincing green credentials.
"We…who have polluted the world so much in the 20th century, need to make our contribution to de-polluting it in the 21st century. We, after all, are responsible, and we want our children and our grandchildren to be able to live in a world that is less polluted than the one we live in today," he said.
Bush was equally blunt in stating that the US would not be scrapping or reducing the stiff tariffs it imposes on imports of Brazilian ethanol. In reply to the question mentioned above to Lula on whether he had been able to persuade Bush to help make the US Congress lower the sugar ethanol tariffs Bush was brutally frank if somewhat inarticulate. "It’s not going to happen. The law doesn’t end until 2009; then the Congress accepts it – will look at it when the law ends," he said.
The difficulty of any breakthrough in this area was highlighted back in Washington by a leading Republican Senator, Charles Grassley, who said he welcomed the memorandum of understanding on biofuels since it made no specific reference to the joint construction of ethanol plants by the US and Brazil.
Lula will no doubt raise these matters once again on his forthcoming trip to the US where he will meet Bush in less public surroundings at Camp David. He may win some minor concession but that is about all he can expect.
Avoiding the C-Word
Finally, if Bush did not bring much to Brazil then he did not get much from Brazil. Lula made it quite clear that he was not going to change his approach to Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, the self-proclaimed radical leader of Latin America and public enemy of Bush.
Lula reminded Bush that the "dictatorships which our region suffered from for two decades are no more than a painful memory of the past. All South American governments have arisen from free elections with broad, popular participation." In his reply to a journalist’s question about Chavez, Bush did even mention the C-word.
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 www.brazilpoliticalcomment.com.br. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© John Fitzpatrick 2007