The most interesting thing about the recent visit by President Bush to Brazil is how uninteresting most Brazilians find it. Thousands of trade unionists, students and activists from Brazil’s large landless movement have demonstrated against Bush, who is almost universally loathed in Brazil.
Dislike for him spans the domestic political spectrum. An opinion poll for the BBC showed that 60% of Brazilians had a negative opinion of him, which was one of the highest figures of any country in the world.
But it would be wrong to portray Bush’s visit as a "Plot against Latin America", despite the paranoid precautions of his security services. As far as most are concerned, it is a good thing for Brazil’s most important trading partner to be visiting their country. And as Brazil’s President Lula made clear before the visit, the two governments have much to discuss.
What Brazil wants is very specific. It wants an end to trade-distorting US agricultural subsidies and is threatening to take a case against the US at the World Trade Organisation over US protectionism of its ethanol industry.
And it wants US support for its proposals to reform the UN security council, including a seat for a Latin American country. It also wants to discuss measures to avert the threat of global warming and protect the Amazon rain forest.
The issue that Lula has explicitly ruled off the agenda is Venezuela and its radical government, led by Hugo Chavez. "We respect the sovereignty of other countries", Lula said in an interview, "and there is only space on the agenda to discuss the problems facing our own countries."
This was, in effect, a preemptive strike against what everyone knows to be one of the main reasons for Bush’s visit to Latin America.
His trip was the culmination of several months in which Chavez and Bush have been acting like rival suitors trying to woo the heart of Latin America’s governments. Both have showered promises and presents during their quests.
Bush has doubled aid to Latin America since taking office, to US$ 1.6 billion a year, although the bulk of this goes to the rightwing government of Colombia and the self-evidently ludicrous "war on drugs". In a speech in advance of his visit he promised "millions more" to improve education, housing and healthcare across the region.
However, he is unlikely to be able to compete with Chavez’s largesse in this department. Since the start of this year alone, Venezuela has given US$ 10 million to Bolivia, US$ 600 million to Nicaragua, and promised US$ 1.5 billion in investment to Ecuador and the same amount in debt relief to Argentina. In his first term, Chavez spent an estimated US$ 25 billion in foreign aid, most of it in Latin America.
Viewed in this light is not difficult to see why Chavez, who conducted his own "rival" tour to coincide with Bush’s visit, got a better reception.
It would be wrong, however, to reduce the options facing Latin America to a clash between these two forces. If anything Bush and Chavez are regarded as mirror images of each other: egotistical ideologues who see the world in simplistic black and white terms.
Many members of Lula’s workers’ party are former guerrillas who were imprisoned and tortured by the CIA-backed military dictatorship. Some won their freedom through kidnapping the US ambassador of the time. However, everyone knows that Brazil’s most pressing social problems – crime, corruption, poverty and inequality – have home-grown sources and home-grown solutions.
Brazil already pursues an independent foreign policy, so the domestic political impact of the Iraq war is far less keenly felt here than in places like Britain. Lula has also been actively trying to diversify Brazil’s trading partners, cultivating links in Africa and building the Brazil-Russia-India-China (BRIC) block into an emerging global force.
The current round of negotiations, which will set the global price for steel, for example, are being conducted by Brazil and China, who are now, respectively, the largest producers and consumers of iron ore in the world. Brazil has freed itself from debt to the IMF and weathered the recent shocks to the world’s stock markets remarkably well.
It is this economic and political self-confidence, which allows Lula to face Bush on his own terms. The days in which the US could consider Latin America its backyard are gone. The US is going to have to get used to dealing with its southern neighbours on a new basis.
This article appeared originally in The Guardian – http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/conor_foley/2007/03/bush_to_brazil.html
Conor Foley is a humanitarian aid worker. He currently lives and works in Brazil, and is a research fellow at the Human Rights Law Centre at the University of Nottingham. Conor’s books include Combating Torture: a Manual for Judges and Prosecutors (2003), which was published by the Human Rights Centre at the University of Essex and the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office; and A Guide to Property Law in Afghanistan (2005), which was published by the Norwegian Refugee Council and UNHCR.