Brazil-US: Will Obama Mention the “BRICs” or just the “RICs”?

Barack Obama When President Barack Obama assumes office on January 20 can we expect to hear him say the magic word “Brazil”? I would not bet on it although he may refer two or three of the other “BRICs” – Russia, India and China.  Presumably, he will follow his two predecessors – George W. Bush and Bill Clinton – and visit Brazil some day but it is hard to imagine this occurring during President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s last two years in office.

That is unless a regional crisis arises, which could easily happen depending on what occurs in Cuba after Fidel Castro’s death. In this case, we might see Obama and his secretary of state, Hilary Clinton, in Brasília a lot earlier than might be expected.

Although Brazil and the US have differences in a number of areas, such as Cuba, their bilateral relationship is generally good. However, Cuba is key to any improvement in Washington’s relations with its Latin American neighbors. If Obama maintains the American ban on trade with Cuba he is missing a golden opportunity to improve the US’s image in Latin America and offset the anti-American rhetoric of its main ideological opponent in South America, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.

Obama would be advised to pay a lot of attention to Cuba. There is a realistic chance that Castro will die during Obama’s term of office and the new president will come under great domestic pressure to prevent the Communists maintaining their grip. Just as George W. Bush was determined to complete his father’s work and topple Saddam Hussein, a young Democrat like Obama might be tempted to try and finish John Kennedy’s failed attempt to overthrow Communism in America’s backyard.

An American invasion of Cuba seems out of the question but so does any idea that Washington will sit back and watch the transfer of power from one Communist despot to another. “Why are our soldiers fighting Moslem guerrillas in far-off Afghanistan who pose no immediate threat to the US while we let Communists maintain their control of an island only 70 miles off our coast?” will be a typical Republican response. 

Should a crisis over Cuba flare up, then Brazil and Mexico would be the obvious mediators. Just as Obama should prepare for the change in Cuba so should Brazil by drawing up some out some strategies. However, there are no signs of this under the Lula administration which cozies up to Castro and treats him as some kind of romantic freedom fighter instead of the tyrant he is.

By changing its attitude, Brazil could even make some progress with the new administration in its dream of gaining a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. In its favor, Brazil can point to its successful command of the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti since 2004. 

For the moment, the US will continue to praise Brazil for assuming this burden but, in turn, will expect the Brazilians to take on much more responsibility before even considering the request for a permanent place on the Security Council.

Deadlock Over Trade

Trade has been the main source of disagreement between Brazil and the Bush administration. The idea of a free trade zone of all the Americas, of which much was spoken four or five years ago, has been quietly ditched by both sides.  Bush and Lula did little to hide their lack of interest and there was never any chance of this idealistic common market stretching from Alaska to Patagonia coming into being.

The chances of any improvement under a more protectionist Democrat president like Obama are remote. The Brazilians will continue to call for an end to US tariffs on imports of orange juice, steel, ethanol etc and the Americans will continue to call for Brazil to open its markets further and tighten up on intellectual property rights etc. The chief US trade negotiator – embodied for a number of years in the figure of the current World Bank chairman, Robert Zoellick – will remain the bogeyman Brazilians love to hate.

One area which looks like failing to live up to its earlier promise is ethanol, at least in the short term. Remember when George Bush came to Brazil in March 2007 and talked up the prospects for ethanol as a renewable fuel and how the two countries would cooperate on developing it? Well those days have gone.

Ethanol produced from sugar cane in Brazil may be cheaper than the US type produced from corn but the Americans are not going to let the Brazilians flood their market with it. At the same time, the sugar alcohol sector in Brazil is being hit by the financial crisis which has dried up credit and put expansion projects on hold.

The former Brazilian agricultural minister, Robert Rodrigues, said in a recent interview with the Estado de S. Paulo newspaper that it would take at least a year before ethanol became a global commodity, a forecast which seems optimistic to say the least.

The current financial crisis in the US will affect millions of Brazilians whose jobs depend on trade or who live as immigrants in the US. The US is still Brazil’s main trading partner and there are an estimated 1.3 million Brazilians living in the US, many illegally.

As the American economy worsens, many of these immigrants will return home and compete with their compatriots on the local job market. Radio WLRN recently reported that up to 10,000 immigrants in Boston were expected to return home in the near future and that Brazilian strongholds in New Jersey and South Florida were seeing a similar exodus.

Military Might

In the military sphere, Brazil’s nationalists of the left and right will continue to be hostile to the US and ready to be offended at any slight, real or imaginary. The loonier fringe will continue to believe that the US wants to annex the Amazon and is setting up bases in other countries to do so.

Washington’s decision in July 2008 to restore the US Fourth Naval Fleet for Latin America and the Caribbean for the first time since 1950 confirmed the views of these people. The Globo newspaper quoted Lula as saying in September that he was “concerned” over this move and the presence of foreign vessels near Brazil’s offshore oil deposits and had spoken to President Bush about it. Neutral observers believe this development has more to do with the US fear of the rise of China and poses little threat to Latin America.

Brazil’s strategic affairs minister, Mangabeira Unger, met members of Obama’s transition team in the first week of January and reports say he rejected any possibility of the Brazilian armed forces becoming involved in anti-drug trafficking activities in South America and the Caribbean. Lula is said to have authorized the meeting which also covered education and biofuels.

Mangabeira was quoted as saying that the US should not insist in selling fighter planes and other weapons to Brazil but make cooperation agreements in the defense area. This is wishful thinking as the Americans will not share this kind of top secret technology. Brazil’s response to the American refusal was to sign contracts worth US$ 12 billion in December 2008 to buy 50 military transport helicopters and five submarines from its old European “ally”, France.

Despite this, relations between the armed forces of Brazil and the US are good. Brazilian, Argentinean and American vessels took part in joint maneuvers in the south Atlantic in April and the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier the USS George Washington paid a courtesy call to Rio de Janeiro shortly afterwards.

This vessel was the object of awe in the local media and highlighted the difference between the US and Brazilian forces. It is no exaggeration to say that this ship alone probably had more firepower than the whole of Brazil’s armed forces put together. It cost US$ 4.5 billion to build, weighs almost 100,000 tons, is as high as a 24-storey building, carries 80 combat aircraft and 6,250 crew and can travel three million miles without needing to be refueled.

In conclusion, Obama should use the fact that virtually everyone in Brazil will be glad to see the back of Bush and make efforts to win Brazilians over. He has one great personal advantage in the fact that he will be the first “mulatto” President. This puts him in the same position as about half the Brazilian population which is of mixed race.

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. He can be contacted at You can read more by him at his site

© John Fitzpatrick 2009


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