Lula and Jorge


Brazilian boy studying: economic and social reform requires consistent attention. Photo by Jennifer Burtner

Brazil and the United States

By Kenneth Maxwell

Lula, aka Luiz Inacio "Lula" de Silva, the president of the Federative Republic of Brazil, and Jorge aka George W. Bush, the president of the United States of America, seem by all accounts to get on quite well together on the personal level. This surprised many observers and probably surprised the two men themselves. It is a relationship that has certainly helped diffuse the wilder accusations of malevolent intent that were and can still be heard in both countries about the other. But these good personal feelings have not so far translated into a full recognition of how important both countries are to each other in the hemisphere and beyond.

The Brazil/U.S. relationship is a complicated one to be sure, and it should not be taken for granted. Albert Hirschman’s classic work, Journeys toward Progress, used as its frontispiece Paul Klee’s painting “Highways and Byways” to symbolize the manifold and ambiguous ways in which nations “journey” toward their goals. This is also a good caution when looking at Brazil and the United States. The relationship between the two nations has always been one of “byways” and occasionally of cul de sacs.

Hirschman was of course examining Brazil’s actions to alleviate the chronic economic backwardness of its drought-ridden and stagnating northeastern provinces, the birthplace—as it happens—of Brazil’s first working class president, a biographical fact that profoundly influences Lula’s worldview.

In his book, Hirschman criticized the overconfident belief that all problems were inherently solvable, as well as the prevalent notion of the period in which he was writing, the 1960s, that reform in Latin America could be achieved only by opposite processes of violent revolution or of peaceful change. Hirschman argued that both routes were in fact radical, since they both implied shifts of power and wealth, and that to achieve these shifts what was required were alliances to bring about a process he called “reform mongering,” a method of action that used unsuspected and unorthodox opportunities for maneuver and advance.

Curiously over his first two years as president of Brazil it has been Lula, the former lathe operator and trade union leader with an elementary school level of formal education—and not Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Hirschman’s friend and colleague at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, the world famous sociologist who was Brazil’s president between 1995 and 2003—who appears to have taken the lessons of Hirschman’s journeys toward progress most seriously.

Lula’s government has been all about “maneuver and advance.” And no less curiously it has been George W. Bush, scion of a wealthy Yale-educated U.S. political dynasty, who has been the president with little patience for “mongering” of any sort, and has been infinitely more radical, unilateral and unambiguous in his foreign and domestic policies than Lula has been in Brazil.

Since 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq much of this is perhaps understandable. But the result has been that U.S. attention to what is going on in Latin America in general and Brazil in particular has been sporadic at best. Not that such indifference is new. The United States has tended to neglect Brazil, punctuated by moments of attention prompted by crises. But this pattern has reduced U.S. influence and brings with it costs. Trade, once at the top of the U.S. agenda in Latin America, for instance, has slipped into invisibility.

Brazil in the meanwhile has quietly pursued in own South American agenda making the strengthening of its ties to its immediate neighbors a major objective of Brazilian foreign policy. Brazil has also strengthened its relationship with the European Union. Both these efforts are seen in Brazil as a means to increase Brazil’s and by extension Mercosul and South America’s bargaining power with North America, and reflects Brazil’s attempt to balance its international relations rather than commit to exclusivity. Lula has also expanded trade and diplomatic relations in Asia, especially with China and India. He does not see Brazil’s interests confined to the Western Hemisphere and as a consequence Brazil has become increasingly active on the global stage, often in an informal alliance with other major developing countries such as China, India and South Africa.

But if Brazil at long last seems to have got the message that economic and political reform requires long term and consistent attention, and that this consistent sustained and pragmatic effort is essential to begin reversing centuries of inequality and exclusion and diminishing the cavernous gap in Brazil between those who have and those who do not, it is not at all clear that the United States is paying much attention to these remarkable developments or is aware of how important it is to the United States that these efforts succeed.

The United States in fact needs Brazilian cooperation in South America. The Andean countries are all facing major problems, some of which would be much worse if it were not for the current high price of petroleum (which particularly benefits Ecuador and Venezuela). Brazil has acted to sustain democracy in Paraguay, played a discreet role in Peru, and has a major ongoing stake in the stability of Bolivia. In Colombia, Brazil could be an important player in any future peace negotiations. And Brazil has worked hard to retain good relationships with Venezuela, a major oil supplier to both the United States and Brazil, despite the fact that Venezuela has set out under Hugo Chávez to provide an alternative model that challenges the market friendly policies that Brazil as well as many other South American countries have pursued in recent years, policies which have been continued by Lula.

In fact, the Chávez vision of an Andean based “Bolivarian” alternative form of regional integration is as much of a challenge to Brazil’s aspirations for leadership in South America as it is to the United States. Chávez’ populist message will undoubtedly find a strong resonance among disadvantaged sectors in many of Brazil’s neighbors, especially in the Andes among newly mobilized and disaffected indigenous peoples. And if social and economic conditions do not improve under Lula’s government in Brazil, this populist message will find increasing resonance among many of those who placed their faith in Lula and his promises to improve their conditions of life. In the face of these very predictably uncertain times ahead in South America, it should be self evident that Brazil and the United States have many common interests; and most especially in the success of sustainable economic development as well as democratic legitimacy in the Americas.

The United States with its overstretched military also owes Brazil a very big favor: Brazil has provided an important respite for the United States by providing Brazilian soldiers for the UN peacekeeping force in Haiti, a high risk and thankless task for Brazil if ever there was one. But Brazil also needs the United States. Its diplomats and businessmen know that in the end access to the U.S. market on equitable terms is important for the growth and competitiveness of the most dynamic and value added sectors of the Brazilian economy. Despite the impasse over the creation of a free trade area of the Americas, they understand that Brazil and the United States will need to strike a deal over trade. And Brazil wants U.S. support for its aspirations for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council in the face of opposition from other Latin American contenders. For this it may need to engage in some hard bargaining on other issues in which the United States wants Brazilian cooperation, such as the delicate question of Brazil’s enriched uranium.

In the final analysis, both countries need to see clearly where their mutual interests coincide and to be aware where they do not. They have to remember that the powerful elements of competition within their relationship are unlikely to go away any time soon; nor is it sensible to expect that misunderstandings and temporary irritation will disappear, even if the two presidents get on well in private. Both the United States and Brazil are continent-sized nations. Each has a vibrant national culture. Each of their societies is composed of the descendents of large migrations with populations that are part of overlapping global diasporas. Both countries must deal with the deep-rooted heritage and lingering injustices of centuries of African slavery. Both were influenced by frontier cultures in which settlers often clashed with indigenous populations. Each created a domestic market large enough to create the illusion that they do not need to compete internationally or worry too much about international trade. Both have had an ambiguous relationship with the outside world, at times heavily involved but at other moments in their history retreating into isolationism. Both have domestic politics that are excessively local in which parochial interests prevail. Each has complex regional, federal and state interests that require conciliation. As Lula told “Jorge” when they first met, both presidents face unruly congresses that impose constant deal making and negotiation to get anything done.

But it is also true that as the two greatest democratic, multiracial and ethnically diverse societies of the Americas, the United States and Brazil share a great deal, and can learn much from each other. And this process is well underway already, whatever the efforts or the obstacles of governments. Contacts between nongovernmental organizations and within the private sector are wide-ranging, as they are within and between universities, between religious and environmental organizations, in sports and among musicians and artists, in movies and among documentary film makers, in the burgeoning capoeira clubs in U.S. cites, between Brazilians who have been trained and worked in the United States and those Americans who have studied, written about, lived, loved, worked and invested in Brazil. These are Albert Hirschman and Paul Klee’s “byways”. In the end the web they create is more permanent than the grand “highways” pushed into the Brazilian rainforest, only to be quickly washed away by the tropical rainfall.

Kenneth Maxwell is a Visiting Professor at Harvard University's History Department, and Senior Fellow, David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, Harvard University.