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Time for Brazil to sharpen its diplomatic skills

After months of street protests and political revolt led Brazil’s legislature to suspend Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and put her on trial for fraud, it’s too early to say how the caretaker government will fare in her place.

Little-loved interim President Michel Temer will be contending with both the fallout from the country’s toxic corruption scandal and a record economic downturn. But one encouraging sign is that the new management appears to have run out of patience with Brazil’s tendentious and underperforming foreign policy.
Starting on May 13 the new foreign minister, José Serra, has issued a number of sharp rebukes to a few of Brazil’s testier neighbors, who were quick to condemn Rousseff’s ouster as a “parliamentary coup” and a threat to hemispheric democracy.
President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela recalled his ambassador and Cuba’s Raul Castro vowed to lobby the diplomatic community to rescue Brazil’s imperiled democracy. Who says failing autocracies have no sense of irony? The leftwing governments of Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador and Nicaragua all took up the cause. None of these governments has recognized Temer as Brazil’s constitutional leader.
Serra’s response was as terse as it was unequivocal. He repudiated attempts “to propagate falsehoods about Brazil’s internal affairs” and argued that the process to impeach Rousseff was unfolding “in a context of absolute respect for democratic institutions and the Constitution.”
More broadly, Serra made it clear in a speech late Wednesday that the country’s “new foreign policy” would be guided by national interests and no longer by those of a particular government, “and never by a [political] party.”
The Latin pile-on was no surprise. For the last 14 years — first under former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and then his successor, Rousseff — the ruling Workers Party had worked hard to loosen Washington’s grip on the rest of the Americas. Courting like-minded nations around the developing world was crucial to boosting Brazil’s quest for global cachet.
From 2003 to 2011, Brazil more than doubled the number of embassies in Africa, from 17 to 37. At home, Lula never went in for Hugo Chavez’s brand of chaotic populism. But he indulged the Venezuelan strongman’s vision of spreading a so-called Bolivarian revolution for “21st century socialism” across the hemisphere, and even recorded campaign spots for Chavez and his successor, Nicolas Maduro.
At stake was Brazil’s bid to become Latin America’s nation of record, and so win a seat on the United Nations Security Council. The world powers demurred. What did happen was that Latin America’s most respected diplomatic corps found itself hijacked by a partisan agenda.
The nod to developing nations in Latin America and beyond made for fine speeches, but also little progress in trade, economic development and regional integration. “Brazil invested a lot in countries of little relevance in the world, and lost its own,” said retired diplomat Luiz Augusto Castro Neves, who served as his country’s ambassador to China and Japan.
As a result of its turn inward, the South American trade union, Mercosur, has underperformed, while a regional diplomatic consort, Unasur, has largely become a Bolivarian talking shop, with little clout in solving crises or promoting hemispheric unity.
“Brazil wants the rest of the world to listen, but what do we want to say?” said Castro Neves. “In order to be a stronger part of a global system, Brazil needs to look outward, open up the economy.”
Like Castro Neves, many Brazil analysts look back to a time when skilled diplomats helped an emerging nation punch above its weight. In the early 20th century, when most of Latin America was still in sway to Britain’s waning imperial influence, foreign minister Jose Maria da Silva Paranhos, the Baron of Rio Branco, courted the U.S. instead, and saw Brazil’s fortunes soar with those of the world’s rising superpower.
Then there was Oswaldo Aranha, a ranking Brazilian diplomat, who bucked the powerful military brass of the late 1930s and persuaded dictator Getulio Vargas to break off Brazil’s flirtation with fascism and support the Allied cause in World War II.
Both were examples of how a nation of modest means managed to read world affairs and turned them to its own advantage. Rescuing that tradition may be too much to expect from a caretaker government. But Brazil’s new foreign minister has already struck the right note: courting failing autocrats isn’t the way.

Mac Margolis

Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg View contributor based in Rio de Janeiro. Previously, he reported on Latin America for Newsweek and was a frequent contributor to The Economist, the Washington Post, and Foreign Policy

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