Lula's influence likely to linger long after Brazilian poll


Brazil’s new leader will have to think regionally to consolidate Lula’s gains on the global stage, writes TOM HENNIGAN

AS WELL as being hugely popular at home, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is also a novelty abroad – a Brazilian president with genuine star power.

When Barack Obama spotted him at a summit last year he leaned over to pump his hand, calling him “my man . . . the most popular politician on earth”.

He is a leader unafraid to stand beside Gordon Brown and blame the 2008 global financial crisis on “white people with blue eyes” or tell a press conference with a bemused George Bush that their two countries were searching for the “so-called G spot” in trade discussions.

Whereas before Brazilian leaders were aloof intellectuals, corrupt backwoodsmen or technocratic generals, in Lula the South American giant has a president whose personal charisma has caught the global imagination.

It is not only his colourful turn of phrase that has won him an international profile undreamed of by his predecessors. There is his role in the global anti-poverty campaign, reinforced by a personal journey that saw him flee drought and hunger as a child to become his country’s first working-class president.

But while Brazil’s new international profile may owe much to Lula’s personality, it is largely the result of major changes both domestically and internationally that predate his time in office.

“The new importance of Brazil on the international stage is due to greater economic and political stability at home and increased recognition of the huge potential of our market. Lula brought a special charisma but this new importance would have been the same with any other president,” says Rubens Antonio Barbosa, Brazil’s former ambassador to Washington and now editor of a quarterly policy journal, Interesse Nacional.

“Lula was the beneficiary of changes over which he had no influence, such as the rise of China. Of huge importance was Brazil’s inclusion as one of the ‘Bric’ countries, along with China, India and Russia, and that was the result of a five-page memo drawn by an economist at Goldman Sachs.”

These broader changes in Brazil and abroad mean that regardless of who wins Sunday’s presidential election, Brazil’s new international activism is unlikely to slacken once Lula steps down, despite none of the candidates having anything like his magnetism.

While Lula’s international profile is a novelty for Brazil, the emergence of this new multipolar world order, combined with its own growing economic heft, has allowed Brazil to pursue a long-cherished dream of a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, which it has sought for decades with little success.

In recent years it has helped either strengthen or create new groupings that have served as a showcase for its claims to sit at the international community’s high table. It worked assiduously to replace the old G7 with the G20 as the main forum for discussing the global economy, which it helped accomplish during the depths of 2008’s financial crisis when the country’s finance minister fortuitously held the rotating presidency of the group.

Even the diplomatic innovations under Lula are aimed at pursuing the country’s UN goal. The country has pushed to increase the importance and prominence of a series of informal diplomatic forums that allow it to sit with current members of the Security Council as well as other nations aspiring to join. These include the forum of “Bric” members and the India, Brazil South Africa forum.

The clearest signal of Brazil’s increasing confidence on the international stage saw Lula earlier this year try to broker a solution in the international dispute over Iran’s nuclear programme.

He thought he had hammered out a deal that the international community could accept during talks in Teheran with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But the Security Council members rejected the agreement, leaving Brazil isolated when the council voted for new sanctions on the Iranian regime.

The episode was viewed as a setback to Brazilian ambitions and increased disquiet at home among critics of Lula’s close relations not only with Iran but with the dictatorship in Cuba and with Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez. There was much domestic criticism when he likened Iranians protesting against last year’s disputed election results to football fans who cannot accept it when their team loses, and compared Cuban dissidents to common criminals.

A recent essay analysing Lula’s foreign policy said this uncritical attitude to regimes such as those in Caracas, Havana and Teheran breaks with Brazil’s tradition of keeping foreign policy separate from party politics, and claimed the “thrust of [Lula’s] policy is radicalised by ideological and partisan motives”.

“As regards crucial values – human rights, democracy, nuclear non-proliferation, global warming – the government prefers short-term gains, with a calculated indifference toward violations committed by oppressive regimes. It prefers dubious alliances to the detriment of universal values,” wrote Rubens Ricupero, another former ambassador to the US and finance minister under Lula’s predecessor. But the biggest challenge to Brazil’s global ambitions and ultimate goal of a permanent place on the Security Council is not its aborted involvement in the Iranian nuclear dispute or Lula’s friendship with the Castro brothers, but its stuttering leadership in its own backyard.

“Brazil’s springboard to a global role is regional dominance,” says Kai Michael Kenkel, professor of international relations at the Catholic University in Rio de Janeiro, who says this is a difficult adjustment for a country in a region with a strong tradition of non-interference in each other’s affairs.

Under Lula, Brazil did nothing to mediate the dispute between fellow Mercosur members Argentina and Uruguay over a paper mill on their shared River Plate estuary. Argentina made a mockery of the trade group’s commitment to free movement of goods by allowing protesters to blockade the principal land routes between the two countries, resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars in lost trade for Uruguay’s small economy.

In recent years both Uruguay and Paraguay have flirted with breaking Mercosur rules and sought bilateral trade deals with the United States in their frustration at what they see as Brazil’s inattention to the needs of the group’s smaller neighbours. Despite Brazil’s promotion of a series of new regional forums, Chile, Peru and Colombia have all agreed trade deals with the US.

“This is because Brazil is not used to being a leader,” says Leonardo Paz Neves of the Brazilian Centre for International Relations in Rio de Janeiro. “Brazil does not understand that to be a leader it has to spend – whether political or financial capital.

“Brazil rejected the US’s proposal for an Americas-wide free trade area and also rejected the Chávez alternative. But it did not propose any version of its own.”

For Lula’s successor, consolidating his diplomatic gains on the global stage will likely call for a greater focus on the less glamorous work of pushing along South America’s historically problematic process of regional integration.