‘The Era of Brazil’s Soft Power Is Closing’

Brazil, Charles de Gaulle once cracked, ‘is the country of the future… and always will be.’ After a dozen years of stable left-wing government and apparent economic and institutional growth, this summer it all came crashing down once again in a sea of demonstrators, counter-demonstrators, corruption scandals and the abrupt impeachment of President Dilma Roussef. Has the country lost all of the soft power it had accumulated in those good years, asks Celso Amorim, longtime minister of foreign affairs in the Roussef and Lula da Silva administrations?

The conservative caretaker government of Michel Temer installed after Roussef’s impeachment this summer has repudiated much of Amorim’s foreign policy legacy as too “partisan,” too lenient with leftist governments on the rest of the continent, and not concerned enough with promoting Brazilian business concerns. In this interview with El Pais Brasil, Amorim suggests that with the change in direction, what will suffer most is probably the regional integration that Brazil championed during the Workers’ Party years.

How do you compare Brazil’s current political situation with what is happening in the rest of Latin America?
In the region today we see a clear shift towards the right because all countries have suffered with the drop on commodity prices. A situation in which you can distribute income, creating a new middle class and at the same time keeping the old middle class happy, is much more difficult today. It’s like that Brazilian saying: “If there’s little food, I get to eat first”. It’s the common outlook for everyone. In Brazil, what’s happening today is partly a reflection of that social struggle that goes against the policies of distribution, against a policy directed to the poorer classes, the women, the black population… But the fact is that people tend to want to hold on to their privileges once the economic situation takes a downturn. A lot of determination will be necessary if we don’t want to lose all of the social accomplishments of the last few years.

Which are Brazil’s diplomatic perspectives today, under new management, geared more to the right?
Even the countries that might benefit from this new tendency from a political point of view will be extremely cautious. Because what is happening in Brazil is much too debatable. At times, procedures might be legal, but not their content. One thing is to change a president through national consensus, and another different thing is to have such a profound change on the grand project of a government. The congressmen who voted against Dilma didn’t do so because of her alleged budgetary maneuvers or the decrees she’s issued; they did it out of hatred for the Worker’s Party (PT). What gives this whole situation a coup d’état aura is the fact that we are switching from a government project that was democratically elected to an opposite project. And that also worries those who look at Brazil from abroad. That’s why the OAS (Organization of American States) and the UNASUR (Union of South American Nations) presidents have manifested their opinions. The governments from other countries are being very cautious, they don’t want to issue statements that might sound like they are endorsing the provisional government.
How do you think it will be to host the Olympic Games before the world with a provisional government?
We are going through difficult and delicate times, because the new government will have to fight for its stability. But speaking about the Olympics, I think everything will run smoothly. The Games motivate people, and on the other hand, they attract international interest. The foreigners who are coming here are more worried about – and they’re wrong, in my point of view – polluted waters, the Zika virus etc. But I believe that in the actual context, if Brazil were a candidate to host the Olympics today, we probably wouldn’t get chosen. The choice of Brazil as the host of the Olympic Games was directly related to that soft power we had before.

Besides the lack of soft power we now have, do you think there’s a risk we might lose what’s already been accomplished?
During my term as minister of Foreign Affairs, Brazil became a kind of reference for everyone. And I’ve heard this from countries that have ideological positions that are different from ours: “Brazil is a safe haven for us”; “President Lula helps us mediate problematic issues”. That used to be common. Today, I don’t see anyone defending that we should strengthen our ties with Africa, strengthen South American integration etc. This is now viewed as a great mistake. I think people marvel at the idea of trading with the US or the EU; but when they that much eager to trade with them, they end up giving up their jewels and maybe receiving some trinkets in return. That’s my biggest fear: that the countries negotiating position becomes weak. I’m not against trade with the US or the EU, but I think these negotiations should be carried out properly, always strengthening the Mercosur. Brazil won’t disappear, obviously. But we shouldn’t do major harm to our foreign policies. If we adjust the Mercosur to make it more flexible, as some are considering, and each country trades on its own, this will weaken the Mercosur project. Now, surely we are a huge country with many qualities. We will still be a reasonably strong player in the international scenario, but I think we will experience an impoverishment in our integration policies.

In your opinion, what can be expected of Brazil’s foreign policies under the new minister, José Serra?
I fear South America will became less integrated. The new minister has a complete lack of understanding of the meaning of the Mercosur. It’s not merely about commercial trade. When it was created, under former president Sarney’s administration, the Mercosur represented a project for peace and democracy in the region, since the South American countries were all coming out of military dictatorships. And this commercialist immediacy that I perceive in many sectors today seems dangerous to me. Brazil has reached a place of prestige in the world – everyone recognizes that – partly because of our strong actions in favor of South American integration, our new partnerships with Arab, African and BRICS countries etc. Because of some of those things, the EU has straightened its ties with Brazil. When Brazil launched the worldwide campaign against hunger and poverty, we had tremendous soft power. From now on, I think will be lacking that soft power.

Minister Serra has promoted a quick shift in the Ministry’s attitudes, reacting harshly to the declarations of Countries like Venezuela and El Salvador, which have recalled their ambassadors because in their understanding there’s a coup d’état in course. What is your opinion on the matter?
I get very worried. It is paramount that Brazil does not lose credibility. Over the last few years, the country has been viewed as a point of balance within Latin America. If we adopt a more radical speech and a supercilious attitude, like we’re better than the rest, then we will end up losing. Being bigger doesn’t mean being better, and that became clear for the region ever since Lula took office.

You were chancellor during the term of president Itamar [who took office from 1992 to 1995, after the impeachment of President Fernando Collor]. Are there any similarities between that government and the one we have now?
When Collor stepped down and Itamar took office, it united the country. When Dilma was suspended from the presidency and Temer’s provisional government took control, it divided the country. Collor was not replaced by someone with a completely different political point of view. Itamar was more of a nationalist; he had more social sensibility… but politically, he didn’t wander very far [from the administration he replaced]. By contrast, we’ve just witnessed the exit of a coalition that had the Worker’s Party as its center and the entrance of a coalition that has all of the opposition parties as its center. And that’s a major shift. Given the economic recession, there’s also a tendency for the social movements to become more radical. The presence of the Worker’s party in office softened that.

But do you think that Temer can take any inspiration from Itamar?
I don’t want to analyze personal behavior, but I think Temer acts very differently. Itamar became a recluse, never publicly articulating how his government would be. Today, the thirst for power is great. Another thing is that, in the past, the economic agenda was obvious: combating inflation; and that was his greatest accomplishment. Nowadays, the scenario is much more complex.

Apart from the obvious difficulties, since we’re living a time of crisis, which positive aspects do you see about the country’s current situation?
Up until now, with rare exceptions, I think the corruption investigations have been way too biased. It is important that we carry out serious investigations, through serious governmental instruments, which, by the way, were all created during the time the Worker’s Party was in office. How can anyone think that President Lula is the head of a criminal operation, like people are saying, if he is the one who’s created all of the instruments necessary for those investigations – giving the Federal Police [Brazil’s FBI] more autonomy, or the approval of the Plea Bargain Law by Dilma’s administration…
One positive aspect that may come out of all this is a political reform, but I still can’t see how it would be carried out. Brazil has a major flaw in its electoral system, for it is largely influenced by economic powers. The other problem is partisan fragmentation, which doesn’t follow any ideological lines. In my opinion, we should forbid any private campaign funding, allowing only public campaign funding to exist, with the proper regulations, of course. In order to achieve that, we need leaders that are able to think of the country’s future, and not just the future of their parties.

Camila Moraes Translated from Portuguese by International Boulevard.