For those of us concerned with hemispheric security, the big question has always been how do we contain Chavez‘s expansionist ambitions. 

Under the Bush Administration, the answer, in the words of a Republican Senator was, “containment of Hugo Chavez should be undertaken by Latin American countries”. This conception was consistent with the idea of a non-interventionist policy in Latin America. Indeed, even under the hawkish Bush Administration the policy was one of good neighborhood plus trying to develop trade relations. In terms of Hugo Chavez, the policy was basically to ignore his hostile anti-Americanism and even his interventions in neighboring countries. The hope was that Latin Americans would eventually realize that Chavez was the bad guy and thus try to isolate him. This never happened.

Apparently, the country the Bush Administration had in mind when suggesting the policy of containment was Brazil. Led by President Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva (Lula), a pragmatist socialist, Brazil did not depend on Chavez’s largesse for their economic well-being. To the contrary Brazil has the largest and most dynamic economy in Latin America.  Therefore, their economic and industrial power would prevail over the ambitions of a mad man like Chavez whose power depends solely on the production of oil. 

The Workers’ Party (PT)

Lula’s party, the Workers’ party (PT) was founded in 1980 by trade unions that emerged in Brazil as a result of increasing urbanization. The PT, contrary to many party elites in Latin America, included grassroots organizations with permanent participation in decisions at every level. The PT includes a whole scope of socialist and popular movements such as unions, human rights groups, liberation theology groups within the Catholic Church (a Christian group that tries to reconcile between Christian theology and Marxism), environmentalists, women’s groups, indigenous, Afro-Brazilians groups and the powerful landless movement (MST). 

The radical component of the PT was clear. Lula was in sympathy with the ideas of Fidel Castro and together they founded the “Foro of Sao Paulo”. The Foro” promised to provide an alternative against the Washington consensus and its neo-liberal policies as well as to the Third Way policies of the European left. The “Foro” was built as a Latin American network of solidarity between socialist, communists, and various groups, including some guerillas, to strengthen themselves in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet empire. “Foro” leaders include individuals such as Daniel Ortega from the Sandinistas as well as leaders from guerilla movements such as the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), the Union Revolucionaria de Guatemala (URNG), Frente Farabundo Marti de Liberación Nacional (FMLN) of El Salvador and the Partido de La Revolución Democrática de Mexico (PRD).  Liberation theology is also part of the “Foro”. Hugo Chavez joined the Foro in 1995 when he was not yet president of Venezuela. The “Foro” holds an ardent anti-globalization and anti-American posture and also speaks for the rights of indigenous populations and promotes Indian separatism from the Latin American national states.

Thus, it was no wonder that the Bush Administration looked with skepticism at Lula’s election to the presidency in 2002. Initially, those suspicions were justified as Brazil moved to implement some of its pro-third world ideology.

As an example, Brazil hosted a South American/Arab summit in May 2005 where the Brasília Resolution was adopted. The resolution commends the Government of Sudan for its assistance in trying to solve the problem in the Darfur region without mentioning their   responsibility in leading the genocide taking place there.  The resolution also called for combating terrorism by having an international conference to study and define terrorism, but in such a way as to avoid a clear and unequivocal condemnation of terrorism. Similarly, it condemned the “Syria Accountability Act”, a law passed by the U.S. Government to impose sanctions on Syria amid its support for terrorism. In addition, participants wanted an International Court of Justice to require Israel to tear down the security fence, which Israel built to prevent terrorist attacks.

Pragmatism vs. Ideology

Despite Lula’s socialism and third world anti-imperialism, he quickly transformed himself as a pragmatist in domestic and foreign policy. Once in power the PT built a broad coalition with parties from the center and from the right including the appointment of conservatives in the cabinet. Cooperation with entrepreneurs and with supporters of neo-liberal policies was pursued and implemented.

In foreign affairs, despite the traditional anti-imperialist approach of the PT, the party has not sought confrontation with the United States or with the International Monetary Fund. Likewise, he kept a distance from his former “Foro” peers, Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro, by refusing to adopt their anti-American dogmatisms. Similarly, Lula signed bi-lateral agreements of cooperation with the U.S. to develop alternative energy for the region.  Recently, he also distanced himself from all those in Latin America that objected to the establishment of more military bases in Colombia.

Lula’s attitude led U.S. policy makers to believe that Lula had the legitimacy and the pragmatism that would eclipse Chavez. However, a huge and very dangerous disappointment is emerging from Brasília in the last few months.

Lula’s Reversal: Embracing Iran and Enabler of Chavez 

Last summer, after Iran’s June 12th presidential elections, President Lula was the first western leader to recognize hard-line Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the legitimate winner in spite of wide spread indications of fraud.  The fact that those who protested the theocratic regime were courageous individuals fighting for freedom meant nothing to Lula. In fact, Lula ridiculously compared post-election protests in Teheran with a fight between fans of two rival soccer teams in Rio de Janeiro. No other country in the West except Venezuela recognized the legitimacy of the result of the Iranian elections.

Lula went further. During the last United Nations General Assembly, he defended Brazil’s relationship with Iran basically saying he cannot judge Iran’s nuclear ambitions or the way the June 12 elections were handled.  He also pointed out that he is “not ashamed of having relations with Iran”.  Likewise, referring to Iran’s anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial Lula defended Ahmadinejad’s right “to think differently”. Then, Lula announced that Brazil will send a trade mission to Iran in the coming months to explore areas of joint investment. Trade between the two countries quadrupled in the last five years.

It now seems that Lula Da Silva after years of remarkable pragmatism and centrism is returning to the days of radicalism. What is worse, Lula has moved from mere rhetoric into dangerous policy. He has provided Brazils’ embassy in Tegucigalpa to Mel Zelaya, the ousted president of Honduras, who was deposed late in June. Zelaya was deposed because he called for a constitutional reform following Chavez’ model, disobeying the will of the Honduran Congress and the Supreme Court. Zelaya did that after developing close relations with Hugo Chavez. Zelaya’s restoration to power has not only been on the agenda of his patron, Hugo Chavez, but also on the agenda of the Organization of American States and the U.S. Government. Negotiations to restore Zelaya led nowhere and then Brazil stepped in offering its embassy in Tegucigalpa to host Zelaya while he organizes to come back to power. Though we do not know how the situation in Honduras will evolve, it is clear that Zelaya’s presence in the country exacerbates violence and intensifies the possibility of a civil war. In other words, Brazil has been actively promoting violence in Honduras to serve the interests of no other than Hugo Chavez.

Interestingly enough, tensions between factions in the PT and Lula have been registered for years. Most of these tensions emanate from complaints from radical factions in the PT that claim that Lula has not carried social reforms far enough. One such movement is the Landless Movement or Movement of the Landless Workers (MST), which was an integral part of the foundation of the PT. The MST is a social movement whose goal to achieve agrarian reform was coupled with a radical militant ideology and semi-violent action that included road blockades and illegal take over of large pieces of land.

The MST, like the base of the PT, is part of the Congreso Bolivariano de los Pueblos (CBP), an organization controlled by Hugo Chavez aimed at reaching out to grassroots organizations throughout the continent. These organizations help to deepen Chavez’s Bolivarian revolution. In addition, they usually receive funds from Chavez.  The MST website (www.mstbrazil.org) displays articles and materials in support of Hugo Chavez and highlights the achievement of his revolution.

In other words, Lula’s government seems to be leaving the pragmatic road and embracing the demands of the most radical and most ideological factions within his constituency. Likewise, his astonishing policies towards Iran seem to revive the ghosts of Lula from the   “Foro of Sao Paulo”. It looks like, contrary to expectations, it is Chavez containing Lula and not the other way around.

Does this behavior serve the interests of Brazil? 

Chavez and Iran have had very close relations. As it has been reported, both countries are partners in banking ventures whose only purpose is to help Iran avoid sanctions imposed on it. The more effectively Iran is able to circumvent sanctions, the more they can focus on developing their dangerous nuclear program. Chavez will also begin selling Iran 15% of the gasoline Iran needs with the same purpose in mind. It has also been reported a long time ago and confirmed recently by a Venezuelan high officer that both countries are cooperating in matters related to the extraction of uranium with which Iran could develop an atomic bomb and other aspects of nuclear technology.

Venezuela has been the main supporter of Iran, worldwide. As a result, Iran is deeply grateful to Chavez. Given this, what will Iran do to pay back their South American friend? Most likely Chavez will ask that Iran provide Venezuela with nuclear weapons once Iran obtains them. Chavez is a man with imperial ambitions who craves power. Lately, he has purchased large amounts of sophisticated weapons from Russia. Following this logic, it is clear to me that having a nuclear weapon will provide Chavez with the respect and the fear he needs to carry out his agenda of exporting his revolution, as well as controlling and deterring as many countries as possible.  This is even more frightening if we ask ourselves, why Iran would refuse to provide weapons to Chavez when, in fact, those weapons could place the U.S. under direct threat and provide Iran with a deterrence factor.

Most recently Jose Sarney, a former president and currently the President of the Brazilian Senate, pointed out that Venezuela’s aspiration to become a regional military power is worrisome. More troubling for Brazil and the region will be a nuclear Chavez-led Venezuela. Lula is not just the leader of the Brazils’ poorest. He was supported by a large middle class component that most probably rejects Brazil’s behavior. Polls already indicate that the PT candidate ranks third for the upcoming presidential elections.

Also, in its desire to become an influential country in the world, Brazil is seeking a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. Under the present circumstances Brazil does not deserve this seat unless it behaves with responsibility.  Historically, Brazil is a western country and its rise to power should be welcomed but not under the current circumstances. Nobody who has a moral and politically relativistic view of ominous individuals like Chavez and Ahmadinejad should be added to the community of world leaders. 

To the contrary, Brazil must overcome its moral and political schizophrenia and stand on the side of civilization and freedom against the barbarism and oppression of the Teheran-Caracas axis.

Luis Fleischman is Senior Advisor for the Menges Hemispheric Security Project at the Center for Security Policy in Washington D.C

 

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