Andres Oppenheimer

Andres Oppenheimer: Brazilian election could help end country’s ‘paralysis’

This combination of two file pictures taken on Aug. 26, 2014, shows presidential candidate Marina Silva of the Brazilian Socialist Party, left, and Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff, who is seeking re-election, during a televised presidential debate in Sao Paulo, Brazil. More than a decade of Workers Party' rule has seen Brazil prioritize ties with its leftist regional neighbors. But if Rousseff fails to fight off the surging candidacy of reform-minded Silva before the October elections, South Americas largest economy could reset its focus.
This combination of two file pictures taken on Aug. 26, 2014, shows presidential candidate Marina Silva of the Brazilian Socialist Party, left, and Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff, who is seeking re-election, during a televised presidential debate in Sao Paulo, Brazil. More than a decade of Workers Party' rule has seen Brazil prioritize ties with its leftist regional neighbors. But if Rousseff fails to fight off the surging candidacy of reform-minded Silva before the October elections, South Americas largest economy could reset its focus. AP

Former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso confirmed this week something that many of us have suspected: If the opposition wins the Oct. 5 presidential election, there will be changes in Brazilian foreign policy that might affect all of Latin America.

Cardoso, who modernized Latin America’s biggest economy during his two terms from 1995 to 2003 and remains one of Brazil’s most respected politicians, told me in an interview that if opposition candidate Marina Silva wins, she would not give her unconditional support to Venezuela, Argentina and other leftist populist governments, as current President Dilma Rousseff has done.

According to the latest polls, no candidate is likely to win in the first round of voting. In a second round, scheduled for Oct. 26, Socialist Party candidate Silva would have 47 percent of the vote, while Rousseff, of the ruling Workers’ Party, would get 43 percent, according to an Ibope poll released Wednesday.

Cardoso supports another opposition candidate, Aécio Neves. But the former president says that if Neves doesn’t make it to the second round, he would support Silva.

“Yes, I think there would be changes” if Silva wins, Cardoso told me. “The opposition’s victory would mean a kind of rupture in Brazil’s foreign policy, especially in regards to South America.”

Under Rousseff, he said, “there is a paralysis in Brazil’s foreign policy” because she has been focused on trying to revitalize South America’s ailing Mercosur common market instead of trying to simultaneously sign free-trade agreements with the European Union, the United States and Japan.

“Many government officials are, to put it in a simple word, ‘Bolivarian,’” Cardoso told me. “In their hearts, they are with [the late Venezuelan president Hugo] Chávez. But not in their heads, because they know that Brazil’s interests don’t coincide with that ideology. As a result, they don’t know what to do. They are paralyzed.”

Cardoso added that the government’s prevailing view “is outdated, Third World-ish, from the ’60s or ’70s. I don’t think that Marina Silva shares that outdated vision. She has a more open-minded view of the world.”

If Silva wins, Cardoso said, she would try to shift away from Brazil’s current, inward-looking, Mercosur-centered policies. Under current Mercosur regulations, which Rousseff supports, no member of the group can unilaterally negotiate free-trade agreements with third parties.

In addition, Brazil would be more assertive in defending democracy in the region, Cardoso said. “Venezuela was made part of Mercosur without any effort by the Brazilian government to seek Venezuela’s compliance with the Mercosur democracy clause,” he said. “I doubt that, if the Brazilian opposition were in power, this would have happened.”

Regarding Argentina, Cardoso said, “there is a kind of Brazilian government complicity with Argentina’s misdeeds.” He said Argentina is constantly demanding more exceptions for itself from Mercosur‘s own free-trade rules, and that the Argentine government is dragging its feet in Mercosur free-trade talks with the 28-country European Union.

“We aren’t signing a free-trade deal with Europe because our [Mercosur] allies, especially Argentina, don’t want it, for fear of having to lower their custom tariffs. Much of this would change if the opposition wins in Brazil,” Cardoso said.

Asked why he is so confident that the opposition will win, considering that the some surveys are showing a statistical tie in the runoff election, Cardoso cited the fact that Rousseff’s Workers Party is leading in the polls in only three of Brazil’s 27 states, and that Rousseff has a much higher negative rating than Silva.

My opinion: The opposition’s advantage in some polls may shrink over the next three weeks because Rousseff will enjoy much more television air time than Silva. The president’s negative campaign against Silva also is eroding some of the opposition candidate’s support.

Still, there is a 50 percent chance of an opposition victory, if not more. If that happens, there will be a major push to get Brazil out of its current economic and foreign policy paralysis, which is resulting in a paltry 0.3 percent economic growth rate this year.

As Cardoso says, an opposition win would mean fewer ideological attachments to “Third World-ish” governments, and a new focus on inserting Brazil into the global economy by signing trade deals with the biggest industrialized countries. That could help Brazil return to a growth path, and — considering that the country makes up more than 60 percent of South America’s economy — could turn the whole region in a new economic and political direction.

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