Andres Oppenheimer

Andres Oppenheimer: Don’t expect a U.S.-Brazil honeymoon soon

The big question among Brazil watchers in this capital is whether newly re-elected President Dilma Rousseff will improve her government's ailing ties with the United States during her second term. Most are skeptical that she will.

Despite Rousseff’s statement after a telephone conversation with President Barack Obama on Tuesday that both leaders will take “all possible measures” to revamp bilateral ties, and that their foreign ministries will start talks to reschedule a previously canceled Rousseff visit to Washington, few diplomats or foreign-policy experts believe there will be a significant improvement in Brazil-U.S. ties during Rouseff’s second term.

The reason is that Rousseff’s foreign policy is run by her left-of-center Workers Party’s leftist wing, which prioritizes Brazil’s ideological alliances with Venezuela, Argentina, and other leftist-ruled neighboring countries over improving relations with Washington. And that’s not likely to change anytime soon.

Rousseff, who won Sunday's elections in Latin America's biggest country with a meager 51.6 percent of the vote, has focused her foreign policy on strengthening South America’s economic and political blocs, including the MERCOSUR trade bloc led by Brazil, Argentina, and Venezuela.

Under MERCOSUR’s rules, which were strongly criticized during the campaign by opposition leader Aecio Neves, no member country can unilaterally negotiate a free-trade deal with non-member countries, such as the United States. Rousseff’s critics argue that, to revamp Brazil’s stagnant economy, the South American country badly needs more trade and investment with the United States and Europe.

Ties between Brazil and Washington hit a low last year, after Rousseff suspended a hard-negotiated trip to Washington following disclosures that the U.S. National Security Agency had spied on her.

“We don't think there will be a huge shift in Rousseff’s second term, neither in economic nor in foreign policy,” says Joao Augusto de Castro Neves, a Brazil analyst with the Eurasia Group political-analysis firm. “Given the economic challenges that she is facing, she may be pressed to make some changes to take distance from her so-called Bolivarian nationalist interventionist policies, but they will be very slow and gradual changes.”

Thiago Aragao, of Brazil’s Arko Advice political-consulting firm, says that Brazil’s foreign policy is unlikely to change “because Dilma (Rousseff) will be even more dependent on the Workers Party than before.” He added, “She will have to govern with a more divided congress, and turning her back to the Workers Party would amount to political suicide.”

The only thing that might change in Brazil’s foreign policy might be a trend to make fewer subsidized loans from its BNDES national development bank to Venezuela, Cuba, and other government allies, Aragao said. “We may see a small decrease in the amounts of these loans, but no change in the general foreign-policy mindset.”

Peter Hakim, a leading Brazil analyst with the Inter-American Dialogue think tank, is more optimistic. Rousseff is expected to reshuffle her economic and foreign-policy teams during her second term, which will give both sides an opportunity to revamp their ties, he said.

Other Brazil watchers note that Marco Aurelio Garcia, Rousseff’s powerful point man for relations with Venezuela, Cuba, and other leftist governments, might soon retire. 

U.S. officials are known to be skeptical about Rousseff’s political will — or political capacity — to dramatically improve ties with Washington, citing among other examples the fact that Brazil has not replaced its ambassador to the Washington, D.C.-based Organization of American States in several years. Many U.S. officials take that as a sign that Brazil wants to weaken the OAS in order to strengthen UNASUR, CELAC, and other diplomatic groups that exclude the United States.

My opinion: Both Brazil and the United States are to blame for their tense bilateral ties, which are hurting both countries.

Brazil is hurting itself by essentially giving away its foreign policy to the extreme left of the Workers Party. It has resulted in Brazil’s near automatic support for dictatorships around the world, from Cuba to the Middle East, and damaged Brazil’s economy by isolating it from the world’s biggest markets.

And the United States, in addition to the NSA spying fiasco, has not helped mend fences by, among other things, refusing to support Brazil's bid for a United Nations Security Council seat, while at the same time supporting India's bid.

I hope I'm wrong about this, but despite both Brazil and U.S. statements after Rousseff’s re-election signaling a mutual desire to press the re-set button, it’s not likely to happen anytime soon.