Andres Oppenheimer

Brazil’s crisis shows new regional reality


There’s a little-noticed development that says a lot about the rapid demise of Latin America’s leftist populist bloc: Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s government is falling apart, and none of the region’s major diplomatic groups is coming to its rescue.

Rousseff’s government suffered a potentially fatal blow this week when the centrist PMDB party of Vice President Michel Temer left the ruling coalition, leaving Rousseff’s Workers Party with a minority in Congress. That paves the way for a congressional impeachment of the president for allegedly breaking spending laws. The process is very likely to result in her ouster.

Rousseff says the congressional effort to impeach her is a “coup against democracy,” and her authoritarian leftist allies in Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia have strongly supported her claim.

Even before the latest developments, Bolivian President Evo Morales had called for an urgent summit of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) — a Quito, Ecuador-based diplomatic bloc — in Brasilia to “defend” Rousseff’s beleaguered government. Venezuela and Ecuador have supported the plan, denouncing the impeachment process as a coup against Rouseff.

And what happened? Nothing. Zilch. Nada. After days of phone calls among UNASUR’s foreign ministers, Morales’ idea of a presidential summit was first downgraded to a meeting of foreign ministers then abandoned altogether. As in all major Latin American diplomatic groups, UNASUR’s decisions must be made unanimously, and no consensus was reached.

A South American foreign minister who participated in the discussions told me that Paraguay strongly opposed the proposed pro-Rousseff UNASUR meeting, and that Colombia, Peru, Argentina, and Chile were “doubtful” about the wisdom of holding such a gathering.

Their reason for not wanting to convene a meeting was that Brazil’s congressional moves to impeach Rousseff are taking place within the Brazilian constitution, which authorizes the Congress to impeach presidents, the minister told me.

While most of Latin America’s regional blocs commit countries to the collective defense of democracy when the rule of law is threatened in any member country, that’s not the case in Brazil’s current political crisis, in which there has been no breach of the rule of law. Accordingly, most countries that objected to Morales’ call for a UNASUR meeting issued statements saying that they won’t interfere in other countries’ affairs and wishing Brazil a rapid resolution of the crisis.

Until recently, whenever South America’s leftist presidents were in trouble at home, UNASUR used to come to their rescue. Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina, Ecuador, and Bolivia used UNASUR as a regional support group for beleaguered political allies.

In 2010, when Ecuador’s police held a protest against leftist President Rafael Correa, who described the episode as a coup attempt, UNASUR held an urgent meeting of South American presidents, who issued a strong statement in Correa’s support.

In 2012, when Paraguay’s congress ousted leftist President President Fernando Lugo, UNASUR’s heads of state held a summit in Lugo’s support and temporarily suspended Paraguay from UNASUR.

In 2013, when Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro claimed victory in a dubious election in which the opposition challenged official results asserting that Maduro had won by 1.4 percentage points, UNASUR’s presidents almost immediately issued a joint statement congratulating Venezuela for the elections and “urging all participating sectors to respect the official election results.”

My opinion: The fact that Bolivia’s call for a UNASUR summit in defense of Rousseff fell flat speaks a lot about the changing political times in Latin America.

With the world collapse of oil prices, Venezuela’s petro-diplomacy is in shambles. The Venezuelan government can no longer buy loyalties in the region.

And following the inauguration of center-right Argentine President Mauricio Macri, the defeat of Venezuela’s Maduro in the Dec. 6 congressional elections, and Morales’ loss in a recent referendum that he had called in a bid to be allowed to run for a fourth consecutive term, the once powerful UNASUR bloc is becoming increasingly irrelevant. Rouseff’s diplomatic isolation might be the first symptom of this new reality.

Watch the “Oppenheimer Presenta” TV show Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera

Watch “Oppenheimer Presenta” Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español