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Can Brazil Have It All in South America?

Author: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies
July 4, 2012
Folha de Sao Paulo


First published in Portuguese in Folha de Sao Paulo.

From Washington's self-involved vantage point, the political crisis in Paraguay may as well be taking place on Mars. After the largely self-inflicted wound Obama suffered in Cartagena-and the post-debacle Secret Service scandal, this administration wants nothing to do with yet another coup, impeachment, or constitutional interruption in the Americas. Here's the mindset: with history, money, energy and leadership at stake, Paraguay is Brazil's problem to solve, and thank god.

While Paraguay of course invites numerous comparisons to Honduras in 2009, the more interesting drama is how Brazil will use the crisis in Asuncion to institutionalize the assertion-on the books since FHC's first term, that South America is Brazil's strategic anchor for what has since become a truly global foreign policy.

Timing really can carry the day. In just a matter of weeks, Brazil greatly expanded its commercial and diplomatic potential. Upon taking the 6-month rotating chairmanship of Mercosur, Lugo's ouster and Paraguay's suspension gave Brazil (and Argentina) an uncanny opportunity to push for Venezuela's formal accession to Mercosur. Pulling Venezuela into the political-diplomatic-juridical-commercial-financial tent of Mercosur is less an ideological move than it may appear. While the analogy is imperfect at best, in 1950, there was considerable opposition in Western Europe to Jean Monnet's suggestion that France form a coal and steel union with Germany. More than sixty years later, the idea that economic integration can serve as a salve to conflict, that bringing the region's "bad boy" into the tent is more manageable than having him throw stones from outside, is surely part of Brasilia's calculus. The logic: Mercosur membership is less political patronage or reward than a source for regional stability. And it's also good for business, and not just Brazilian business.

At the same time, and unlike Argentina, while Brazil associated itself with the value of diplomatic sanctions-Paraguay's suspension from Mercosur, Brasilia registered again its opposition to economic sanctions. Score a few points for consistency. And with the Mercosur chairmanship through the end of 2012, Brazil will be compelled to focus on South America during the delicate transition before and after the October elections in Venezuela. With the American election only weeks later, Washington will rely on Brazil (and also Colombia) to anticipate and manage any fallout from potential upheaval in Caracas.

On the continuum of idealism and realism in foreign policy, Brazil appears to be seeking a fragile balance: opposing undemocratic political forces in a multilateral setting, protecting its considerable economic interests, and asserting its diplomatic weight in South America. The price of wanting it all-principle, profit and power? The unavoidable appearance that just behind the signature consensual approach to leadership lurks the bald assertion of hegemony, one that inevitably goes along with economic asymmetry. Can Brasilia strike the balance without the backlash Washington once endured? One can only hope.

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