Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Brazil and US Keep Distance During White House Visit

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s first visit to the White House was warm enough on the surface, but could not disguise the tensions between the two countries. Rousseff had lunch with President Barack Obama in the White House, then the two met privately for two hours. The working lunch was much more low-scale than the state dinners given to India and China, even though these rising global powers, like Brazil, also differ sharply from the US position on some foreign policy and economic issues, reports BBC Brazil. The choice to grant Brazil’s president a lunch instead of a black-tie state dinner could be interpreted as a “snub of protocol,” which some Brazilian officials have said “represents Washington's failure to fully recognize their country's recent economic rise and growing clout in global affairs,” as Reuters reported last week.

The New York Times notes that two presidents also behaved coolly during a post-lunch press conference, during which “the leaders’ eyes rarely met, and Ms. Rousseff rarely looked at Mr. Obama as he spoke.” The Times also reports that Obama “seemed to bristle” when Rousseff described concerns over US “expansionist monetary policies.” The AFP leads on Rousseff’s critique of this “currency war:” in which Brazil argues that the real has lost value because Brazil has been flooded “with cheap dollars generated by easy credit.” Reuters describes Rousseff’s comments as the clearest note of discord during the press conference, as the remarks exposed the differences between Brazil and the US on trade policy.

Still, disagreements over the exact nature of this “currency war” is only one of the several underlying tensions in the Brazil-US relationship. Rousseff later told BBC Brazil that none of the most sensitive issues on the Brazil-US agenda -- Brazil’s campaign for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, Iran’s nuclear program, trade with Cuba -- were discussed during her conversation with Obama.

Instead, the meeting emphasized small but important steps to greater integration between the two countries. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton announced the opening of two new US consulates in Brazilian cities Belo Horizonte and Porto Alegre. The presidents also reportedly discussed easing visa restrictions, to make travel between the two countries easier. The other most concrete agreements to emerge from the talks involved new terms on alcohol imports, as well as more cooperation on aviation and technology sharing.

One Brazilian official told Reuters that overall, the meeting went better than expected. Obama and Rousseff experienced a “click” together, the official added.

But as an Op-Ed in the LA Times points out, there is still a “respect deficit” between the two countries:

“Frequently, the U.S. treats Brazil as an interloper in world affairs, which does not match the status it has achieved. For its part, Brazil seems intent on demonstrating its influence by flaunting its independence of the U.S. and, on many issues, showing off its opposition, even when bedrock U.S. interests are at stake.”

The LA Times argues that the US has much to gain by treating Brazil as a partner on the same level as India, a nation which has enjoyed strong relations with the Obama administration (and has also been the recipient of a black-tie state dinner). Brazil could be a key partner for the US in confronting policy questions related to Middle East affairs and nuclear technology, unlike India, which has a more problematic profile, the Op-Ed argues.

But India might not be the most apt comparison for Brazil’s sometimes contentious relationship with the US. As one unnamed US official told the Financial Times, Brazil is something like the “France in Latin America,” in which “obstructionism in global talks is often driven by their need to assert their newfound power ... Undermining our initiatives in Iran or over trade talks, for example, is their way of forcing us to pay attention to them.”


News Briefs

  • Guerrilla group the Shining Path kidnapped 30 employees of a contractor working for a Swedish construction company, reports EFE. 23 of the workers were released early Monday, and the remaining seven later in the day. The kidnapping took place in a rural part of the VRAE valley, where the Shining Path faction is believed to be more deeply involved in drug trafficking and more militarily powerful than the rival faction based some 250 kilometers north in the Upper Huallaga Valley. Police told EFE that the nearest police station was about eight hours away from where the kidnapping took place, and that the guerrillas escaped in the contract company SUVs. The BBC says that the rebels reportedly demanded the release of “Comrade Artemio,” the leader of the Shining Path faction who was arrested in February. This would be unusual as the leader of the VRAE rebels, known as Victor Quispe Palomino, alias "Comrade Jose," reportedly was on bad terms with Artemio, who described the VRAE guerrilla faction as “mercenaries” and criticized their lack of political ideology. The kidnapping is strikingly similar to one carried out by the FARC in February 2011, in which they kidnapped 23 oilworkers contracted by Canadian company Talisman, only to release 21 of them the following day. Like the FARC, the Shining Path seems to have decided to target the energy sector (the contractors were working on a gas pipeline project). By making themselves appear a threat to multinationals interested in working in Peru, the guerrillas have possibly picked a far more effective way of scaring the government, rather than carrying out small-scale hit-and-run attacks. But the fact that the Shining Path released the hostages so quickly also indicates that they do not have the logistical resources needed to take care of even one hostage in the jungle. It may be another sign that, like the FARC, the Shining Path must now operate as a small, mobile group, and keeping a large group of hostages would prove a serious burden and could attract unwanted attention from the security forces.
  • Reuters reports that the National Action Party (PAN) will revise the campaign strategy of its presidential candidate, Josefina Vazquez Mota. In a press conference, Vazquez Mota said that she was “changing course” and would be working with a new campaign team. A poll published Monday showed that Vazquez Mota is trailing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) candidate Enrique Peña Nieto by 18 points. Sin Embargo reports that Vazquez Mota’s original campaign team was responsible for dozens of basic errors, including botching the formal announcement of her nomination on March 11, in which she gave a speech to a near empty stadium. The original campaign team also confused the names of towns and states in her official schedule, giving the impression that Vazquez Mota is not in touch with rural Mexico. The team also made basic spelling, grammar, and fact-checking errors in the campaign press releases, like calling Mario Vargas Llosa a Nobel Peace Prize winner. Vazquez Mota is the first woman to run for president in Mexico, but her historic run disguises another ongoing struggle for gender equality in Mexico politics. Under current electoral law, 40 percent of Mexico’s political party and coalition candidates must be female, but it seems unlikely that the political groups will meet the quota this year, says Justice in Mexico.
  • The trade attache at the Costa Rica embassy in Venezuela was briefly kidnapped Sunday night, reports the BBC. The kidnappers reportedly requested a ransom, but it is unclear whether they secured this when they released the hostage on Monday. One police official told Globovision that they found the diplomat in an “inadequate place,” in a confused state after receiving a blow to the head. Costa Rica is only the latest foreign official to be targeted for kidnapping in Venezuela: the Mexican ambassador and his wife were briefly kidnapped in January, and the Chilean consul held in November. Baseball player Wilson Ramos was also kidnapped last year. This string of cases against wealthy and powerful foreigners may be one indication that kidnapping gangs are growing more sophisticated and better able to identify and target such high-profile targets.
  • Foreign Policy wonders if there is another explanation for President Hugo Chavez’s reported battle with cancer, with a headline that asks, “Is Hugo Chavez really sick?” The post asks whether Chavez is turning his illness into “theater,” after a well-publicized visit to a Church last week in which he wept and asked for his life to be spared. As Caracas Chronicles argues, the question of whether Chavez was “hamming” it up for political purposes may be besides the point. His Church visit represents a marked “change in tone” from his initial attitude when he first announced his illness, and may suggest that his disease is in fact getting worse.
  • The trial of drug kingpin Walid Makled began in Venezuela yesterday, reports the AP. The trial is closed to the news media, raising questions of how transparent the process will be. Makled was captured in Colombia in 2011, and President Juan Manuel Santos chose to extradite him to Venezuela rather than the US, where he is also wanted on drug trafficking charges. Makled has spoken openly of his corrupt ties to the Venezuelan army and the state oil company, and it is possible that Venezuela badly wanted to have him tried in a Venezuelan rather than a US court, where he could reveal uncomfortable information.
  • In other Venezuela news, blog the Devil’s Excrement with an interesting yet brief on-the-ground look at the growth of gated communities in Venezuela’s poorer barrios: “Poor barrios in Venezuela are now using the same techniques that fancy residential areas have used for about two decades: Neighbors are getting together, fencing around their houses and putting in a common gate to block the hoodlums from breaking into their homes or mugging them.
  • The AP with a striking photo essay, accompanied by a brief, on San Pedro de Sula, Honduras, the world’s most violent city. The city’s murder rate is currently double the national average of 86 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants per year, the AP reports.
  • A new vertical garden in Mexico City is representative of the rise of civic life in the city, and evidence that the local government’s emphasis on more environmental-friendly policies is paying off, reports the New York Times.
  • The CS Monitor on a new immigration trend: the return of Mexican migrants to their small town origins in Mexico.
  • The New York Times with a colorful feature on the decline of Juarez’s soccer team, the Indios, who captured the imagination of many sports fan after they won a spot in Mexico’s major leagues in 2008. Many sports writers originally presented the win as the story of underdogs who provided hope to Juarez, just as the city’s homicide rates began to rise to record levels. But as security in Juarez worsened, so did the performance of the Indios, who were eventually dismissed from the major leagues, sold to another owner, and finally disbanded.