10/09/2009 01:49 PM
South America's Gentle Giant
Brazil Flexes Muscles over Honduras Crisis
By Jens Glüsing
Brazil's President Lula has demonstrated his country's new self-confidence in the crisis over the deposed Honduran government. Hugely popular at home, Lula is now looking for a leading role in South America. But some in the region resent the giant country's rise.
The Brazilian embassy in the Honduran capital Tegucigalpa feels like a place under siege. Police are posted in front of the building, and inside more than 70 people are living in crowded conditions. They wait in lines to use the bathroom, stand around in the garden and the inner courtyard and are camped out in storage rooms and offices. Scenes resembling a black market take place in the hallways, as cigarettes are traded for mobile phone chargers or soap. Towels are in short supply.
In the vestibule in front of the ambassador's chambers, several journalists share a single air mattress, while correspondents for a Honduran radio station sleep in the archives. A man wearing a cowboy hat -- Manuel Zelaya -- occasionally pokes his head through the door to encourage his supporters to persevere.
Three months ago, Zelaya, the president of the small Central American country of Honduras, was ousted in a coup. On Sept. 21, Zelaya made a surprise return to the Honduran capital, where he sought refuge at the Brazilian embassy. It is unclear how he managed to return to Honduras from where he was staying in neighboring Nicaragua. Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva allegedly learned that Zelaya planned to seek refuge in the embassy only half an hour before his arrival there. According to the Brazilian foreign minister, the beleaguered Zelaya's life was in danger.
That was over two weeks ago, and Zelaya, operating essentially from Brazilian territory, has used that time to organize a resistance movement against those who carried out the coup. In doing so, he has catapulted Brasilia into the center of a sensitive conflict. Honduras could now turn into a test case over whether Brazil can live up to its role as a leading regional power.
Thanks to da Silva, who is widely known as Lula, the largest country in Latin America is now an important economic player, and yet it has kept a low profile so far on international conflicts. Since the country was founded 187 years ago, non-intervention in other countries' internal affairs has been considered a central tenet of Brazilian foreign policy. The diplomats at the Itamaraty, as the country's Foreign Ministry is known, have enjoyed a reputation of efficiency and almost excessive caution, avoiding political partisanship at all costs.
In Honduras, the gentle giant is showing its claws for the first time. Coup leader Roberto Micheletti had given the Brazilians an ultimatum to hand over his rival within 10 days. President Lula responded by saying that Zelaya could remain in the embassy for as long as he wished. The Foreign Ministry supported his decision, noting that Central America falls within Brazil's sphere of interest.
In the past few years, Lula has systematically expanded Brazil's influence abroad. He has sought allies to support Brazil's bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, upgraded the country's outdated armed forces and fueled a new nationalism at home. He has formed alliances with China, India and South Africa. According to Lula, the G-20 group, which includes emerging economies, has finally ousted the exclusive club of the seven leading industrialized nations. "The G-7," he said, "is dead."
From the Brazilians' perspective, the financial crisis marks the beginning of a new political order. "We are marching toward a multipolar world," says Lula's foreign policy adviser Marco Aurélio Garcia, "and South America will be one of those poles." Lula, says Garcia, is seeking to form an alliance of all South American countries, and he is determined to no longer tolerate coups like the one in Honduras. "For decades, we have turned our backs on our neighbors, and yet we have more borders than almost any other country." says Garcia.
Garcia, a bearded professor from the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, is one of the architects of Brazil's new foreign policy. His office in Brasilia is only a few rooms away from Lula's offices. During the period of Brazil's military dictatorship, Garcia went into exile, and he later advised Lula's Workers' Party (PT) on international issues. Critics deride the aging leftist as a Brazilian Rasputin, and they accuse him of being the one who arranged for Zelaya's return to Honduras, together with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Garcia denies the accusations.
The New Gringos
There is a reason for his denial. The Lula administration wants to avoid creating the impression that it is positioning itself to become a US-style peacekeeping power. In smaller South American countries, the new Brazilian self-confidence is greeted with mixed feelings, and local politicians in Bolivia, Ecuador and Paraguay are already stirring up resentment against the "new gringos" from Brazil.
Brasilia owes its rise to the status of regional power largely to Lula's tremendous support at home. Under his administration, millions of the country's poor have ascended into the ranks of the lower middle class. The financial crisis struck Brazil much later than most other countries, and Brazil was also one of the first to emerge from it. The economy is growing, inflation is under control and the Brazilian real is one of the world's strongest currencies.
Lula celebrated a symbolically important triumph last Friday, when the International Olympic Committee chose Rio de Janeiro to host the 2016 summer games. The ensuing state of euphoria in the streets of Brazil was partly due to the perception that Lula had outdone US President Barack Obama, who had traveled to Copenhagen to campaign -- unsuccessfully, as it turned out -- on behalf of his native Chicago.
Popular at Home
Brazil's less affluent citizens, in particular, see Lula, a former street vendor and metalworker, as one of their own, and as someone who gives them a voice and influence in the political sphere. He has been in office for almost seven years, and he still enjoys approval ratings of more than 70 percent. "Without the successes of his social policy, Lula would not be as respected internationally," says Garcia.
As a former union leader, Lula is also a talented negotiator. He was even on good terms with former US President George W. Bush, a man widely despised in Latin America. In Haiti, where Brazilians make up the largest contingent of the United Nations peacekeeping force, Brasilia has shown that it can act as a peacemaker. With his policies, Lula forces seemingly irreconcilable actors to come together. "That's my man right there," President Obama said enthusiastically before assembled world leaders at the G-20 summit in London -- and pointed at the Brazilian president.
Washington needs Lula to counterbalance leftist Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez and his counterparts in Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua. Nevertheless, the Brazilian is unwilling to let himself be used as an anti-Chavez figure. "Chavez and Lula are good friends," says Garcia. "We value the social change that Chavez has brought about in Venezuela." He refuses to accept criticism of the authoritarian leader, saying that the man is being "demonized" and insisting that democracy in Venezuela is "not in danger." Lula, for his part, is urging the United States to seek dialogue with Chavez.
The dispute over Chavez is not the only reason that initial cracks are beginning to form in the relationship between the superpower in the north and its up-and-coming rival in the south. Government officials in Washington have criticized both Zelaya's return to Honduras and -- in a clear dig at the Brazilians -- "those who have facilitated his return."
In the United States, many are critical of the fact that "President Lula pays little attention to Iran's nuclear ambitions or the inconsistencies during the Iranian presidential election," says US Latin America specialist Julia Sweig of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Lula's critics apparently believe that, in Honduras, the Brazilian president has fallen into a trap set by his friend Chavez. Former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda claims that Chavez arranged for Zelaya's return. According to Castañeda, Chavez had initially intended to have Zelaya smuggled from El Salvador to the UN mission in Tegucigalpa, but the plan didn't work. Apparently Chavez then proposed that Zelaya seek refuge at the Brazilian embassy instead. Now that he has taken sides, says Castañeda, Lula can no longer serve as a mediator.
In truth, Lula has been trying to rein in the hotheaded Zelaya since the Honduran coup. Celso Amorim, Brazil's foreign minister, has now revealed that Zelaya asked Lula for an aircraft two months ago so that he could return to Tegucigalpa.
Lula had hoped that the United States would exert more pressure on the coup regime. But there was strong disagreement within the Obama administration over the correct strategy, and as a result Washington has offered only lukewarm support for the deposed president. The putschists, for their part, are playing for time, hoping that Zelaya will have been forgotten by the elections in November.
Zelaya's spectacular return will likely accelerate a political solution. Last week, the government imposed a state of emergency, closed anti-government broadcasters and revealed itself to the rest of the world as a dictatorship. Four days later, it announced that it was relaxing the new measures. If the regime remains uncooperative, Brazil intends to bring the matter of the Honduran crisis before the UN Security Council.
But Lula's risky game appears to be working. Support among the Honduran elite for Micheletti, the coup president, has crumbled in recent days. A group of wealthy businessmen unveiled a plan to reinstate Zelaya. Micheletti, for his part, agreed to receive a delegation from the Organization of American States, to which he had previously denied entry. The OAS delegation left Honduras on Thursday without many visible signs of progress being made. However the delegates said they had succeeded in starting a dialogue between the two sides.
In another gesture of rapprochement, Micheletti also withdrew his ultimatum to the Brazilians to turn over Zelaya. In a television address, the beleaguered interim president announced that he was sending Lula a "warm embrace."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan