Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva raised eyebrows in recent weeks thanks to his overtures to China and Russia, seemingly repudiating the United States.
On his recent visit to Beijing, Lula stated his wish to help “balance world politics” by “[raising] the level of strategic partnership” and “[expanding] trade flows” between China and Brazil while calling on developing countries to end their dependence on the US dollar for international trade settlements. Lula also hosted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Brasilia and blamed the United States for fueling the Russo-Ukrainian war rather than seeking peace. Brazil and Argentina, South America’s two largest economies, have also begun preparations for a common currency to which other Latin American countries would be invited, consistent with Lula’s longstanding aspiration toward greater regional integration. What is Lula up to?
LOOKING EAST, NOT NORTH
The response from the United States has been predictably condemnatory, with Washington accusing Brazil of “parroting Chinese and Russian propaganda.” Yet, while Washington has yet to abandon the “with us or against us” posture it has become accustomed to, Beijing has recently been riding a wave of major diplomatic achievements, showing that it is open for business to the long list of states spurned by the West.
The US should refrain from armed interventions or domestic meddling in Latin American states and instead seek to forge reciprocal partnerships regardless of those countries’ chosen form of government.
It’s unsurprising, therefore, that Latin American states should increasingly look to China for partnership. The United States has a long and dark history of backing right-wing coups and dictatorships in Latin America while opposing left-wing governments. Brazil has been no exception. In 1964, the US supported the overthrow of President Joao Goulart by a coup which installed a military dictatorship for the next two decades. During this period, Lula emerged as a major dissident figure at the head of the Workers’ Party, which played a significant role in Brazil’s transition to democracy.
But Lula has even more recent and personal reasons to be suspicious of the United States. Leaks reported by The Intercept in 2020 show that the United States was deeply involved in the controversial anti-corruption drive “Operation Car Wash,” which helped bring down Lula’s successor Dilma Rousseff, and led to Lula being sent to prison prior to the 2018 election which he was overwhelmingly expected to win. Lula’s imprisonment brought to power right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro, who openly eulogized the military dictatorship and even celebrated the colonel responsible for Rousseff’s past torture while deepening bilateral ties between Brazil and the United States under President Donald Trump.
Evidence was later leaked which questioned the impartiality and political motivations of Operation Car Wash, and Lula’s conviction was overturned. Lula again ran and won the election of 2022, after which Bolsonaro immediately decamped for Florida while his supporters attacked the capitol, leading many to draw comparisons with the events of Jan. 6, 2021, in the United States, and creating the impression that the United States was providing Bolsonaro with sanctuary.
The chronic tendency of the United States to interfere in the domestic politics of its Latin American neighbors provides an obvious incentive for those governments to partner with less intrusive great powers. Moreover, by pitting itself against parties of the left — including in recent years supporting attempted or successful coups in Honduras, Venezuela, and Bolivia and continued sanctions against Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua — the United States turns anti-Americanism into a partisan issue in many Latin American countries and undermines its own pretense as a global champion of democracy and liberal values.
TIME TO MAKE NICE WITH ITS NEIGHBORS
Friendly relations with Latin America are important to the United States for good old-fashioned realist reasons. Since its inception, the United States has sought to exclude Eurasian great powers from gaining a military presence and political influence in the Western hemisphere. By antagonizing its southern neighbors, the United States is counteracting its own interests.
Deeper security and economic ties between China and Brazil open up the possibility of an eventual Chinese military presence in the hemisphere. While the United States has scoffed at Russian security concerns over NATO’s expansion up to its borders, the response from the United States if China were to establish bases in the Western hemisphere would likely be hysterical. Indeed, the United States has maintained an embargo on Cuba for more than a half-century, in large part for allying with a foreign power that hasn’t even existed for more than three decades.
Moreover, Brazil is a consequential economic power, with a larger GDP in purchasing power parity than the United Kingdom or the United States’ two largest trading partners, Mexico and Canada. Brazil’s shift toward the renminbi portends a broader attenuation of economic ties with the United States and threatens to erode the global role of the dollar further.
By acting as though Latin America’s preferences don’t matter, the United States is setting in motion events that prove exactly the opposite: that stability and amiability within the Western hemisphere should be the United States’ most immediate priority.
Rather than heavy-handed meddling in Latin American states’ internal affairs, the United States should adopt a 21st-century version of the “Good Neighbor” policy initiated by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which was soon ended by the Cold War. The United States should refrain from armed interventions, coups, covert subversion, or domestic meddling in Latin American states and instead seek to forge reciprocal partnerships regardless of those countries’ chosen form of government or model of economic development — an approach that has made China an attractive partner in recent decades. This would provide states in the region with carrots rather than sticks as an incentive to accommodate US interests and would serve as the basis for a much more consistent and sustainable policy toward our southern neighbors over time.