A Center-Left Leader, Missed Opportunities, and Anti-Americanism: A Possible new Direction in U.S. Policy Towards the Western Hemisphere?

I received an email from a former colleague and friend of mine recently who concluded that Lula’s (Luiz Inácio Lula de Silva) two terms in office as President of Brazil (2003-2010) represented a missed opportunity for the United States–and United States-Latin American relations in general. Here was a center-left leader, in one of the world’s largest nations, who was willing to work with international financial institutions, including the IMF. He had “street cred” with at least some elements of the Latin American left, because of his years as a labor organizer and a protester against Brazil’s dictatorships of the 1960s-1980s. Now he was a coalition-builder, and ultimately one of Brazil’s more popular, recent presidents. Perhaps most importantly, Lula had serious plans to address the seemingly-intractable social and economic problems of Brazil, one of the more unequal societies in the world. If the United States indeed sought a pro-United States “stability” in an often-unstable world, reducing inequities in one of the world’s biggest nations would be a good first step.

For the United States to reach out to Brazil would not be a new policy.  It would be, as the title of a popular 1980s movie put it, “Back to the Future.” Since World War II, and even extending back even earlier, the U.S. relationship with Brazil has been one of its closest relationships in the entire region. Certainly many Brazilians perceive that they have a “special relationship” with the United States.  Quite a number of Brazilian streets are named after U.S. presidents. During World War II the U.S. and Brazilian militaries worked together to defeat the Axis powers.  U.S. leaders embraced President Jucelino Kubitschek’s vision of a multilateral, inter-American lending institution, which ultimately became the inter-American Development Bank.  Nixon sought out closer ties with President Emílio Médici (1969-1974), largely because he thought Brazil could in a sense “watch over” South America for the United States, and work with the United States to support pro-Brazilian and pro-United States leaders in the region.

Yet U.S. leaders in the early 21st century failed to see an opportunity by working with Lula–despite Hugo Chávez’s pretentions of forming an anti-United States “Bolivarian Union” in South America—and facilitating an increase in Iranian influence in the Americas. Moreover, there have been rumors of international terrorists lurking to the south of Brazil in the Southern Cone. Of course, one explanation for the lack of U.S. interest in Brazil and the region was that after 9/11 and the run-up to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and during the entire first decade of the new century, U.S. attention was focused on Middle Eastern terrorism. But this explanation falls short. Certainly, the United States, given that U.S. leaders from the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 (and there is a statue of Monroe in Brazil) to the present have made it clear that U.S. security interests rested on making sure that it had friendly neighbors in the “neighborhood,” sees its relationship with Latin America as vitally important.   And, by the early 2000s, anti-Americanism was on the rise in the region. Before the U.S.-led war in Iraq many in Latin America made a distinction between the U.S. government’s (USG) actions, which they often viewed negatively; and U.S. (popular) culture, which they viewed positively. After 2003, many Latin Americans conflated the USG and U.S. culture.

As such, there is no good explanation for why the United States did not seriously reach out to Lula. And indeed, a good argument can be made that this non-decision was a significant missed opportunity. For many Latin Americans, recent United States policies have been hostile to center-left or leftist leaders—or even anyone who was anti-United States. U.S. intervention in Guatemala in 1954, Cuba in the 1960s, Chile in the 1960s and early 1970s, Grenada in 1983, Nicaragua in the 1980s, and Panama in 1989 are remembered south of the border, but not so much in the United States. (And the quiet urging of U.S. officials to ultimately successful right-wing coup plotters in Brazil in 1964, along with vocal U.S. support for the subsequent right-wing regimes that emerged, is very much remembered in that nation.) Since the United States has a reputation for rigid inflexibility, or hostility, towards leftist or center-left regimes, many Latin Americans are fatalistic that the United States could ever forge an effective working relationship with the likes of a Chávez or Evo Morales.

But, if the United States were to prove that it could work effectively with a center-left political leader—especially the leader of one of the world’s biggest countries– that could be a “game –changer” for United States –Latin American relations for years to come.  And perhaps for U.S. foreign policy in general. As the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) nations rise in importance/prominence, if the United States forged an effective working relationship with one or more of them, it could prove beneficial for the United States, the BRICs, and world.  And in the end, if Brazil simply forges ties with non-Western Hemisphere powers (e.g. China,  Brazil may view the United States as irrelevant—an unhappy outcome for the United States.