Sergio Tavolaro is a sociology professor at the University of Brasília. He presents today his account of Barack Obama’s recent visit to his country. -Jeff
It is nearly impossible to speak of one Brazilian approach to the United States, given Brazil’s domestic diversity and complexity. Indifference, suspicion, admiration, anger and interest can all be found among Brazilian citizens when invited to reflect upon the North American giant partner. Yet, by and large, it is fair to say that President Obama’s first visit to Brazil was widely welcomed. More than a mere encounter of two heads of states simply complying with protocol obligations, the meeting had a great deal of symbolic charge. To be sure, the historical importance of Obama’s rise to the presidency was greatly appreciated by Brazilians from the very beginning. As the rhetoric tone of his campaign was closely followed by the local media, a significant portion of Brazil’s public opinion shared the excitement experienced by Americans when Obama was sworn in.
But many additional ingredients contributed to the success of this diplomatic event. To begin with, as President Dilma Rousseff herself highlighted, one should not underestimate the privilege of witnessing the encounter between the first US Afro-American president and the first Brazilian woman president – especially if one remembers how filled with racial problems both societies are and the subordinate status of women in Brazil.
Besides, there are signs indicating that Brazil – US relations are now changing in a positive way, in comparison with the recent past. One ramification of President Lula’s independent and bold foreign policy was a distancing between the two countries on a varied set of issues. The divergence over the recent political crisis in Honduras was just one manifestation of mounting diplomatic rifts, which also included different views regarding Venezuela, Bolivia and, for sure, Iran’s nuclear policies. The US reluctance to legitimate President Lula’s ambition to grant Brazil a permanent seat in the UN Security Council contributed even more to sour relations. Under these difficult circumstances, President Obama’s decision to come to Brazil prior to Dilma’s visit to the US, unprecedented in the diplomatic history of the two countries, was much praised as a demonstration of Brazil’s increasing prestige in the global scene. Thus, expectations are high that other improvements will follow. First of all, Brazilian entrepreneurs rejoiced with President Obama’s recognition that the US must treat economic relations with Brazil as seriously as it has with China and India. Moreover, though no open support has been made, many saw as a quite positive step what appeared to be a more considerate position towards Brazil’s UN ambitions.
On March 20th, President Obama delivered a touching speech in Rio, in which he highlighted the historical commonalities that bring Brazil and the US together. He mentioned that both countries are former colonies that fought for political independence. Both countries developed through the contributions of immigrants, and that both countries are concerned with the consolidation of democracy. President Obama envisions a prosperous future for both societies as they succeed in increasing their ties in a variety of areas. His words were deeply appreciated.
Yet, one day before, while still in Brasília, he authorized the coalition attack on Libya. As usual, this facet of the US foreign policy raises concerns among Brazilians. The Dilma administration’s criticisms of the coalition actions, coupled with her government’s abstention from supporting the military intervention, demonstrates that the US, if it is truly interested in having Brazil as a partner in the international arena, will have to accept Brazil’s independent positions.