Obama in Brazil

Why Obama went to Brazil

There's a chance to build a new foreign policy alliance that disdains dictators like Hugo Chávez.

President Obama's trip to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador this week, while war rages in Libya, has been sharply criticized as proof of dangerous detachment from a world that badly needs U.S. leadership.

Yet there is a case to be made for going—to Brazil anyway. Arguably Santiago and San Salvador could have been postponed. Chile is already a stable ally and the stop in El Salvador, to mouth platitudes about hemispheric security while Central America is going up in narco-trafficking flames, only highlights the futility of the U.S. war on drugs.

Going to Brasilia to meet with Workers' Party president Dilma Rousseff on Saturday, on the other hand, was important.

Unfortunately, Mr. Obama discredited his trip even before it began by peddling it as a trade mission to create jobs and boost the U.S. economy. With those goals in mind, he would have been better off staying home and lobbying Congress to drop the 54 cents per gallon tariff on brazilian sugar ethanol, and to end all U.S. subsidies on cotton, which have been ruled illegal by the World Trade Organization in a case brought by Brazil. Or he could have sent the Colombia and Panama free trade agreements to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, where they would be easily ratified.

Let's face it: Mr. Obama's reputation as a protectionist precedes him. If he believes otherwise, our silver-tongued president has a tin ear.

As to the good reason for such a trip, consider the shared geopolitical interests between the U.S. and the biggest democracy in Latin America. Although former president Lula da Silva, also from the Workers' Party, did almost nothing to deregulate a mostly unfree economy over his eight years in office, he did manage to respect the central bank reforms carried out by his predecessor, president Fernando Henrique Cardoso. As a result, after decades of inflationary chaos caused by central bank financing of government deficits, Brazil has now had vastly improved price stability for more than a decade. Ending the cycle of repeated devaluations is enabling the formation of a substantial middle class, and it is shaping a nation that increasingly wants to be part of the modern, global economy.

Millions of brazilians climbing out of poverty is something to celebrate. But it is troubling when the leadership of a formerly isolated sleeping giant announces that it seeks alliances with tyrants. That's what was happening during Lula's time in office.

Lula had a thing for thugs. Given his roots in the left-wing labor movement, his soft spot for Cuba's Fidel Castro was understandable. But his decision to act as a flack for Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the world stage was not. Fortunately, it was ineffective. On the other hand, his support for Hugo Chávez—who is antidemocratic at home and supports colombian terrorists beyond his borders—damaged multilateral efforts to contain the venezuelan menace.

Now Ms. Rousseff wants to shape a new foreign policy that, while far from aligning itself with the U.S., is not so likely to actively pursue dictators and authoritarians. The U.S. should nurture this effort. In the struggle for hemispheric stability, Brazil is a crucial player.

As president, Ms. Rousseff, who was once a member of a Marxist guerrilla group, was expected to be further to the ideological left than her predecessor and just as dangerously populist. But so far she has proven pragmatic. Whereas the charismatic Lula was fond of the limelight, she keeps a low profile. When she does speak, she is serious and measured. Lula complained loudly about media criticism and wanted to clamp down on press freedom. Ms. Rousseff has rejected the idea.

It is an old brazilian tradition to reserve the foreign ministry for the country's crackpot left. That and the time-tested brazilian ambition to defeat U.S. hegemony in the region is one way to explain the support for despots under Lula. Brazil also has valuable commercial contracts in Venezuela. But Ms. Rousseff seems to have decided that Lula's approach was counterproductive, especially to Brazil's goal of winning a permanent seat on the U.N.'s Security Council.

Shortly after she won the election runoff last Oct. 31, she began criticizing the human rights records of Iran and Cuba, something Lula never had the courage to do. Another important, though subtle, signal is the way in which Ms. Rousseff seems to be distancing herself from Mr. Chávez and his cohorts.

If Brazil is seeking rapprochement with the U.S., it is a welcome development for the entire hemisphere. As an ally on the fundamentals, like opposition to torture in cuban jails, Brazil could be part of a long-awaited regional push to denounce human rights abuses. It might also come in handy next year when Venezuela holds presidential elections. Mr. Chávez has said that even if he loses, he won't step down, and the commander of the army has agreed.

That could make for a situation not unlike what is unfolding in Libya today. If the U.S. and Brazil are singing from the same hymn book, it will help. It's only too bad the commander in chief who was starting a war didn't have the good sense to return home after the meeting in Brasilia.

(Published by WSJ - March 21, 2011)

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