On October 31, Brazilians will elect a successor to President Lula da Silva, who is set to leave office with sky-high approval ratings and a record of historic domestic achievements. Under his watch, the country’s poverty rate has plunged, and millions of Brazilians have entered the middle class, thanks in large part to the expansion of a cash-transfer program known as Bolsa Família. This year, Brazil’s economy will grow by over 7 percent.
It is easy to see why Lula has become the most popular president in Brazilian history, and it is easy to see why either of his potential successors – Dilma Rousseff of the Workers’ Party (the heavy favorite) and José Serra of the Social Democracy Party – will likely maintain Brazil’s current mix of centrist economic policies.
In the realm of foreign affairs, however, Lula’s record has been much less impressive. In June 2009, after the Iranian regime blatantly stole an election from the opposition and then unleashed thugs to attack student protestors, Lula claimed there was “no evidence” of electoral fraud. “I don’t know anyone, other than the opposition, who has disagreed with the elections in Iran,” he said.
A year later, his intervention in the Iranian nuclear standoff made it seem as if Brazil was siding with the mullahs against the West. Whatever Lula’s intentions, people around the world saw photographs of the Brazilian president triumphantly raising arms with Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; celebrating a nuclear “deal” that proved utterly meaningless.
His role in the 2009 Honduran political crisis was also regrettable. Even after it had become apparent that the removal of President Manuel Zelaya was a constitutionally sanctioned defense of democracy, Lula continued to fan the flames by denouncing it as a military coup. Brazil still has not recognized the Honduran government of Porfirio Lobo, who won a free and fair election last November. “President Lobo has done everything he said he would do,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared in June. “He provided political amnesty. He set up a truth commission. He has been very committed to pursuing a policy of reintegration.”
By refusing to restore diplomatic relations with Tegucigalpa, Lula has endorsed the Hugo Chávez line that Lobo is an illegitimate president. His successor should renew ties with Honduras, whose government deserves the support of democrats everywhere.
The next Brazilian president should also reject Lula’s approach to Cuba and Venezuela – an approach that has led him to excuse brutal human-rights violations. Earlier this year, after the death of a Cuban political prisoner, Lula effectively criticized anti-Castro hunger strikers and defended Fidel, his old friend. Lula has also cozied up to Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s Castro-wannabe. In an interview with Der Spiegel, he praised Chávez as “the best president of Venezuela in the last 100 years.”
Meanwhile, Lula has displayed a troubling attitude toward Israel. This past March, during a trip to the Middle East, Lula declined to place a wreath at Theodor Herzl’s Jerusalem grave – but he did travel to Ramallah and lay a wreath at Yasser Arafat’s grave. “It is offensive that he laid a wreath at the grave of a terrorist, but not at the tomb of Zionism’s visionary,” a senior Israeli Foreign Ministry official told the Jerusalem Post.
Lula’s anti-Israel and pro-Arafat sentiments reflect the spirit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which began in the 1950s as a legitimate anti-colonial association but was soon hijacked by Arafat, Castro and other Third World radicals. Brazil never officially joined the NAM, but it shared much of that organization’s hostility toward the United States. Indeed, the country has a long history of irking the U.S. on high-profile diplomatic issues, such as the Nicaraguan civil war during the 1980s. As Newsweek correspondent Mac Margolis wrote last May, “Exacerbating Brazil’s prickly foreign policy is a struggle within its foreign service, where a strain of anti-Americanism dating from the Cold War still runs deep.”
Expunging the vestiges of that anti-Americanism should be a top priority of the next Brazilian government. Rather than cozying up to dictators in Iran and Cuba, Brazil should focus on stimulating positive cooperation among its fellow rising democracies, such as Mexico, India, Indonesia and South Africa. It is difficult to become a constructive, responsible actor in global affairs when your president is cavorting with the likes of Ahmadinejad and Castro.
While Brazil’s underperforming education system remains a significant long-term weakness, its fast-growing economic power – fueled by its massive mineral and agricultural wealth – has presented with it an enormous opportunity to exert greater influence on international politics. Lula failed to make the most of that opportunity. Hopefully, his successor will do better.