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How Brazil Deals with Dictators

Jaime Daremblum

As Lula da Silva’s handpicked successor, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff was widely expected to embrace his policies both at home and abroad. Domestically, she has mostly fulfilled those expectations. In foreign affairs, the story is a bit more complicated.

Lula made no secret of his desire to enhance “South-South” dialogue, promote greater cooperation among developing countries, and transform Brazil into a diplomatic powerhouse. In principle, those are worthy objectives. In practice, however, Lula often sided with dictators, against democracy activists and Western governments.

In 2010, for example, he inserted himself into the Iranian nuclear controversy: Along with Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Lula negotiated a meaningless uranium-swap deal that undercut U.S. sanctions efforts at the United Nations. “In our view,” Brazilian foreign minister Celso Amorim said at the time, “the agreement eliminates any ground for sanctions against Iran.” Whatever his intentions, Lula was effectively siding with Tehran against Washington. The entire world saw a photo of him triumphantly raising arms with Erdogan and Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Not only did Lula provide the Iranian regime with diplomatic cover for its nuclear program, he also displayed a callous indifference to its human rights violations. After the regime flagrantly stole a presidential election in June 2009, Lula claimed there was “no evidence” of fraud, adding, “I don’t know anyone, other than the opposition, who has disagreed with the elections in Iran.” He compared the election dispute to “a matter between Flamengo fans and Vasco fans,” referring to two popular Brazilian soccer teams.

Roughly a year later, in March 2010, Lula made headlines for truly shameful comments about political prisoners in Communist Cuba. One jailed Cuban dissident, Orlando Zapata, had recently died from a hunger strike; another, Guillermo Fariñas, was in the midst of his own hunger strike; and Lula was giving an interview to the Associated Press. “I don’t think a hunger strike can be used as a pretext for human rights to free people. Imagine if all the criminals in São Paulo entered into hunger strikes to demand freedom,” he said, implying that Zapata and Fariñas were no different from common criminals. “We have to respect the decisions of the Cuban legal system and the government to arrest people depending on the laws of Cuba, like I want them to respect Brazil.” Hadn’t Lula once been a jailed hunger striker himself, during the days when Brazil was ruled by a military dictatorship? Yes, but he told the AP that he “would never do it again,” because “it’s insane to mistreat your own body.”

These remarks sparked a firestorm of criticism, and they served as a painful reminder that Lula and Fidel Castro are old friends. While the former labor boss affirmed his democratic credentials during eight years as Brazilian president, he was much too friendly with dictators in general, and his foreign policy was tinged with an anti-American streak. Besides defending Castro and Ahmadinejad, Lula also defended Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez, even describing him as “Venezuela’s best president in the last 100 years.”

Like Lula, President Rousseff, who took office on New Year’s Day 2011, was once jailed by the Brazilian military regime. Thus far, her approach to human rights in Cuba has been betterbut only slightly betterthan that of her predecessor. Shortly before traveling to the island late last month, Rousseff offered a tourist visa to a prominent Cuban dissident named Yoani Sánchez, a blogger who had been invited to attend a documentary in Brazil. This is not the type of gesture that Lula ever would have made, let alone on the eve of a visit to Cuba. The Castro government refused to let Sánchez travel, but Rousseff had delivered a message about her willingness to defy Havana and strike a small blow (however symbolic) for Cuban freedom. Unfortunately, when she got to the island, the Brazilian president focused on economic cooperation and shied away from discussing Communist human rights abuses. She also took a dig at the United States, saying that the U.S. detention facility at Guantánamo Bay represents a “human rights” issue.

What about Venezuela? In December, Rousseff left early from the inaugural summit of the Chávez-inspired Community of Latin American and Caribbean States in Caracas. As the Guardian noted, some people interpreted the timing of her departure “as a snub to her host.”

But her biggest break with Lula’s foreign policy has come on Iran. Initially, it seemed that Rousseff’s approach to the Islamic Republic would be roughly the same: In August, a senior Brazilian official declared Iran to be one of her country’s “most important partners.” Since then, however, relations between the two countries have deteriorated, as Rousseff has distanced her government from the Ahmadinejad regime and embraced a tougher line on Iranian human rights. Last month, after Brazil declined to host a visit by Ahmadinejad during his Latin America tour, an Iranian presidential adviser slammed Rousseff for poisoning bilateral ties. As the New York Times reported it, Ali Akbar Javanfekr told a top Brazilian newspaper that Rousseff had “destroyed years of good relations,” arguing that she had “been striking against everything that Lula accomplished.“ 

Any country that is part of the BASIC bloc (Brazil, South Africa, India, China), the BRIC bloc (Brazil, Russia, India, China), and the IBSA bloc (India, Brazil, South Africa) will play an important role in shaping regional and global politics during the 21st century. If Brazil takes a robust stand in favor of human rights in Cuba, other Latin Americans will follow. By the same token, if Brazil continues largely to ignore the issue, other Latin American countries will follow suit. Rousseff is still much too timid about denouncing Castroite repression. Yet her policy toward Iran has been both pragmatic and principled, unlike Lula’s. That is bad news for Tehran but good news for Washington and Latin America.

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