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Brazil’s Foreign Policy Challenging Traditional World Powers - 2004-06-16

Whether it is challenging U.S. and European farm subsidies or urging the developing nations of the world to work together, Brazil is emerging as a more forceful player in world politics. Recently the country has worked to improve and expand ties with China. As VOA’s Serena Parker reports, the alignment has more to do with economic interests than political ones.

Inside the Brazilian American Cultural Institute in Washington, voices babble in American accented Portuguese as students from a variety of backgrounds gather to study Brazilian Portuguese. Armando Trull is one of them.

“I’ve worked in Latin America everywhere except Brazil, and that’s because I speak Spanish fluently, but I don’t speak Portuguese,” he says. “And with the importance of Brazil as a cultural powerhouse, as a music powerhouse and now in economic and political terms, I think it just makes sense for me also to speak Portuguese and the Brazilian version of Portuguese.”

Mr. Trull is one of the 500 students who will take a Portuguese language class at the Brazilian American Cultural Institute this year. According to Jose Neistein, executive director of the Institute, students come to study Portuguese for a wide variety of reasons. But what is certain, he says, is that interest in all things Brazilian -- language, music, film, and dance -- has grown dramatically. “Brazilian culture has become increasingly more and more popular in the United States in the past 10 or 15 years,” he says.

The surge in popularity of all things Brazilian comes as the country’s president, Luiz Inacio “Lula” Da Silva, seeks to increase Brazil’s visibility on the world stage. On June 1, Brazil took command of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Haiti, and at the end of May President Da Silva traveled to China for a five-day tour aimed at boosting exports to the world’s most populous nation.

Thomas Skidmore, retired professor of history at Brown University, says that Brazil’s closer ties with China have more to do with economics than politics. “As far as foreign policy goes, I think the Brazilian political elite believes that the number one priority, if not the only priority, is economic development,” he says. “So their attitude is we should exploit all of our relationships around the world to improve our trade and capital flow.”

As for Brazil’s other foreign policy ventures, Professor Skidmore says Mr. Da Silva may be attempting to draw attention away from problems on the home front. Brazil is running a trade surplus, meaning that it exports more goods than it imports, but the country is still struggling with high unemployment. According to Professor Skidmore, this is causing some political problems for Mr. Da Silva, the first working-class president in Brazilian history. Many of his supporters had hoped he would implement a large social welfare program, but Mr. Skidmore says President Da Silva’s hands are tied by the enormous international debt burden he inherited from past administrations.

“They are really caught in a cage of foreign debt,” he says, “and they just don’t have the resources domestically to invest either in accelerated economic growth or in improving welfare.”

While acknowledging the enormity of Brazil’s foreign debt, which exceeds $200 billion dollars, other analysts say Brazil under President Da Silva is doing better than expected. Riordan Roett, director of the Western Hemisphere Project at Johns Hopkins University, says the Da Silva Administration is well positioned ahead of October municipal elections.

“They’ve just passed over opposition from many people in Congress the 2.60 reais minimum wage in the lower house,” he says. “They’re now going to need a Senate vote but that looks fairly secure. Trade numbers are superb this year, in part because of Asia, but that doesn’t make any difference. The point is that Brazil is finally beginning to claim a larger place in world trade, which has always been an important goal for the country.”

China is now Brazil’s third largest trading partner after the United States and Argentina, and Brazilian officials are eager to expand that trade. According to Mr. Roett, the Chinese are planning to pour billions of dollars into production at Brazilian iron ore plants. There is even talk China may finance a highway through the Amazon and over the Andes to a West Coast seaport from which goods could be shipped to China. Mr. Roett says this presents a real opportunity for the whole region.

“This is a way for the South Americans to demonstrate that they can establish new trade ties and that they are able to conduct a commercial foreign policy with great success,” he says.

As President Da Silva works to expand commercial ties with China and other economies in Asia, Mr. Roett says this will not only strengthen Brazil’s hand when it comes to future trade negotiations at a global level, but also in talks with the United States over the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas.