In this special edition of The Interview, Felipe Machado talks to the late Brazilian Ambassador Affonso Celso de Ouro Preto.
In April 2009, the richest countries in the world got together for the G20 Summit in London. After lunch, when world leaders were informally chatting, US President Barack Obama shook hands with Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, then-president of Brazil. Smiling and in good spirits, Obama called Lula the “most popular politician on earth” and attributed the fact to his “good looks.” “Love this guy,” said Obama.
Brazil was looking good back then. Having kept former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s economic policies, Lula invested in social programs and used his charisma to promote Brazil—and himself—internationally, traveling to more than 80 countries and trying to project a stronger and more influential presence among the world’s biggest powers.
But with the election of Dilma Rousseff, a presidential candidate supported by him, Lula and Brazil’s dream turned into a nightmare. Rousseff’s government was involved in many corruption scandals, and due to a combination of legal problems and a complete lack of political talents, it ended prematurely shortly after her second term began. President Rousseff was impeached in 2016.
Without the necessary talent—or patience—for foreign policy, Rousseff’s government fell into a void internationally, and her disastrous administration also brought down her creator. Lula and his allies are facing many accusations of corruption, and his international image melted like ice under Copacabana’s sun.
With Rousseff’s impeachment, Michel Temer, vice-president during both of her terms, took office and became the president of Brazil. One of his first and most decisive decisions as Brazil’s leader was to nominate a prestigious name, Jose Serra, ex-governor and senator of São Paulo, as minister of foreign affairs.
Affonso Celso de Ouro Preto lived through part of this period abroad, but he was far from being an outsider. The diplomat worked and represented Brazil overseas during Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s government, but also through Lula and Rousseff’s terms as well.
In this special edition of The Interview, Ambassador Ouro Preto talks about the change in the Brazilian government’s foreign policies and the country’s presence in the world, among other strategic and important global issues.
*Ambassador Ouro Preto passed away on December 28, 2016, after a long fight against cancer. This is his last interview.
Felipe Machado: The new Brazilian government, with Mr. Jose Serra as the minister of foreign affairs, apparently made a significant change in the diplomacy area. Do you think the policy that was ruling before, which was more focused on the South-South relations, was adequate? What do you think of the new multi-player and more commercial approach?
Affonso Celso de Ouro Preto: I worked in the previous administration as ambassador-at-large for the Middle East, and I was also ambassador in China for the last years of President Lula’s administration, although I was designated by President Fernando Henrique Cardoso. I know Mr. Celso Amorim [minister of foreign affairs during President Lula’s administration, from 2003 to 2010] very well and I admire him.
I would agree with almost all of the policy which was enforced then, and I have the impression that the change of foreign policy from the previous group to Michel Temer is not so great as it has been said. [Note: Rousseff had three ministers of foreign affairs during her government: Antonio Patriota, 2011-13; Luiz Alberto Figueiredo, 2013-15; and Mauro Vieira, 2015-16.] To my understanding—and this is my personal opinion only as a Brazilian citizen—I would say that the focus has not changed so much. I see only as an important difference the change of relations with the so-called “Bolivarian states,” but I must admit that even during the previous government the relationship with the Bolivarians was not so deep.
Brazil was never a Bolivarian state, receiving instructions or orientation from the Venezuela government; [and] Brazil never had a confrontation with the United States. We have always had very correct relations, which is quite different to what happens in Venezuela. That friendship or tolerance that we had with the “Bolivarians”—which, by the way, was not such a close alliance as some Brazilian newspapers say—of course has quite changed. We see the position that Temer and Serra adopted in relation to Venezuela is much harder today.
But the other issues—yes, before we had an emphasis on the South-South relations, but this has not totally disappeared. We must always make a reference to the administration of Dilma Rousseff, because then practically there was no foreign policy—foreign policy disappeared with her. She even cut the budget of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs by 70%. She seemed to dislike the subject deeply. I don’t know why.
So, we must compare Michel Temer’s policies to the foreign policy during the Lula government, because with Dilma Rousseff we have nothing to compare. There was no foreign policy then, it was a very sad gap. In comparison to Lula, except for the mentioned relation with the Bolivarian states, I do not see a deep change. China was the first country Temer visited after he was confirmed president. The second one was Argentina. This is exactly the same areas that were exploited by Lula, so I don’t see a big difference.
Machado: One of the strongest criticism to the previous administration was regarding the strong influence of the Workers’ Party’s (PT) vision on foreign affairs, which was accused of being more focused on the party’s ideology than on Brazilian national interest. Do you agree with that critic?
Ouro Preto: To a certain extension, yes. I would say there were two diplomacies during the Lula years. One was from Minister Celso Amorim, which was the diplomacy of the Brazilian state, and the other one was done by Marco Aurelio Garcia, which assisted the presidency and made contact with political parties overseas. So there was a parallel diplomacy, which does not exist anymore.
Serra is the minister of foreign affairs, and we also see that Temer, even without much experience in that area, has a certain interest in the subject. The fact that he immediately went to China, Argentina, Paraguay afterwards and then gave all his prestige by going to the BRICS [Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa] meeting in India confirms that there is not such a different vision from the diplomacy during the Lula administration.
This dual diplomacy was conducted by Marco Aurélio Garcia, the man in contact with the parties, but let’s remember [that] he had never negotiated any agreement between states. He was received at a high level by the minister of foreign affairs when I was the ambassador in China. When the [Chinese] minister of foreign affairs asked him about Brazilian policy, he replied that [the] subject would be a matter for the Brazilian minister of foreign affairs. He said he represented the government’s party but not the state.
I don’t know if this kind of speech also happened in other countries, but this is what I saw. And he had a very small staff, so he was not able to act as a minister. He was a kind of contact to the international left-wing parties in places such as Bolivia [and] Venezuela but always speaking in the name of PT.
It’s kind of hard to talk about the details of his relations with the minister of foreign Affairs. There was probably tension but it was not apparent—it was very discreet—and he never contradicted what the minister said. During the Dilma years, his staff in the presidency increased and then I believe he was practically the minister of foreign affairs.
President Lula had, or pretended to have, a genuine interest in foreign affairs. He was actively interested in the Middle East and in the BRICS, but he did not buy totally the ideas Celso Amorim, then his minister of foreign policy. The minister [was] a strong believer in the WTO [World Trade Organization], so perhaps that is why he did not give such a great importance to regional treaties, to the European Union or to the United States. He still believed that a new round of negotiations with WTO would come up. This is an idea that has, more or less, disappeared nowadays.
This might be another difference comparing to the new diplomacy: the faith in WTO. Celso Amorim was the ambassador in [the] WTO for many years—he understood how the WTO worked and believed that progress could be easier achieved through [the] WTO than with agreements through blocs of countries.
The idea of [the] WTO now has not been forgotten, but it has been placed in a rather modest place. The idea of agreements with blocs, such as the European Union or the ones regarding the Pacific Ocean area, has become almost impossible because of the worldwide crisis we live today. We see that as the reason for the Brexit decision; we see it on the rise of someone like Donald Trump; we see it in the European Union crisis. We are living in a world where nationalism and isolationism is growing everywhere and the moment is not favorable. We see the extreme right rising in Europe, so it’s not a moment where we should expect any breakthroughs in diplomacy. The European Union, for example, is going through such a crisis that it will take years to recover the true meaning of the expression “European Union.”
Machado: In that context, what do you see in the future for BRICS, the block formed with Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa?
Ouro Preto: The BRICS were never an alliance but a term created by the British economist Jim O’Neill. It had different political systems and was formed by three democracies, an authoritarian state, China, and a semi-authoritarian state, Russia. So they all are very different. Each of these big countries has special interests in the world. I see the BRICS as a forum where large, developing and emerging countries have in common their economic situation, but it never intended to be an alliance or even a trade area. It is a place where leaders can meet.
China has a special interest in BRICS because [it] wants to become more than a regional power. That’s why it insisted in having South Africa; China has many economic and political interests in the African continent. These countries are not really part of the international status quo, not part of NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization]—they are somehow outsiders.
Russia wants to show that, despite the dissolution of the Soviet Union, [it] still remains a great power and can play an important role, especially in the Middle East, specifically in Syria. I think as a forum to discuss questions which are sometimes common to these countries, the BRICS will still go on.
The fact that President Michel Temer has been to the last meeting in India shows that, even though Russia is diabolized in the rest of the world, Brazil accepts it as part of the international community.
China has the special interest to present itself as a great nation, especially in Asia, so it created the BRICS bank to project the new Chinese power. The Chinese want to promote themselves not only as a great power, but as a power very close to reach the position of [a] superpower. It still cannot replace the United States, which for a long time will still be the superpower, the biggest military establishment and the biggest disseminator of soft power, which China doesn’t have.
Even though I see a certain erosion of the United States as a superpower, it is and will still be for a long time the greatest power in the world. But it’s not as powerful as in the past. It cannot face one problem in Asia and another one in the Middle East simultaneously. It’s acting in the Middle East but it can’t send troops anymore. “No boots on the ground,” as [President Barack] Obama says. Nobody is asking to send the US Army to fight in Syria, as they have in Iraq, which by the way did not bring such a great results for the United States.
Machado: Since you’re talking about the United States, how do you see the relations between the US and Brazil? How can it evolve from now?
Ouro Preto: It’s becoming better with the Temer government, but it has never been so bad before. President Dilma Rousseff cancelled a visit the United States because of the “espionage” episode, which of course existed and it was unpleasant, but it was not such a drama. It happened also to Angela Merkel in Germany and it did not affect the relations between Germany and the United States.
The reaction here was exaggerated, in my opinion. The [relationship] between Brazil and the United States was never bad. Even in the Lula years, there was an understanding, an exchanging of points of view. There was never a confrontation or antagonism between the US and Brazil. There is a conscience in Brazil about the importance of the United States—that’s why Lula never acted as [Hugo] Chávez did, accusing the United States of being an “empire.” This word has never been used [in] Brazilian diplomacy. It has always been a fluid dialogue with the United States. There is now an increase in the degree of approximation, but not a creation of a totally new relationship.
Machado: Going a little bit further south, we’ve been having problems with another bloc of countries: the Mercosul. Relations between the countries have gotten especially harder since Venezuela joined the group.
Ouro Preto: I think it was a mistake to bring Venezuela into the Mercosul. Venezuela has isolated itself and its regime is in a terminal mode now. It will have a very slow agony. It’s surviving but in an agonizing state.
The idea of the Mercosul integration is an idea that any Brazilian government is obliged to accept. The relations with Argentina were not so good with previous Argentinean government, but with President Mauricio Macri it got much easier. The administrations of Lula and Cristina Kirschner had a political sympathy, but in trade terms they were a disaster. I believe this has changed.
The Mercosul, I would say, is important and essential but is not enough. Brazil must have good relations with its neighbors for many reasons, but also because the region is the greatest market for our industrialized goods. But we cannot limit our foreign policy to that. This is only a part of it all—something that is understood by the Temer government. The first commercial partner of Brazil is China, the second is the United States and the third is Argentina. So we are condemned—excuse me if this is a strong word—to have good relations with Argentina.
Machado: Mr. Ouro Preto, do you believe that the world today has a tendency for “commercial diplomacy”? It seems that what we called “diplomacy” in the past was a bit more focused in the political side of the relations between countries, and now we have a more economical approach to the negotiations.
Ouro Preto: There has always been a certain amount of commercial interests—of “commercial diplomacy.” Perhaps it was not a priority, but it has always existed. One cannot replace the other; diplomacy will always be essentially political. The amount of trade in political diplomacy is growing, but it’s not substituting. Diplomacy will always be about the politics with a very powerful arm, which is trade. As a matter of fact, trade is also a political issue, so it’s nothing new to say that we’re not taking care of politics, just trade. Trade has always been part of diplomacy and of politics, so I don’t see such a deep change in that matter. I see a policy that is becoming more and more pragmatic, but it has always been a tradition of Brazil to be pragmatic in foreign policies. Brazil was not a member of NATO, but on the other hand it was not a member of the non-allied [Non-Aligned Movement] countries either. Brazil has mostly one big issue: reform of the Security Council at the United Nations [UN].
Machado: It became almost an obsession.
Ouro Preto: Yes, that obsession already existed during the Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s government, but it became a priority with President Lula. There is a consensus in Brazilian society that the Security Council, which is a creation of the Second World War context, has to change. Why [are] Germany and Japan not permanent members? But to change it is very difficult. The possible presence of India, for example, does not please China. I think it has lost the priority with the new Brazilian government. It still is an aim for the Brazilian diplomacy, but not so much anymore.
Machado: The Brazilian presence in Haiti, leading the United Nation peacekeeping mission known as Minustah, seemed to be a way to attest to the world that the Brazilian army could play a major part in an international operation.
Ouro Preto: The troops that are in Haiti were sent by the UN, and most of the operation was financed by the United Nations. Brazil could not send the troops without the support of the UN. But to be involved seemed a correct attitude; Haiti is the poorest country in the American continent. The troops have not been withdrawn by the Temer administration, but probably will decrease slowly its presence in the country. It certainly created a closer relationship with Haiti, which was a correct attitude. One of the consequences is that we have a certain amount of immigration from Haiti to Brazil, around 80,000 people. It’s a large number, but [it] is not so much for a country of more than 200 million. I don’t see any reaction against it in the Brazilian society, except perhaps in certain areas of São Paulo.
Machado: You mentioned immigration, which seems to be one of the biggest issues in the world nowadays. How do you see the actual crisis, and how is it different from other immigration movements from the past? Is it a natural consequence of globalization?
Ouro Preto: Immigration has become the main political issue in the First World. I think globalization has stopped. With the policies failing in Europe and also in the United States, immigration explains the Brexit, it explains the debate about the succession in France, and it explains the defeat of Mrs. Merkel in the last local elections in Germany.
Immigration has stopped globalization. The rich countries don’t know how to face it. With the war in Syria and other conflicts that are not solved yet, like Afghanistan, we see the biggest immigration problems since the Second World War. People running away from their respective countries and finding war in front of them. Even the pope criticized the European attitude. But the fact is that this is an issue that will not disappear so soon.
And this means also to a certain extent that Europe is becoming small. Europe—except perhaps one country, Germany—is giving up what it was in the past. To me, the Brexit episode represents the policy of a “Little England,” which is watching England [the United Kingdom] becoming a second-rate country. Isolationist policies have been a reality in certain countries of Western Europe for the last 50 years, but they are accelerated now.
Machado: Besides the issue of immigration, the world also faces the fear of terrorism. How do these two problems relate to each other?
Ouro Preto: They were born together, of course. One is used as a pretext to defend the other, but they are not quite the same. When I was younger, in the ’50s, I studied in France and the main issue back then was also terrorism because of the Algerian War. And the conflict was finally lost by France, when the country admitted the independence of Algeria. General [Charles] de Gaulle, a conservative politician and a very intelligent man, accepted the independence of Algeria and the fall of the French Empire, and that kind of terrorism disappeared from France during 30 years.
Yes, it came back again, but it’s not something so new either in Europe. [The] UK had the Irish terrorism; Spain had the ETA. They are not quite the same, of course, but the concept of terrorism is not so new to Europe. It has been a reality, in different forms, for a long time. Now, it became the Muslim terrorism, which frightens and also contains a certain amount of prejudice. It reflects the situation in the Middle East. So, how do we solve these many crises of the region? Because we have the one that has never been solved, and I don’t know how it would be solved, which is the conflict between Israel and Palestine.
Machado: It seems that the Israeli-Palestinian crisis was the main focus of international attention in the Middle East for a long time, but not as much anymore. It seems that there are so many crises in the region—Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan—that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was left aside for a while. Do you agree?
Ouro Preto: There is a strong interest in changing the government in Syria. [Bashar al-]Assad is a leader who has been accused of being a bloody dictator, which is probably true. But all the others in the region are also. To characterize the government of Syria as a dictatorship is false for a simple reason: they all are. You hardly can say that the main enemy of Assad, Saudi Arabia, is a democracy.
So, I see the Syrian crisis mainly as a dispute between the United States and Russia to see who will be the main power in the area. [The] United States [has] allies such Saudi Arabia and Egypt, but Syria is firmly linked to Russia. That’s why [Vladimir] Putin wants Assad to stay in power. Putin wants to keep Syria not as a satellite, which it has never been, but as a country under Russian influence. [The] United States and Israel want to put down the Syrian government to transform it in a kind of “Saudi Arabia” instead.
Machado: And then, right in the middle of all of these, you have a common enemy to them all: ISIS [Islamic State].
Ouro Preto: Yes, as a paradox, ISIS is fought by both sides. And they can’t stop ISIS. There is a complication with Turkey, which wants to finish with the Kurds, and the Kurds are the main allies of the United States in the fight against ISIS. There is a problem with the presence of Iran, which has always been an enemy of ISIS. So, you have a war where Russia, Iran and the United States are fighting the same enemy, ISIS, but [at] the same time they disagree among themselves.
Because ISIS is a dream but also shows something dramatic that was born after the Arab-nationalism. The movement, which began with [Gamal Abdul] Nasser in the ’50s, was not religious. But since all these regimes from the region failed in the conflicts against Israel, the power of religion became stronger and stronger. Nasser was never religious; he was a nationalist.
The non-religious regimes, such as Iraq and Syria, have always been contested by religious movements. They consider that the non-religious parties had failed in the great fight against Israel. And Israel, to a certain extent, helped the religious movements. Hamas was helped by Israel because they thought that it would become rather a benign force in opposition to nationalism—although it was not exactly what happened. It also happened with the United States in Afghanistan, who supported the religious movements in their fight against Russia.
So, all these religious movements were helped by the West in the beginning. Suddenly they escaped their control and now they became the main force in the Middle East. Something ironic and dramatic.
Machado: Going back to Brazil, how do you see the country in this global context? We have a new government that took office after a controversial process of impeachment, which was called by the opposition and by a few countries in the region a “coup d’état.”
Ouro Preto: That was false, of course. It was not a coup d’état.
Machado: Yes, but how do you see Brazil’s rise in the future, looking into a further and historical long term?
Ouro Preto: Brazil has lost importance since the Lula years. Brazil is not a member of the Security Council and it has never been a military power. Brazil has always been a political-economic middle-size power, but it lost that position with President Dilma Rousseff. We’ll recover the position of a middle-size power, I think, with Temer.
What is the future of Brazil? Brazil has been the eighth or ninth economy of the world—it depends [on] the exchange rate we use. But Brazil is condemned to look over its boundaries. It’s a middle-size power so it will have an interest in the rest of the world. It can’t totally wash its hands from the Israeli-Palestinian problem—it must have opinions on that. It’s condemned to have an opinion on the Syrian War also. On the issues of globalization, a concept which is in a very difficult situation after the rise of nationalism, Brazil will be obliged to have a certain role in strategic global issues.
About the reform of the Security Council, I don’t think that in the next 10 or 20 years something will happen—there is too much opposition to that. I see the position of China, for example, that wants to be the only country from East Asia, and it will not accept the presence of Japan. I don’t see any change for the Brazilian position at the Security Council to achieve its goal.
Brazil will still have good relations with the United States. We will also try to have good relations with Europe, which is not easy in trade terms because France opposes Brazil in order to protect its agriculture. It will be very hard to overcome France’s resistance because they say that if they open their door to Brazil, it will ruin France’s agriculture.
Brazil will try to have good relations even with countries that are not too sympathetic to this administration, such as Bolivia. But Bolivia understands that it cannot look for a confrontation with Brazil. So, Brazil will always have a weight in Latin America. Brazil will not become a great power, but a middle-size power respected by the rest of the international community. This will oblige Brazil to have opinions on the African issues, on the Nigerian civil war, on the Middle East, on the quest of immigration. Brazil cannot condemn itself to a parochial situation.
We have a certain amount of confrontation with Venezuela now, but Venezuela stands in a very special situation since [it] is a dying regime, even [though] the agony could last a long time. What Venezuela says or means now doesn’t have great importance. And Brazil will always be guided by something it has always had, which is a great amount of pragmatism—not by ideological criteria.
Brazil will have good relations with Cuba, which is showing to be [on] the verge of change, at least in economic terms. But it will not look for confrontation with Cuba either. Cuba has played an important role in the negotiations for the peace deal with FARC in Colombia, and Brazil has been absent of that. It’s a big, big mistake. Brazil, which has a large frontier with Colombia and has an obvious interest in the country, has been absent in the previous government and also now. After being away from the negotiations with FARC, why [are] the discussions with the ELN, the second guerrilla group in Colombia, taking place in Ecuador? There’s no reason for that, and it shows a total absence of Brazil.
Brazil is slowly recovering—and I hope it will with Michel Temer, who has much more interest in foreign policy than Dilma Rousseff—but it will never be either an [alignment] policy with any bloc nor ideological policy either. We’ll be only pragmatic. Brazil will grow up at least to the position it had in the past—perhaps a little more.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
Photo Credit: Mattjeacock