Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Brazil's Quiet Ascendancy over Chavez in South America

The NYT ran a great article yesterday about Brazil's ascendancy as (not "a," but) the regional leader for South America. There really is no question that Brazil has successfully assumed that role, and done so quietly yet firmly. As Kenneth Maxwell, a highly respected Brazilianist, puts it in the article, “While Ch├ívez grabs the headlines, the debate over whether Brazil is becoming a regional power is moot [...] Brazil has actually made it to that level, but in a very nonbombastic way.”

This point cannot be stressed strongly enough. The U.S. media and public pay virtually no attention to Latin America, and I would venture (in a sheer guess based on no statistical analysis whatsoever) that 75%-95% of our attention focuses on Mexico, Cuba, and Venezuela. The current administration has amplified this Venezuela-centric gaze, too, with its efforts to overthrow Chavez in 2002 and then its constant black-and-white propaganda battle that tried to succeed where covert involvement failed.

Yet for all the fear and rumbling and grumbling that comes from politicians and the media over Chavez, Lula has been the real force, all while being a non-threat to the U.S. The article outlines all this so clearly, but just to summarize, Lula's development of Brazil's own BNDES (which is itself becoming a very strong foreign lending institution within Brazil), as well as of alternate regional banking and financial institutions, have made more progress quietly than Chavez's Bank of the South, which is only a dream right now and has no sign of any real progress in the foreseeable future (if ever); Lula's infrastructural investments to genuinely help neighbors like Bolivia and Venezuela are only strengthening the goodwill between Latin American countries to a degree unseen since right-wing military dictatorships joined forces to combat "subversives" in each other's country (but with democratically elected governments this time); and the discovery of the Tupi oil field last year stands to really threaten Venezuela's Latin American monopoly in oil production in the world. Brazil's economy is not only one of the strongest in the region, but in the hemisphere, growing and improving while the U.S. economy is in a downfall (the real reached the level of 1.59 to the dollar, the lowest it's been since natural inflation kicked in in the mid-1990s when the previous president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, artificially set the exchange rate at 1 real to 1 dollar). In short, Brazil has done an amazing job in simultaneously improving its domestic standing economically and infrastructurally while also becoming the major regional force in South America.

However, for all the good that there is in the article, the Times correspondents once again can't help but reveal their total ignorance when it comes to the functioning of political parties within the Brazilian political spectrum. Not to put too fine a point on it, but when they write that "Mr. da Silva’s unexpected embrace of the market-friendly ideas begun by his predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, has emphasized how heterogeneous political thinking has become in Latin America, even on the left," they show a complete and total failure to even remotely begin to understand Brazilian politics. While Lula's policies in many ways can be considered "market-friendly," there's about as much similarity between Lula's approach to the economy and Cardoso's as there was between Hoover and FDR. Cardoso was extremely dependent on neo-liberal policies of privatization and dependency upon the US, Europe, the IMF, and the World Bank; Lula's fiscal and development programs have been dominated by state-sponsored investment and growth (like offering federal grants for college students to gain professional experience upon graduation), not privatizing everything at the first sign of trouble, investing heavily in infrastructural developments, and completing trade deals with new partners like Africa, China, and other parts of South America. One might think that the simple fact that Lula's party, the PT, and Cardoso's party, the PSDB, are two of the most antagonistic parties in all of Brazilian politics would suggest to the correspondents that Lula hasn't "followed" in Cardoso's footsteps very strongly, but the Times correspondents don't seem to grasp that (in the same way that they, with their too-American perspective on politics, have in other articles called Cardoso's PSDB "center-left" when it's firmly "center-right" to "right" in any broader political spectrum).

Additionally, the comment on "how heterogeneous political thinking has become in Latin America, even on the left" is as damning a statement on their ignorance as any sentence could be. Political thinking within the left in Latin America hasn't "become" heterogeneous; it's always been heterogeneous. Even when "Communism" was the main vein of political thinking, the debates and struggles over what vision of "Communism" (which many times wasn't even Commmunism) not only between but within individual countries was extremely heterogeneous. The fact that leftist (and rightist) political thinking in Latin America is heterogenous shouldn't really be a revelation to anybody who bothers to spend more than a half hour learning about South American politics. Yet these two men let their political ignorance besmirk what is an otherwise very well done piece.

Which is really a shame. The content of the article is really great in outlining what is an extremely important phase in Brazil's history that can and probably will have very long-term effects on the country's place regionally and even globally. It's just too bad that the Times' correspondents had to briefly inject their political ignorance and reveal how little they understand South American political thinking and political systems even while getting the main points of Brazil's growth right.