Monday, October 27, 2008

Tensions between Brazil and Paraguay

The New York Times has a story up about "mounting tensions" between Brazil and Paraguay. This week, Brazil is conducting military training along their border with Paraguay. Paraguay is rather nervous over this, and Fernando Lugo this week made some strong statements about what would happen if Brazil violated even "one inch" of Paraguay's territorial sovereignty.

I must say, the tensions mentioned in this story seem to fall far more on the Paraguay side of the equation than the Brazil side. I think the implicit connections that the story tries to make between the training practices and the Paraguayan landless' efforts to seize land owned by Brazilians in Paraguay is tenuous at best. Yes, there is the possibility that naturalized Brazilians' ownership is at risk in Paraguay, and it is in the Brazilian government's interests to make sure its citizens are not harmed, be it in Paraguay or elsewhere. Still, I'm not really convinced that the Paraguayan landless movement and the military training have led to heightened nervousness in Brazil. That may be the case, but the article really offers nothing in the way of evidence to back that up.

As for Paraguay, I have little doubt that their tensions are very real and a bit more pervasive. None can fault Paraguay for being a bit worried about the fact that, just as there is a growing movement to remove foreign (mostly Brazilian) farmers from there lands in Paraguay, Brazil is training its military along Paraguay's border. Although it was nearly 140 years ago, the War of the Triple Alliance, in which Brazil (with nominal and brief aid from Argentina and Uruguay) invaded Paraguay. The 6-year war (1864-1870) ended up with nearly half of Paraguay's population dead, and more than 80% of its men over the age of 20 casualties of war or disease. It's not hard to understand why, even if so much time has passed, Paraguay might still be a bit on edge over this.

Still, I really don't think much is going to come of this, at least for now. Brazil does often train troops in that region, and it (along with the Amazonian basin) is a major site of illegal smuggling of drugs, weapons, and especially products like electronics and housewares, whose smuggling helps circumvent Brazilian taxes and tariffs. What is more, if there's any single word that could describe Lula's foreign policy, it's "diplomatic." Even when popular opinion in Brazil calls for sabre-rattling and takes a more aggressive stance towards its neighbors, Lula has practiced a calm, peaceful foreign policy. In short, "cooperation" has been the word for the last 6 years under Lula, and there is absolutely no good reason to see the military training as a sudden shift in that policy over what amounts to a domestic issue facing Paraguay.

That said, this does raise the specter of uglier regional politics in the post-Lula era. There can be no doubt that, since the beginning of the decade, Brazil has come to assume a new role as regional leader in South America, gaining a very real presence as the major power of the region, rather than a nominal presence (which is what Brazil's role as a regional leader often was throughout the 20th century). While Lula's administration has been one of reasoned diplomacy and cooperation, there's nothing to guarantee that future leaders will be as calm and patient in dealing with their neighbors, particularly when said leaders perceive Brazil's own interests to be at risk. In light of Lula's foreign policy over the past several years, I really don't see much aggression in and of itself in Brazil's recent definition of foreign aggression as "whoever threatens or commits “hostile prejudicial acts against Brazilian sovereignty, territorial integrity or the Brazilian people”. However, it is open-ended enough to leave room for future leaders to interpret it in a far more aggressive fashion than Lula probably would. And while it may seem strange to suggest that Brazil would provoke a war with another country over a perceived threat, geopolitics is strange, and it's not like countries haven't unilaterally declared war over "perceived threats" before. Thus, while I don't think there's much to the Mercopress article right now (and, like the New York Times article, I think the connections it and the Estado de Sao Paulo are trying to make are a bit tenuous), it does raise the interesting specter that, down the line, Brazil could become a bit of a regional bully in South America as the regional, hemispheric, and global geopolitics shift.