Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Is Brazil the Next Major "Imperialist" Power in South America?

A few weeks back, Upside Down World published an interesting report asking if Brazil is "creating its own 'backyard' in Latin America?" The article looked at Brazil's rapidly expanding foreign investments in recent years (from $250 million dollars US in 2003 to $10 billion dollars US in 2004 alone) and some recent points of contention (with Ecuador and Paraguay, particularly), and asks if Brazil is on its way to becoming an imperialist force in the region. It chronicles the various investments Brazil has made recently, from cattle farms in Uruguay to private companies' involvement in Ecuador to the Itaipu dam agreement with Paraguay to suggest Brazil may be trying to become a hegemonic power in Latin America.

I find the charge of "Brazilian imperialism" interesting but wrong-headed. I suppose from the strictest economic standpoint, Brazil's growth may look somewhat like imperialism, particularly to the political left of the region. I have a hard time buying into this right now, though, simply because countries can only grow their investments internally so much before they have to invest elsewhere. Brazil has invested wisely, and is succeeding for this. Accusing Brazil of becoming "imperialist" simply because it has succeeded in what all of the countries of South America have been trying to do to one degree or another for quite some time makes about as much sense to me as accusing a successful local coffee shop of becoming "corporate" when it expands and has multiple locations in an area.

What is more, I think the "imperialist" charge loses any legitimacy when it comes to dealing with the term from a geopolitical standpoint (because it's not just about economics). Indeed, I would even suggest that having Brazil become such a major global force is probably a net gain for South America as a whole. For too long, Latin America (including Brazil) hasn't really had a powerful geopolitical or economic voice that was willing to stand up for its interests in the global market. Now that Brazil is gaining that power, and has similar past experiences with its neighbors in the global economy, Brazil is definitely in the position to defend the region as a whole, and to use its power to sway American and European powers. I admit that Brazil could disregard its neighbors demands on issues such as equality and fair treatment in the way that the United States and Europe has traditionally disregarded anything that didn't line their own pockets and the pockets of their allies.

However, this just doesn't seem likely to me. First, these are Brazil's neighbors, and not just foreign countries, and it would really hurt Brazil's standing in the region. Secondly (and deriving from the first point) Brazil's global standing in the economy, while growing exponentially, is still relatively new and fragile, and Brazil can't afford to isolate entire neighboring countries where it has invested so heavily. Unlike China, the U.S., or major European countries (at least before the global meltdown), Brazil could not just cut its losses in one part of the world and focus elsewhere without major repercussions in its own economy. Thus, I think it is fair to say that, at least thus far, Brazil in the 2000s has been rather sympathetic to the interests of its neighbors, even while it tries to defend its own economic interests. There was evidence of this "sympathy-factor" when Evo Morales nationalized petroleum production, including holdings by Brazil's Petrobras, back in 2007. Lula calmly responded to the nationalization and took Morales on his word to "re-work" the deal, ultimately still getting a good deal on gas coming from Bolivia, but with terms more favorable to Bolivia than they previously had been, as well. The Paraguay case makes things look bad, but the Itaipu issue has been a contentious one that has been bubbling for years. It may still work to Paraguay's disadvantage, which would be disappointing and unfortunate. Brazil has a lot invested in that dam in terms of economy and infrastructure, and it very well may end up being shortsighted in its efforts to get the best deal possible for Brazil, while angering Paraguay and perhaps offending neighboring countries. But the operative word here is "may" - things still aren't resolved, and there's not a lot of concrete evidence that lets us conclude already that the Itaipu discussions are going to go well or poorly. And even if things do work out in a way in which Brazil comes off as an economic bully on this issue, I still don't think the dam and the recent issues between Ecuador and Brazil (which were since resolved) are enough to really point towards an emerging but latent imperialism on Brazil's part, at least not right now. I could be wrong on this down the road - presidents do funny things for strange reasons sometimes - but for the foreseeable future, at any rate, I really don't see Brazil joining the "traditional exploiters" in its treatment of the other South American countries anytime in the near future.