From Americas Society/Council of the Americas. AS/COA Online's news brief examines the major—as well as some of the overlooked—events and stories occurring across the Americas. Check back every Wednesday for the weekly roundup.
Clock Ticks Down on Rio+20
The UN Conference on Sustainable Development—known as Rio+20—adopted an official text in negotiations this week, which will be debated on June 20 to 22. The 80-page document, titled “The Future We Want,” outlines the conference’s goals of sustainable development, corporate sustainability, and the importance of the private sector and free trade in achieving these goals. The summit was expected to draw 50,000 participants and the heads of state of more than 100 countries to Rio de Janeiro. However, “there are few expectations for concrete actions or pledges of new aid to developing countries,” reports the The New York Times. A piece in Mexican news site Animal Político also questions the conference’s sustainability, pointing to the huge carbon emissions involved in traveling to and hosting the conference.
G20 Wraps up in Mexico
Discussions about the ongoing eurozone crisis dominated the two-day G20 summit held in Mexico this week. Members agreed to focus on improving Europe’s economic stability in the wake of continuing turbulence in Greece and Spain, and to avoid protectionist measures until 2014. The summit also succeeded in increasing funding contributions from emerging economies to international lending institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in exchange for promised reforms, including greater voting power for developing countries. China offered $43 billion to the IMF, while Brazil, India, Russia, and host country Mexico each agreed to contribute $10 billion. The United States used the opportunity to invite the G20 host country as well as Canada into negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a proposed nine-country free-trade area in the Asia-Pacific.
Read an AS/COA Online News Analysis about the importance of the G20 being held in Mexico.
Learn more about the TPP in an AS/COA Online Explainer.
World Leaders to Tour Region after G20 and Rio+20
A number of world leaders will take Latin American tours after participating in the G20 in Mexico and the Rio+20 in Brazil. Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao will undertake a tour of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak will travel to Chile for three days after the two summits, and will also become the first South Korean president to visit Colombia, where he will spend two days. Portugal’s Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho is also visiting the region this week, making his first stop in Peru on Monday before continuing on to the Rio+20 in Brazil. He will spend this weekend in Colombia before returning home.
After just over a century of amicable relations, Brazil has decided to cool its relationship with Iran.
Gone are the days when Brazil's leader, President Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva (2002-2010), worked hard to strengthen Brazil's partnership with Iran, defending Iranian interests, sharing and learning from similar policy experiences over cafezinho.
At a time when Brazil has sought every opportunity to engage the international community and increase its influence as a mediator of conflict and peace, why has Brazil's new president, Dilma Rousseff, refrained from strengthening the government's ties with Iran?
The answer lies in Rousseff's personal experiences and geopolitical ambitions.
As someone who experienced human rights violations first hand under Brazil's military dictatorships (1964-1985), Rousseff has been unwaveringly committed to human rights. She has made it crystal clear that she will not support Iran unless President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seriously addresses this issue.
It's striking how quickly two nations sharing similar economic and geopolitical interests have suddenly distanced themselves from each other and how Brazil's decision may negatively affect Iran's relationship with other countries.
What this also suggests is that amicable relationships between similar nations are never guaranteed and that a sudden change in government interests and aspirations can reverse historic partnerships while having broader geopolitical ramifications.
For Rousseff, personal experiences matter.
As a high school student from the city of Belo Horizonte, she joined a Marxist revolutionary group called Palmares Revolutionary Armed Vanguard (Var-Palmares), which sought to dethrone a military government that repeatedly violated civil and human rights.
In 1970, she was arrested, interrogated and placed in prison. While serving three years, Rousseff was periodically tortured: electrical shocks ran throughout her body; she was incessantly beaten and called names; she was hung upside down in between two steel platforms in what the military called the pau de arara ("parrot’s perch"). By the time of her release at 25, she lost more than 22 pounds and her thyroid glands were nearly destroyed.
Needless to say, these horrific experiences had an enduring imprint on Rousseff's foreign policy views.
Indeed, when questioned about Iran during her campaign trail in 2009, the first two words to often come out of her mouth were "human" and "rights." The Iranian regime's atrocious history of killing thousands of dissidents, when combined with Iranian court orders to have several people stoned to death for violating the law was viewed by Rousseff as "medieval behavior." Moreover, the regime's decision to continuously throw political opponents in jail touched a sensitive nerve with Rousseff.
She made it very clear that before any business took place with Iran, Ahmadinejad would need to stop these barbaric acts. Yet this may prove difficult as Ahmadinejad's political influence is often perceived as limited because of the presence of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Being blamed and essentially ignored by Ahmadinejad also didn't help. Last year, Ahmadinejad's media adviser, Ali Akbar Javanfekr, was quoted as stating that Rousseff had "destroyed years of good relations" between them.
Under Lula, Brazil strengthened its political and economic ties with Iran through trade (indirectly via Dubai, estimated at $1.25 billion in 2010) and investment in Iran's oil sector. But when Ahmadinejad visited Latin America this January, he avoided meeting with Rousseff. Apparently he regrets having done so and plans to meet with her later this year.
Rousseff's geopolitical aspirations have also caused her to step away from Tehran. After Lula joined Turkey in 2010 to vote against UN sanctions on Iran for failing to disclose information about its nuclear reactor site and ignoring Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's request to do so, it appears that Rousseff views distancing herself from Iran as a way to strengthen Brazil's relationship with the United States.
Through these efforts, it seems that Rousseff is seeking to garner U.S. support for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, as well as increasing Brazil's influence in major international financial institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund.
Without Rousseff's support, Ahmadinejad faces problems in Latin America.
Iran has tried to strengthen ties with Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Cuba, and until recently, Brazil. And it's opened six embassies in the region since 2005, sans Brazil. But Ahmadinejad can essentially forget about getting the support of Brazil's close economic allies, such as Mexico, Argentina and Chile. Ahmadinejad has also failed to live up to his promise of helping spur economic development in the region.
At a time when he is trying to increase his legitimacy, given his hostile relationship with Israel and efforts to develop his nuclear reactors, Ahmadinejad might not be able to afford losing his Latin friends, as they have defended him in the past and their support makes him look less isolated in the world.
This freeze in relations with Brazil, and Iran's gradual loss of allies in the region, also opens up further opportunity for the United Nations to impose and enforce additional sanctions on Iran. Should this occur, Ahmadinejad faces the specter of other allies questioning their relationship with Iran, which could have serious political and economic repercussions for Iran.
Despite the rich history that these two nations share, it seems unlikely that Rousseff will want to strengthen her ties with Ahmadinejad.
With aspirations to increase Brazil's international influence and geopolitical importance, she will likely place more stock in strengthening her relationship with the United States and other cooperative nations within the United Nations. Unless Ahmadinejad changes his tune on human rights and decides to fully abide by UN rules, Iran's losses may go beyond Brazil.
Eduardo J. Gomez is assistant professor in the department of public policy and administration at Rutgers University.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in Venezuela yesterday afternoon to kick off his four-country tour of Latin America that will also include stops in Nicaragua, Cuba and Ecuador. The Iranian head of state may also attend the January 14 inauguration of Guatemalan President-elect Otto Pérez Molina. Ahmadinejad is accompanied by several members of his cabinet, including the ministers of foreign affairs, economy, industry, and energy.
Ahmadinejad was greeted at the airport yesterday by Venezuelan Vice President Elías Jaua and will meet today with President Hugo Chávez—who was in the eastern city of Puerto La Cruz filming Aló Presidente yesterday. At a critical juncture when Iran faces global concern over its nuclear program, including tough UN sanctions and even tougher additional U.S.- and EU-led sanctions, Washington worries that Venezuela will undermine those restrictions by sending oil and money to Ahmadinejad’s embattled regime. The U.S. already placed sanctions on PDVSA, Venezuela’s state-run oil company, in May 2011 for doing business with Iran.
Over their years-long friendship, Chávez and Ahmadinejad have signed roughly 270 accords on issues like trade, construction, energy, and banking. In addition to Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba and Ecuador make up part of the Chávez-inspired Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas—the so-called “anti-imperialist” bloc of eight Latin American and Caribbean nations. Guatemala also plays an important role in global governance; it was recently awarded a temporary, two-year seat on the UN Security Council.
Ahmadinejad originally planned to visit Venezuela last September after the UN General Assembly, but cancelled at the last minute due to Chávez’ chemotherapy treatments in his recovery from cancer. Both Ahmadinejad and Chávez will fly tomorrow to Nicaragua to attend Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s inauguration for a second consecutive term—an event that Chávez cites as the “central purpose” of Ahmadinejad’s Latin American tour.
View a video of Ahmadinejad's arrival in Caracas:
President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela announced on Wednesday that he is expecting a visit from his Iranian counterpart, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, this month. He told reporters, “Ahmadinejad is coming here, at last, after New York,” referring to the latter’s attendance at the UN General Assembly next week.
President Chávez, who himself will not be traveling to New York to attend the General Assembly, did not provide specific details about the date or content of his meeting with Ahmadinejad. In recent years the two leaders have become close political and commercial allies, bound also by rocky relations with the United States. They last met in Tehran in October 2010, and before that in Caracas in November 2009. This latest visit could aggravate tensions with the United States; earlier this year the Obama administration imposed sanctions on Venezuela’s state-owned oil giant PDVSA for doing business in Iran, which it considered a violation of international sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program.
Chávez is currently recovering from the removal of a cancerous tumor and may receive a fourth round of chemotherapy next week. Though he will not attend the General Assembly, he has said he expects the meetings there to be “lively” and plans to follow them closely. In particular Chávez expressed his support for the Palestinians’ bid for statehood.
No member of “The Worst of the Worst”—a list put together by George Ayittey for Foreign Policy—would be expected to address the legislature of his country with an open attitude and with calls for democratic dialogue. “The Worst of the Worst” is a list of the world's tyrants, autocrats and dictators. Prominent members include, among others, North Korea's Kim Jong Il, Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, Sudan's Omar al-Bashir (indicted by the International Criminal Court), Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus, Europe's last and only dictator.
But just recently, while addressing Venezuela's National Assembly, President Hugo Chávez, a member of the list, spoke with a tone of reconciliation, made repeated calls for dialogue with the opposition and even pledged to end in five months the 18-month special decree powers conferred to him by the Assembly in December 2010.
What does this say about the nature of Chávez' regime? Ayittey included Chávez in the list for having “...jailed opposition leaders, extended term limits indefinitely, and closed independent media.” All of that is true. But at the same time, it's true that all this has been done in a way that makes Chávez quite different from most members of the list.
While it's true that opposition leaders have been persecuted, it's also true that opposition parties are permitted in Venezuela, and are in fact very vocal and active. It's true that Chávez sought (and got) indefinite re-election. But at the same time, it's true that he has won a number of elections that are presumed fair, since no credible evidence of fraud has ever been presented. Chávez did even allow international observation at some of these elections.
Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva will travel this weekend to Tehran for talks with his Iranian counterpart President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The leaders will discuss Iran’s nuclear amibitions and Lula da Silva is expected to try to persuade Iran to revisit an enriched uranium swap deal before other world powers impose additional sanctions against the Islamic Republic.
Mr. Lula da Silva is in Moscow today for meetings with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev—another key player in ongoing negotiations with Iran. When asked to comment on the prospects of success for Brazilian efforts to revive the stalled swap deal, Medvedev said, "As my friend the Brazilian president is an optimist, I shall also be an optimist. I give 30 percent."
Critics of Lula da Silva’s foreign policy argue that Brazil doesn’t have the clout to transform Iran’s agenda and is acting out of pure national self-interest. Others, like Brazilian foreign policy advisor Marcel Biato, argue that a fresh approach to the negotiations by neutral third parties is precisely what is required. Most observers agree, however, that Brazil’s newest attempts to restart the negotiations are likely the last resort before new sanctions are imposed.
Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva—one of Time Magazine’s newly-named most influential people in the world—will travel to Iran next week for what have become regular meetings with his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The leaders are sure to discuss the month-long UN conference on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that began yesterday in New York, their countries’ growing commercial relationship, and ways that Brazil’s emergent roll as an arbiter between Iran and the West can advance their mutual interests.
Overall, Lula’s efforts to expand Brazil’s clout on the world stage have been characterized by refusals to choose sides in historic disputes or submit to pressure from major powers like the United States. His approach to international relations seems rooted in efforts to engage all parties as equals, while avoiding tough subjects like Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Russian authoritarianism or Cuba’s human rights record. The hope might be that by maintaining neutrality in the short term—while simultaneously expanding trade and investment ties to its less savory allies—Brazil’s access to and presumed influence over key foreign leaders will make it a channel through which to conduct sensitive diplomatic negotiations.
What has this strategy achieved? Well, it has definitely generated a lot of news. From Israel to Iran, India to China, Cuba to Russia, Lula’s globetrotting has produced intense media coverage and the belief in many circles that Brazil is a rising power. It’s resistance to U.S. pressure to support stronger sanctions against Iran—even during Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s trip to Brazil in March—certainly drew the ire of the U.S. foreign policy community and made him a hero among those who disagree with the U.S. approach.
But, what about the bigger picture?
Have the Iranians halted their nuclear programs or submitted to unfettered international inspections? No. Has Cuba improved its human rights record? Não. Israeli-Palestinian peace? Keep dreaming. If Lula really wants the world to believe that next week’s abraços with an Iranian tyrant are motivated by anything other than pure national self interest, it’s time for him to actually achieve something for the greater good.
Here’s one idea.
Remember those three American hikers from Berkeley who were arrested in July 2009 when they foolhardily strayed into Iranian territory while hiking in Kurdistan? Their names are Shane Bauer, 27, Joshua Fattal, 27, and Sarah Shourd, 31 and the State Department reported last week that two of them are ill in prison in Tehran. It’s time for Lula to bring them home.
This is a very real possibility for a few reasons...
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez repeated yesterday his intention to jumpstart a nuclear energy program and announced the creation of an atomic energy commission between Venezuela and Russia. Chávez attempted to dismiss concerns over the possible future militarization of the proposed program: “We’re not going to make an atomic bomb, so don’t bother us like with Iran.”
The pronouncement follows news of a $2.2 billion loan from Russia that Venezuela will use to finance arms purchases, including 92 Soviet-era T-72 tanks, short-range missiles and anti-aircraft weapons systems. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressed the issue saying Venezuelan arms purchases “outpace all other countries in South America and certainly raise the question as to whether there is going to be an arms race in the region.” Venezuela has already bought more than $4 billion worth of Russian arms since 2005.
Earlier this month, President Chávez met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to discuss a possible nuclear partnership. Talk of nuclear energy development, coupled with news of major conventional arms purchases has fueled fears in the United States that Chávez’ actions pose “a serious challenge to stability in the Western Hemisphere,” according to State Department spokesman Ian Kelly.