Brazil is once again seeking to enhance its international profile. But this time, rather than engaging in close partnerships with its fellow BRICS club members—Russia, India, China, and South Africa—Brazil is collaborating with a smaller nation: Cuba.
Since assuming office in 2011, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has worked closely with Cuban President Raúl Castro to strengthen their partnership in the hopes of further bolstering Brazil’s economic advantages and regional influence. She is achieving this by providing financial and technical assistance to help restructure Cuba’s economy while at the same time advancing Brazil’s economic interests through strategic investments in port infrastructure. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’ quickly deteriorating health has created incentives for Dilma to fortify her ties with Castro, gradually replacing Venezuela—Cuba’s biggest benefactor—as Cuba’s most important ally in the region.
But instead of bullying Cuba into following Brazil’s lead, Dilma is also gaining something in return for her citizens: technical assistance from Cuba to address educational illiteracy, a long-time developmental challenge for Brazil. In so doing, Cuba benefits by displaying its impressive success in education reform, while highlighting its potential to be an amicable partner in hemispheric affairs.
Dilma has continued the policy toward Cuba set by her predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. She has increased assistance, offering to help build a new port in the Mariel section of Cuba, located just a few miles outside of Havana. Brazilian engineers have been working with their Cuban counterparts to build a port facilitating Cuba’s trade. The port will facilitate Cuban trade and is being seen as a gateway for a free-trade zone in the Americas.
Beyond trade, the current port, as well as most of Havana’s industry, is located in the tourist area of Old Havana. However, this has contributed to a foul stench in the air—a turn-off for most tourists.
But there are ulterior motives. Despite being perceived as a charitable act, Brazil views this port as an economic investment. In exchange for Brazil’s assistance, Odebrecht, the Brazilian construction company contracted to build the port, will receive payments from port receipts for an extended period of time. At the same time, Brazilian companies are expected to get an early start in trading with Cuba, especially in the area of food exports.
Aside from solidifying the close partnership that started with Lula, through these efforts it also seems that Dilma is striving to create a new geopolitical alliance with Cuba—one that is not as hostile toward the United States. With Chávez’ uncertain health putting the future of the anti-U.S. Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA, using its Spanish acronym) movement into question, Dilma appears to be stepping in to replace Chávez’ lead and to create a more U.S.-friendly environment in the region.
With the expectation that Chávez will soon be out of the picture, and with Havana’s knowledge of Dilma’s close ties with the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, the emergence of a new, possibly pro-U.S. alliance may happen much sooner than we think.
But it also seems that Dilma aims to bolster Brazil’s reputation as a provider of financial and technical assistance to developing nations—a foreign-policy objective for the country—while also maintaining a two-way street in welcoming Cuban approaches in education reform. Illiteracy is estimated to affect 11 percent of Brazilians, and key aspects of Cuba’s education model (e.g., its emphasis on math and science literacy) have been used as a blueprint for helping Brazil’s elementary and high schools and preparing a high-tech workforce, where the potential labor supply has been low.
What’s more, many of Cuba’s university professors and graduate students are engaging in research projects with colleagues in Brazil. Cuba has been emphasizing sciences and the humanities in their academic exchanges, with about 80 Cuban professors going to Brazil in 2011.
Cuba’s contributions to Brazil in terms of education have shed light on its own domestic successes: in 2011, for example, only 0.2 percent of the entire Cuban population was illiterate. And as of last year, approximately 97 percent of children attended elementary and high school; in fact, since the late 1990s, Cuba has consistently ranked at the top among Latin American nations when measuring children’s literacy in math and science. A report conducted by the OECD ranked Cuba number-one for mathematical and scientific achievement in Latin America. In 2001 international experts were so astonished by the performance of Cuba’s third- and fourth-graders that they went back to reconfirm the results.
Cuba’s advances in math and science education stem from longstanding government backing. Since the early 1960s, Fidel Castro repeatedly emphasized his commitment to creating “men of science,” stressing that mathematical and scientific knowledge was vital for Cuba’s long-term development and prosperity.
By providing technical educational assistance to Brazil—one of Latin America’s most advanced emerging powers—Cuba has been able to show just how important it can be in helping address Latin America’s educational challenges. Cuba is also showing its willingness to help other nations, despite the government’s scarce financial and technical resources, and how much other nations rely on and trust Cuba’s assistance.
The Brazil–Cuba relationship reveals that close developmental partnerships can help emerging nations increase their success, notoriety and regional influence. But especially in the case of Cuba, these partnerships also reveal how helpful smaller nations can assist bigger neighbors in preparing their children for future prosperity.