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Fresh Look Reviews

Fresh, unique perspectives on recent books from across the hemisphere originally published in English, Spanish and Portuguese.

In this issue:
Photo: Lars Klove

Breves narrativas diplomáticas by Celso Amorim

Albert Fishlow

Brazil featured early in the international crisis that erupted from Edward Snowden’s disclosures of U.S. access to telephone conversations of more than 30 foreign leaders over the past decade, when Rio de Janeiro-based journalist Glenn Greenwald provided information about U.S. spying in Brazil to O Globo’s television program, Fantástico. In response, President Dilma Rousseff took the unusual and unprecedented step of canceling her scheduled state visit to the United States. (That cancellation had some positive consequences for President Barack Obama; at least he did not have to worry about holding a state meeting during the Congress-imposed shutdown of U.S. government spending.)

The Snowden disclosures increase the relevance of Celso Amorim’s new book, Breves narrativas diplomáticas (Brief Diplomatic Narratives). Amorim, who served as Brazilian minister of foreign relations under two administrations of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and is now minister of defense in the Rousseff government, presents—as he had done in an earlier volume Conversas com jovens diplomatas (Conversations with Young Diplomats)—some highlights of his service as foreign minister.

The emphasis in this book is on his first years as foreign minister, and gives the reader a window into Brazil’s shift in foreign policy after 2003.

The period covered by the book starts with the Iraq invasion of 2003 and concludes with Brazil’s emerging policy of engagement with Africa, marked by Lula’s visits there. In between, there are chapters on the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’ re-emergence in Venezuela after the 2002 coup, on the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and its eventual disappearance, on the limited advance of the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) Doha Round of trade liberalization talks, on the newfound alliance of India, Brazil and South Africa (IBSA) and Brazil’s relationships with the member governments, and on the rise of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUL). Indeed, the importance that the government places on UNASUL and its relations with Bolivia and Venezuela re-appeared recently when the Brazilian embassy in Bolivia gave safe passage to a Bolivian opposition leader holed up in the embassy, infuriating the Bolivian government. In a not-so-subtle sign of the Rousseff government’s desire to maintain good relations with the Bolivians, the president removed foreign minister Antonio Patriota, switching positions with him and the then-representative to the United Nations, Luiz Alberto Figueiredo.

Amorim’s observations and analysis are not based on a structured daily diary. Instead, they expand on immediate reflections noted down in the heat of events. The book reconstructs these notes and—in some cases—extends them to current events and policy.

In all these cases, not surprisingly, the emphasis is on Amorim’s diplomatic skills in redefining Brazilian foreign policy and trumping the opposition within Itamaraty, as the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs is almost always called. Words of praise appear for various subordinates, but only when they concur with the strategy he defined. Thus, the defense of FTAA by Clodoaldo Hugueney—who was initially responsible for FTAA trade negotiations—gave an “impression of irrational behavior on my [Amorim’s] part.” Needless to say, Hugueney’s responsibilities there soon ended. This is not a detailed account of widening internal differences within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs over Amorim’s eight years, but rather a pastiche of successful (in his view) initiatives that always enhanced Brazilian diplomatic presence in the world.

To give a better flavor of the content, as well as focus on substantive issues, four questions merit brief comment.

The first relates to trade negotiations, which take up a third of the book. The discussion covers the ill-fated initiatives of President Bill Clinton and later President George W. Bush to establish a hemispheric free trade agreement, as well as the no-more-successful—at least up to now—multilateral Doha Round that has accumulated more than 10 years of negotiation. What is exceptional about the Brazilian posture is the leadership insisted on by Itamaraty in the country’s trade talks, with other economic ministries in a much-subordinated role. Amorim puts it clearly: his intention “was to guarantee that Itamaraty would continue to direct the negotiations.”

Unlike the U.S., where that role is played by the Trade Representative’s Office, in Brazil, there is no separation. One must wonder if the diplomatic corps’ monopoly of foreign economic policy has resulted in the country failing to respond fully to trade opportunities. Brazil remains a country with few trade agreements, relatively high tariffs on industrial products and a recurrent concern with the internal market as the source of long-term economic growth, as opposed to an emphasis upon expanding foreign trade.

A second issue is Brazil’s perennial search for a permanent seat on the Security Council of the United Nations. The quest dates back to the origins of the United Nations. As Amorim himself said in 2006, “Rome wasn’t built in a day. The reform of the Security Council doesn’t take one day… but it will happen.”

The formation of the IBSA Dialogue Forum was one of the steps intended to press the case. What stands out is how little progress has been made in extending this threesome into the upper echelons of the world body of the United Nations. Even later, when Brazil formed a diplomatic partnership with China and Russia, along with its IBSA members, within the five countries it is the rapidly growing trade with China that dominates the diplomatic discussion.

Brazil clearly endorses the Grotian, or more idealistic, basis of foreign policy. That view emphasizes rules and universal cooperation as opposed to realists’ focus on raw power calculations and intervention serving national interests. Yet for Brazil, a consistently non-interventionist and normative idealistic policy has become increasingly difficult to implement.

Examples include: Brazilian support for the Libyan regime of Muammar al-Gaddafi until virtually the end; the failed efforts at negotiation with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to end the civil war; Afghanistan; Iraq (in 1991 and 2003); Iran; and Israel and Palestine. In each of these, the principles of non-intervention and support for international norms have clashed.

Even in its long-standing UN engagement in Haiti, Brazilian involvement has not led to a wonderful outcome. Widespread physical destruction hardly helped, but neither has it been possible to implement investment projects. Nor has its active engagement in the WTO, FAO, UNCTAD, and other agencies of the UN really fulfilled Brazilian hopes. And when matters shift to climate change, the law of the seas, and others, a greater dose of realism is no less necessary.

In the third instance, there is the continuing Brazilian search for positive engagement with its Latin American neighbors. This is no simple matter, as the extensive discussion of Mercosul (Mercado Comum do Sul) and Venezuelan relations make abundantly clear. The tone here is fully positive. But a more sober accounting, looking more toward Brazil’s longer -term economic interest, shows some problems: the likely limited economic integration of Venezuela in Mercosul as well as its looming economic and political problems; continuing difficulties with Argentina’s macroeconomic stability and its increasing protectionist focus; and the bloc’s limited commitment to economic integration with Europe.

Finally, we come to Brazil and its engagement with the United States. Over the Lula years, and again more recently under Rousseff, the gulf between the two powers has widened.

In part, this was caused by Brazil’s negative reaction to President George W. Bush’s world engagement based on unilateralism and his focus—to the extent Latin America even entered into his foreign policy considerations—on U.S.-Mexico relations. In part, as well, it was Brazil’s own search for global leadership with Iran and Palestine. In the case of the former, there was an attempt to broker a last-minute deal with the Iranian regime to head off UN sanctions and to welcome then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In the case of the latter, there was Brazil’s recognition of the Palestinian state.

When President Barack Obama visited Brazil seeking to build a better bilateral relationship—after favorable resolution of the WTO cotton case—it seemed that matters were beginning to align more positively. There seemed a basis for starting over.

Then came Snowden and Fantastico, and the subsequent, rapid and still continuing, deterioration.

Celso Amorim has made a very good start on the discussion of Brazilian foreign affairs for a wider international public. As Brazil’s global ambitions expand, this subject will command growing interest. Brazil, despite some economic problems, has emerged as a global player, and the U.S. remains a very relevant participant. Hopefully, we can all look forward to a third volume in the next years, and one that will benefit from Amorim’s current position as minister of defense.

Strong Constitutions: Social Cognitive Origins of the Separation of Powers by Maxwell A. Cameron

Alejandro Garro

Power appears strongest when it is centralized and unified, so the idea that political power is most efficiently exercised when it is divided among different branches of government is somewhat counterintuitive. Yet, in his book on political theory, Strong Constitutions: Social-Cognitive Origins of the Separation of Powers, Maxwell Cameron argues that dividing power is a basic tenet of constitutional government and modern liberal democracy.

Most democracies delegate separate but equal functions to different branches of government: parliaments or legislative assemblies make laws; judges interpret and apply the laws; and the executive enforces them. These are commonly ascribed to legal doctrine, but Cameron invites us to think about this type of political organization in a different way, by tracing it to the evolution of communication and its impact on social- cognitive change.

Cameron identifies the origins of the idea of separation of powers with the spread of literacy, the Gutenberg revolution, and the industrial and electronic revolutions that brought about mass politics, and with it the spread of literacy and the evolution of institutional design. Turning to Latin America, he connects the spread of print culture in eighteenth-century Mexico to the formation of public opinion and a growing sense of nationalism that led to the independence movement. After independence, the spread of the press in Mexico City, Lima, Buenos Aires, and in other major Latin American cities went hand-in-hand with the adoption of written constitutions, support for freedom of the press, and recognition of the need for educational reform.

Building on selected classical (Aristotle, Montesquieu) and contemporary (Habermas) political theory, Cameron focuses on the role played by language and communication in the choice of mechanisms providing for the enforcement of the law— an essential ingredient to generate “collectively desired outcomes.” As he observes, a person without cognitive abilities cannot deliberate or measure the consequences of his or her actions. Moreover, someone incapable of deliberating cannot exercise moral judgment.

It follows therefore that the key to an individual’s capacity for deliberation, execution and judgment is the ability to communicate—hence the relevance of language.

The role of written language, he concludes, is crucial in making the jump from deliberation to coordinated collective action. Through writing, theories that criticize and challenge power are legitimized.

There is an intimate connection between written texts and constitutions. Cameron suggests that the advent of reading and writing, by making it possible to create written constitutions and legal codes, enabled long-term institutional arrangements and an enduring constitutional order. Thus, a major focus of Cameron’s book is the role played by written constitutions in coordinating collective action and establishing the framework for the creation, interpretation and application of written rules or norms whose enforcement is backed by legally sanctioned coercion.

Implicit in Cameron’s insight is the realization that, in thinking about the separation of powers, it is critical to understand that each of the three branches of government relies on constitutional texts to act within the framework of the law. While a constitution may, for example, prescribe respect for human rights or affirm the principle of civilian control over the armed forces, these principles are not worth the paper they are written on without separation of powers.

“A constitution that does not separate the branches of government is not a constitution any more than a promise is made every time someone says ‘I promise’…” writes Cameron.

The most useful element of Cameron’s “social-cognitive theory” of separation of powers, therefore, is that placing language and communication at the center of analysis helps avoid false and artificial assumptions about what makes a constitution genuinely “strong.”

“Constitutions involve linguistically constructed worlds of shared meaning,” explains Cameron. Put another way, they seek to regulate and settle problems of political order. But constitutional clauses are open to a wide range of interpretations, and different arguments may result in open confrontation between the branches of government. If only one branch of government could decide which rule to enact, what course of action to pursue and whether its own acts are legal, the result is unlikely to enhance the security of citizens or the ability of the government as a whole to operate democratically.

Beyond Cameron’s well-structured theory of separation of powers and the significant role it plays in political theory, one is left with the impression that the book’s emphasis on the interpretation and application of constitutional texts in a modern democracy rests not so much on clarifying the formal borderlines of each branch of government, but rather on the ability of major political forces to agree on what a constitution means and how it applies to their actions.

Today in the Americas, however, the argument that strong government is divided government and the need for that to be based on shared language and meaning is a sharp and unfortunate contrast to the current politics in many countries, including the U.S.

Cuba Under Raúl Castro: Assessing the Reforms by Carmelo Mesa-Lago and Jorge Pérez-López

Matthew Aho

When Cuban President Raúl Castro first assumed power in 2006 after his bombastic brother, Fidel, fell ill, few knew what to expect. Some believed his custodianship of the presidency would be short-lived and that the island’s longtime Líder Máximo would surely come roaring back. Others simply assumed Raúl would follow in his brother’s footsteps, shepherding Cuban Communism on its already decades-long march into economic and political oblivion.

No one predicted that the unassuming former military commander Raúl would, as president, not only consolidate political power and begin nudging Cuba in a new direction, but undertake fundamental reforms that are now transforming the island’s socialist system into a mixed-market economy. Yet even today’s most jaded skeptics and the government’s harshest critics can no longer deny the sweeping changes that have taken place on the island since 2008.

Although the international news media have provided adequate coverage of major changes—such as the rise of self-employment on the island and the legalization of home and car sales—lacking until recently has been more in-depth analysis that combines a comprehensive overview of the ongoing reforms with the historical context required to understand what they mean for Cuba’s future. Cuba Under Raúl Castro: Assessing the Reforms by Carmelo Mesa-Lago, professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh, and Jorge Pérez-López, executive director of the Fair Labor Association, is an ambitious attempt to fill this gap with an encyclopedic volume by two top authorities on the Cuban economy. The book hits the mark by providing a fresh conceptual framework for understanding the reforms, and a bevy of statistics to support their analysis of how these new policies are affecting Cuban society.

To help readers understand what makes Cuba’s most recent reforms unique, the authors begin by providing some historical perspective. Raúl Castro’s public announcement in 2007 of the imperative to undertake “structural and conceptual reforms” sounded like a broken record to longtime Cuba watchers. Fidel himself had previously enacted market-based reforms during past economic crises, only to later reverse course and publicly excoriate advocates of change. In fact, Cuba’s economic and social policies have swung between so-called “idealist” and “pragmatic” cycles at least eight times since 1959, giving rise, as the authors write, “to [economic] cycles of different intensity and length that have alternated [between] movement toward or away from the market.”

Idealist cycles, say the authors, are characterized by “an increase in the degree of collectivization and centralization in decision-making,” a “phasing out of foreign investment,” and the disappearance of “free agricultural markets and self-employment.” Pragmatic cycles “are diametrically opposite” and look like what we observe in Cuba today: decollectivization, decentralization of decision-making, wider use of market prices, and the expansion of self-employment.

The authors’ broader point is that the most recent policy moves are underpinned by past reformist impulses very similar to those that have emerged under Fidel (with modest success)—only to be abandoned soon after in favor of ideologically driven policies. The major differences today, they contend, are the sheer breadth of the reforms (they are the most comprehensive ever undertaken) and the likelihood that they will stick. Raúl’s public commitment to the reform process and his willingness to publicly criticize past mistakes far exceeds any of Fidel’s statements. As President Raúl Castro said in April 2011, “The only thing that could result in the failure of the Revolution and of socialism in Cuba… is our inability to overcome the errors that we have made over more than 50 years, and the new ones that we might incur in the future.” In other words, the reforms are irreversible.

By successfully providing readers with a novel framework within which to judge the current reforms—and their sustainability—the authors have made an important contribution to contemporary thinking about Cuba. But an arguably more significant achievement stems from the writers’ willingness to delve into the opaque and fuzzy world of Cuban economic statistics. Mesa-Lago and Pérez-López not only present their qualitative views on what is taking place in Cuba, they provide a quantitative picture of how economic policies affect Cuban society and the island’s economy.

Cuba Under Raúl Castro is effectively an almanac of meticulously researched economic statistics. The authors use this data to answer a series of seemingly simple questions: how have “pragmatic” cycles affected Cuba’s economic growth, unemployment and external balance of payments? Has agricultural output tended to drop during “idealist” cycles? How are today’s reforms likely to affect consumer prices and economic inequality?

But there is nothing simple about such questions in Cuba, we learn, because official statistics are often inaccurate, nonexistent or incompatible with international norms.

Analyzing economic statistics in Cuba may be more art than science. But by pulling together vast quantities of data from a diverse range of international and official Cuban sources—and discussing the data’s limitations, when necessary—the authors ensure that the picture they paint is as politically neutral and accurate as possible.

For instance, when discussing GDP growth, they openly call into question official 2006 government growth estimates of 12.1 percent by pointing to procedural changes to accounting methods that year. When discussing social welfare indicators, the authors declare candidly that “there is no reliable information… on the purchasing power of salaries” and that “there are no official statistics on the incidence of poverty, income distribution or race.” Yet they proceed to address each of these issues directly, using quantitative evidence derived from the best available sources.

The authors’ final contribution is compiling a group of recommendations they argue will “enhance” the ongoing reforms. While some are their own suggestions, others originate from other “economists and social scientists inside and outside the island.” The list stands out for both breadth and comprehensiveness, encompassing the need to improve the quality of economic statistics on the island, price reform, monetary policy, property rights, microcredit, gender and social inequality, and the need for eventual political reform.

In terms of broad strategy, they conclude, “It is essential for Cuba to move firmly, swiftly, and with greater depth to implement the key structural reforms needed to increase production of goods and services, expand exports and import substitution, and achieve the kind of sustained economic growth that will improve the economic and social well-being of its people.”

The level of detail may put off the non-specialist reader, and this book offers no groundbreaking findings. Specialists will also come away with more questions—such as how the authors would prioritize their recommendations and implement them. But such questions only reflect the important place this book will occupy from now on in serious Cuba analysis.

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