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How Brazil Deals with Dictators

President Rousseff has gotten tougher on Iran. But will she actively promote human rights in Cuba?

2:30 PM, Feb 14, 2012 • By JAIME DAREMBLUM
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As Lula da Silva’s handpicked successor, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff was widely expected to embrace his policies both at home and abroad. Domestically, she has mostly fulfilled those expectations. In foreign affairs, the story is a bit more complicated.

Dilma Rousseff

Dilma Rousseff

Lula made no secret of his desire to enhance “South-South” dialogue, promote greater cooperation among developing countries, and transform Brazil into a diplomatic powerhouse. In principle, those are worthy objectives. In practice, however, Lula often sided with dictators, against democracy activists and Western governments.

In 2010, for example, he inserted himself into the Iranian nuclear controversy: Along with Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Lula negotiated a meaningless uranium-swap deal that undercut U.S. sanctions efforts at the United Nations. “In our view,” Brazilian foreign minister Celso Amorim said at the time, “the agreement eliminates any ground for sanctions against Iran.” Whatever his intentions, Lula was effectively siding with Tehran against Washington. The entire world saw a photo of him triumphantly raising arms with Erdogan and Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Not only did Lula provide the Iranian regime with diplomatic cover for its nuclear program, he also displayed a callous indifference to its human rights violations. After the regime flagrantly stole a presidential election in June 2009, Lula claimed there was “no evidence” of fraud, adding, “I don’t know anyone, other than the opposition, who has disagreed with the elections in Iran.” He compared the election dispute to “a matter between Flamengo fans and Vasco fans,” referring to two popular Brazilian soccer teams.

Roughly a year later, in March 2010, Lula made headlines for truly shameful comments about political prisoners in Communist Cuba. One jailed Cuban dissident, Orlando Zapata, had recently died from a hunger strike; another, Guillermo Fariñas, was in the midst of his own hunger strike; and Lula was giving an interview to the Associated Press. “I don’t think a hunger strike can be used as a pretext for human rights to free people. Imagine if all the criminals in São Paulo entered into hunger strikes to demand freedom,” he said, implying that Zapata and Fariñas were no different from common criminals. “We have to respect the decisions of the Cuban legal system and the government to arrest people depending on the laws of Cuba, like I want them to respect Brazil.” Hadn’t Lula once been a jailed hunger striker himself, during the days when Brazil was ruled by a military dictatorship? Yes, but he told the AP that he “would never do it again,” because “it’s insane to mistreat your own body.”

These remarks sparked a firestorm of criticism, and they served as a painful reminder that Lula and Fidel Castro are old friends. While the former labor boss affirmed his democratic credentials during eight years as Brazilian president, he was much too friendly with dictators in general, and his foreign policy was tinged with an anti-American streak. Besides defending Castro and Ahmadinejad, Lula also defended Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez, even describing him as “Venezuela’s best president in the last 100 years.”

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