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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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Like Lula, President Rousseff, who took office on New Year’s Day 2011, was once jailed by the Brazilian military regime. Thus far, her approach to human rights in Cuba has been better—but only slightly better—than that of her predecessor. Shortly before traveling to the island late last month, Rousseff offered a tourist visa to a prominent Cuban dissident named Yoani Sánchez, a blogger who had been invited to attend a documentary in Brazil. This is not the type of gesture that Lula ever would have made, let alone on the eve of a visit to Cuba. The Castro government refused to let Sánchez travel, but Rousseff had delivered a message about her willingness to defy Havana and strike a small blow (however symbolic) for Cuban freedom. Unfortunately, when she got to the island, the Brazilian president focused on economic cooperation and shied away from discussing Communist human rights abuses. She also took a dig at the United States, saying that the U.S. detention facility at Guantánamo Bay represents a “human rights” issue.

What about Venezuela? In December, Rousseff left early from the inaugural summit of the Chávez-inspired Community of Latin American and Caribbean States in Caracas. As the Guardian noted, some people interpreted the timing of her departure “as a snub to her host.”

But her biggest break with Lula’s foreign policy has come on Iran. Initially, it seemed that Rousseff’s approach to the Islamic Republic would be roughly the same: In August, a senior Brazilian official declared Iran to be one of her country’s “most important partners.” Since then, however, relations between the two countries have deteriorated, as Rousseff has distanced her government from the Ahmadinejad regime and embraced a tougher line on Iranian human rights. Last month, after Brazil declined to host a visit by Ahmadinejad during his Latin America tour, an Iranian presidential adviser slammed Rousseff for poisoning bilateral ties. As the New York Times reported it, Ali Akbar Javanfekr told a top Brazilian newspaper that Rousseff had “destroyed years of good relations,” arguing that she had “been striking against everything that Lula accomplished.” 

Any country that is part of the BASIC bloc (Brazil, South Africa, India, China), the BRIC bloc (Brazil, Russia, India, China), and the IBSA bloc (India, Brazil, South Africa) will play an important role in shaping regional and global politics during the 21st century. If Brazil takes a robust stand in favor of human rights in Cuba, other Latin Americans will follow. By the same token, if Brazil continues largely to ignore the issue, other Latin American countries will follow suit. Rousseff is still much too timid about denouncing Castroite repression. Yet her policy toward Iran has been both pragmatic and principled, unlike Lula’s. That is bad news for Tehran but good news for Washington and Latin America.

Jaime Daremblum is director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the Hudson Institute.

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