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Make Brazil a Higher Priority

7:30 AM, Nov 5, 2013 • By JAIME DAREMBLUM
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It is not hard to understand Brazil’s strategic importance: An oil-rich country of roughly 200 million and a leading global exporter of iron ore, orange juice, soybeans, sugar, and other commodities, the South American giant is now one of the six or seven biggest economies in the world, with a middle class that has grown by 40 million people over the past decade alone. Writing in this space about 18 months ago, I discussed the various ways in which Brazil was effectively “the India of Latin America.” Beyond the obvious similarities—each nation is a rising democracy and a regional powerhouse with a rapidly emerging consumer base—both countries have a long history of strained diplomatic relations with the United States. During the Cold War, India was a founding member of Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), and it maintained close ties with the Soviet Union. Brazil never formally joined the NAM, but in the mid-1980s it launched the Rio Group, a hemispheric forum that deliberately did not include the United States. Brazilian officials hoped the Rio Group would function as a diplomatic alternative to the Washington-based Organization of American States. Not surprisingly, it effectively sided with the Soviet-backed Sandinistas and FMLN guerrillas during the civil wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador.

In other words, both New Delhi and Brasília were often at odds with Washington during some of the fiercest diplomatic battles of the late 20th century. Yet the U.S.-India relationship fundamentally changed during the George W. Bush administration, thanks to a concerted effort that was driven by President Bush himself. During the Bush years, the United States and India completed a major nuclear agreement and began building a genuine strategic partnership. “When history is written,” Prime Minister Singh declared in September 2008, “I think it will be recorded that President George W. Bush played an historic role in bringing our two democracies closer to each other.”

Prior to the NSA revelations, the Obama administration had been making incremental progress with Brazil. In 2011, for example, Washington and Brasília signed a bilateral Agreement on Trade and Economic Cooperation—the type of pact that often precedes a free-trade agreement—which created the U.S.-Brazil Commission on Economic and Trade Relations. That was an encouraging step, as was the decision by the U.S. Congress to eliminate a longstanding tariff on imported ethanol. But these were small-ball initiatives; the U.S.-Brazil agenda should be much broader and much bolder. As Gvosdev puts it, Obama’s Brazil policy needs to become “a comprehensive effort akin to the George W. Bush administration’s full-court press to improve relations with India.”

Brazil will never be an easy partner for the United States, and there’s only so much the Obama administration can accomplish without greater cooperation from the Rousseff government. But Obama could be doing much more. Hopefully the canceled state visit will convince him to make Brazil a much higher priority.

Jaime Daremblum, who served as Costa Rica’s ambassador to the United States from 1998 to 2004, is director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the Hudson Institute.

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