Brazil Expanding Links in Africa: Lula’s Positive Legacy

by J.PETER PHAM, PHD October 12, 2010
While the results from October 3 presidential election left his former chief of staff and handpicked successor, Dilma Rousseff, just shy of a first-round victory, forcing an October 31 runoff with second-place finisher José Serra, Brazilian President Luiz Ignácio Lula da Silva is nonetheless basking in his countrymen’s favor as well as most of the world’s approbation—U.S. President Barack Obama famously dubbed him “the most popular politician on Earth”—as he completes his second four-year term. It did not start that way. The 2002 election of the former trade unionist from the left-wing Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT, “Workers’ Party”) caused a panic in the financial markets. The Economist last week highlighted the remarkable change:
The markets’ mood could hardly be more different. By way of a pre-election boost, Lula even travelled to São Paulo’s stock exchange to hail a $67 billion share issue by Petrobras, the national oil company, to raise funds to develop Brazil’s vast new deep-sea fields. Brazil’s circumstances and its standing in the world have been transformed during Lula’s presidency and mostly for the better. Poverty has fallen and economic growth has quickened. Brazil is enjoying a virtuous circle: soaring Asian demand for exports from its farms and mines is balanced by a booming domestic market, as—partly thanks to better social policies—some 20 million new consumers have emerged from poverty. No wonder foreign businesses are piling in, while a swelling group of Brazilian multinationals is expanding abroad.
On the international political stage, Lula’s record is more ambiguous. While Brazil has been especially engaged in helping Haiti—its soldiers and police represent by far the largest national contingent in the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH)—its president is known more for his verbal gaffes and political disasters. Among the former are his comparing those who contested Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s fraudulent 2009 reelection to frustrated soccer fans and his morally repugnant likening of hunger-striking Cuban dissidents to common criminals. The nadir of the former was the risible deal he and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan thought they brokered with the mullahs in Tehran to head off Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear bomb. To add insult to injury, Ahmadinejad turned on his enabler just two months later, rudely rebuffing an effort to give Mohammadi Ashtiani, the woman sentenced to stoning for adultery, asylum in Brazil. Barring a miracle, Lula’s premature declaration last May as he returned from his summit with the mullahs that “diplomacy emerged victorious today” may well be destined for a place alongside Neville Chamberlain’s infamous proclamation of “peace with honour…peace for our time.”
Ironically, the part of Lula’s foreign policy that deserves to be trumpeted is one that is largely overlooked: his leading his country into an unprecedented engagement with Africa.
Coming into office with the PT’s left-wing bias in favor of South-South relations—one of his first acts of office was a federal decree that made the study of African history and African and Afro-Brazilian culture mandatory at all levels of Brazil’s national curriculum—Lula reversed the preceding Fernando Henrique Cardoso administration’s policy of closing diplomatic posts in Africa. During the first Lula term, Brazil not only reopened six shuttered embassies, but also opened thirteen new embassies and a consulate general so that the country now has a network of thirty-two embassies and two consulates general across the African continent. Clearly distinguishing itself from earlier Brazilian governments which focused their diplomatic attention on cultivating relations with the five Lusophone African countries—Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, and São Tomé and Príncipe—Lula’s administration has broadened the scope of action for Brazilian diplomacy in Africa. The proof that Brazilian-African relations have intensified is that there are currently twenty-six embassies from African states resident in Brasilia and four African consulates general open in other Brazilian cities. During the past eight years, Brazil has signed nearly two hundred bilateral accords with various African countries.
Lula is clearly personally invested in the building of ties Africa. During his two terms, he visited the continent on a dozen different occasions—most recently in July when he swung through Cape Verde, Equatorial Guinea, Kenya, Tanzania, and Zambia, en route to the Fifa World Cup final in South Africa. However, at the summit meeting of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in Santa Maria, Cape Verde, he told the African leaders that “Brazil—not just me—took a political decision to make a reencounter with the African continent,” explaining that Brazil could never repay its “historical debt” to Africa and that it “would not be the country it is today with the participation of millions of Africans who helped build our country.” Reviewing the trade, investment, and technology transfers that occurred under his administration, he laid a charge for his successor: “Whoever comes after me has the moral, political, and ethical obligation to do much more.”
Beyond the rhetoric of historical and political solidarity, however, there is substantive economic diplomacy with Africa, following upon the project for the creation of a free trade area initialed in 2000 between Brazil and the other member states of the South American Common Market (Mercosur)—Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay—and South Africa.
After having forgiven the relatively minor debts of Cape Verde ($2.7 million) and Gabon ($36 million) early in his presidency, Lula wiped out 95 percent of the public debt Mozambique owed to Brazil, some $315 million, in August 2004, and renegotiated the outstanding balance of $16 million. Subsequently, the Brazilian mining giant Companhia Vale do Rio Doce (CVRD, now Vale) was awarded a 25-year renewable contract to develop Mozambique’s Moatize greenfields coal project that is expected to produce approximately 11 million tons of both metallurgical coal and thermal coal to be exported not only to Brazil, but also to Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. This project alone requires the participation of twenty other Brazilian firms, in addition to Vale, and will turn Mozambique into Africa’s second largest coal producer, after South Africa. Its implementation will create 3,000 local jobs and the eventual production will employ 1,500 permanently.
Mozambique is not Vale’s only investment in Africa. In March 2009, the company announced the creation of a join venture with the South African mining company African Rainbow Minerals Limited (ARM) aimed at enlarging the strategic options for growth in the African copper belt. In addition, the company is also present in Angola, Guinea, South Africa, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
In Angola, the Lula administration extended lines of credit totaling $580 million in 2005, which enabled the Brazilian engineering and construction firm Construtora Norberto Odebrecht (CNO) to rebuild the war-damaged Capanda hydroelectric power plant. Subsequently, other subsidiaries of CNO’s Salvador da Bahia-based parent company, Brazil Odebrecht, got involved in joint ventures with Angola’s state-owned companies in diamonds and bio-fuels as well as commercial and residential real estate. Oldebrecht is now the largest private sector employer in Angola. Additional credits were subsequently extended to totals approaching $2 billion in conjunction with semi-public Petróleo Brasileiro S.A. (Petrobras) acquiring stakes in several offshore blocks in joint venture with the state-owned Sociedade Nacional de Combustíveis de Angola (Sonangol).
Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos came away from his state visit to Brazil this past June with an additional $1 billion line of credit from his Brazilian counterpart to help fund reconstruction efforts in the African country after more than a quarter-century of war. On top of the $1.6 billion the Brasilia had previously committed to help Brazilian firms win those building contracts. The additional money ensures that Brazil will advance the lead it already enjoys as the leading funder of Angolan reconstruction—only China comes anywhere close to the capital for infrastructure provided by Brazil. From the strategic perspective, the money is being advanced not just to gain construction projects for Brazilian firms, as lucrative as these may be, but also because of a tacit understanding between the two Lusophone states that Petrobras will have preferential access to Sonangol’s potential deposits offshore. The former’s management is convinced that geological formations off of Angola are remarkably similar to Brazil’s own pre-salt deposits which have already transformed the Latin America country into a rising oil power.
Not surprisingly, Brazil is seeking to replicate this model of generous investments in infrastructure in exchange for access to natural resources. In May, Brazil’s ambassador to Tanzania, pledged to work closely with the nascent East Africa Community (EAC) of Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda. Meeting with EAC officials in the Kenyan resort of Naivasha, Brazilian envoy Francisco Carlos Soares Luz highlighted technology, energy, railways, environment, construction, and agriculture as among the sectors where his country might possibly cooperate with the regional bloc. The EAC is primed for engagement, all five of its member states having ratified this year the intergovernmental body’s Common Market Policy.
During the Lula administration, Brazil’s annual trade with African countries has quadrupled in value from $6 billion in 2003 to roughly $25 billion today. These figures represent an extraordinary increase of exports by an average of 28 percent per year and imports from Africa of about 23 percent per year. In terms of total volume of bilateral trade, Africa is taken as a whole ranks fourth among Brazil’s top partners, ranking behind only the United States, China, and Argentina.
In August, Sudanese companies signed $500 million worth of deals with Brazilian engineering and construction firms following a visit by a Sudanese government delegation to Brazil. Significant among the accords are two deals involving the Kenana Sugar Company, Sudan’s largest, whereby Brazil’s Dedini is to provide machinery and equipment to double the size of Kenana’s ethanol plant in Sudan and to set up a new biodiesel operation. Sugar is a key commodity in Sudan, where the population is sensitive to price hikes. The country, which hopes to be a sugar exporter by 2014 thanks to the deal, currently has to import to cover domestic consumption of 1.2 million tons a year.
The month, state-controlled Banco do Brasil joined forces with private competitor Bradesco to found a partnership with Portugal’s Banco Espiritu Santo to expand activities in Africa. Initially the joint venture will target opportunities in Algeria, Angola, Cape Verde, Mozambique, Morocco, and South Africa.
Not surprisingly, perhaps nowhere on the continent is Lula’s diplomacy more appreciated in Africa than in South Africa, one of Brazil’s most important African trade partners. A recent editorial in the Mail and Guardian noted that “South Africa has been the major beneficiary of Lula's South-South diplomacy, which helped Africa's most prosperous nation to strengthen its international standing and strategic weight” and expressed concern that his likely successor, Rousseff, is “an uninspiring technocrat [who] is unlikely to focus on Africa as much and may neglect it altogether as she faces formidable domestic challenges, such as urgent tax and pension reform.”
Lula has also been a driving force behind a loose political alliance of India, Brazil, and South Africa, formally called the “India-Brazil-South Africa (IBSA) Dialogue Forum,” which was launched in 2004 with the goal of achieving common positions at the UN, the Doha Rounds, and other multilateral settings for the three major “southern” nations. Formal summits of the leaders of the IBSA states have so far been held in Brasilia (2006), Pretoria (2007), New Delhi (2008), and again in Brasilia in April of this year. The most recent meeting also featured at its margins an IBSA academic forum, a forum for parliamentarians, a round table on local governance, a women’s forum, a forum for editors, and a networking session for CEOs from the member states.
It is important to note that Brazil’s network of relations throughout African nowadays not only extends beyond the longstanding affinity for the continent’s Lusophone countries on the part of the Itamaraty (as its Ministry of External Relations is often known from the palace that housed it in Rio de Janeiro and an eponymous edifice in Brasilia) to commercial and broader geopolitical interests, but it embraces a host of programs in the social and humanitarian sectors. In 2007, for example, Brazil provided the government of Ghana with technical assistance in designing of a pilot welfare program called the “Livelihood Empowerment Against Poverty” (LEAP). Experts from Brazil’s Ministry of Social Development (MDS) took part in three missions to Ghana share knowledge about Brazil’s Bolsa Família (“Family Allowance,” a signature initiative of the Lula administration that gives financial aid to poor families in exchange for having their children vaccinated and keeping them in school), Cadastro Único para Programas Sociais(CadÚnico, “Single Registry for Social Programs,” a program began under Lula’s predecessor, but expanded broadly during his administration), and child labor eradication program (PETI). Due to the success of this exchange, the following year MDS partnered with the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) International Poverty Center to launch the Africa-Brazil Cooperation Program on Social Development to promote international technical cooperation between developing countries to foster social protection programs. So far, programs have included technical assistance from Brazilian government representatives for African government agencies, study tours of Brazil for African officials, and internet-based distance learning opportunities.
Agriculture is another area that Brazil is uniquely positioned to help African countries and, in fact, has already done so. In a little more than generation, Brazil’s own agricultural sector has gone from virtually anemic levels to a $250 billion per year concern that accounts for 35 percent by a combination of targeted investments in research to increase yields and financing guarantees to encourage the adoption of new technologies and equipment. In fact, Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecuária (EMBRAPA, the “Brazilian Enterprise for Agricultural Research”), the affiliate of the Ministry of Agriculture whose pure and applied scientific work, diffused through a network of more than forty research and extension centers throughout Brazil, is credited with facilitating the country’s agricultural leap, opened an office in Accra, Ghana, in 2006. From there EMBRAPA is spreading its know-how across Africa in 35 projects ranging from bolstering Angola’s National Research Institute to helping Senegal develop its rice sector to assisting Tanzania with developing its dairy industry. Significantly, EMBRAPA officials have been careful to coordinate and align their programming with those specialized agencies of the African Union such as the Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Programme (CAADP) of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) as well as those of the continent’s subregional organizations like the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources (FANR) Program and the West and Central African Council for Agricultural Research and Development (WECARD).
In addition to spearheading the UN operation in Haiti, currently the organization’s third-largest, Brazil also currently contributes military and police personnel to four blue-helmeted peacekeeping missions in Africa: the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO), the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIL), and the UN Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI). As one Brazilian political scientist noted in a report in the Economist last month, there is a calculated strategy behind this participation:Brazil’s elite thinks peacekeeping is part of the price you have to pay to be among the nations who make the rules.” To this end, in 2005 the Lula administration created a peacekeeping school, the Centro de Instrução de Operações de Paz (CIOpPaz), near Rio de Janeiro. Since it opened its doors, CIOpPaz—which earlier this year changed its name to the Centro Conjunto de Operações de Paz do Brasil (CCOPAB, “Joint Center for Peacekeeping Operations of Brazil”)—has trained more than 15,000 Brazilian army, navy, and air force personnel as well as police and civilians for deployment on UN peacekeeping missions.
Whilethe growth in influence of any other significant international actor on an African continent that increasingly holds geostrategic importance for interests of the United States is a development that bears very careful watching, there are a number of reasons why Brazil’s increased engagement in Africa, unlike that of some others, ought to be cautiously welcomed.
First, there is no doubt that Africa stands to benefit from the addition of Brazil to the list of countries seeking access to the continent’s natural resources and markets as well as political and strategic partnerships with African states. This is especially true if African leaders are able to develop a strategic approach that leverages their strengthened bargaining position.
Second, Brazil’s modus operandi on the continent not only benefits the Latin American country, but it also carries a significant upside for Africans. Unlike many other “new actors” in Africa which, more often than not appear more as predators interested only in extracting commodities, Brazil has encouraged technology transfers to its African partners and often, as in the case of its efforts to spread the production of ethanol, endeavors to create a global market that will generate profits for its businesses as well as those of others.
Third, the lessons to be learned from Brazil’s steady economic growth, agricultural success, and democratic politics are ones that African countries would do well to study closely. While one should not overlook Brazil’s weaknesses, it should be acknowledged that the country has free and vigorous press that regularly uncovers and reports on these shortcomings. In this respect, Brazil is more like India than China or Russia among the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) countries.
Fourth, the burgeoning Brazilian strategic engagement with Africa augurs for security and stability in Africa, especially if Lula’s successors can be persuaded to not only strengthen their commitment to peacekeeping on the continent, but also to specifically cultivate military ties with Brazil’s partners there, especially among the Lusophone countries. Quite frankly, the influence of the United States and other Western nations in some of these countries is somewhat limited either for historical reasons (e.g., backing the losing party during the long civil war in Angola) or simply lack of engagement (e.g., Guinea-Bissau, where the U.S. Embassy has been closed since 1998 despite the fact the country has become a major drug transshipment hub). Brazil, in contrast, is well-positioned to engage in confidence building and capacity strengthening in the security sectors of these countries.
Fifth, while Brazil will, of course, pursue its own objectives, not those of another country, in its diplomacy, there are considerable common interests such that, on the whole, Brasilia’s impact ought to be viewed as positive. Notwithstanding his occasional diplomatic naïveté and his weakness for the left wing, Washington in particular ought to prefer Lula’s more substantive investment in Africa to the attempts by Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez to buy adhesion to his anti-Western transatlantic alliance. Moreover, tensions will diminish since Lula’s likely successor, Dilma Rousseff, will likely focus on the domestic economic and social issues are her strength as thus adopt a less abrasive international style. Consequently, steps might be taken by both the government and the private sector to enhance the U.S.-Brazilian relationship overall and foster cooperation in Africa that advances both countries’ interests in promoting good governance, supporting economic growth and development, increasing access to health and educational resources, and helping to prevent, mitigate, and resolve conflicts on the continent.
American and other policymakers, analysts, and businesses cannot afford to ignore the greater role that Brazil under Lula has successfully staked out for itself as a political and economic force on in Africa. Hence, as the United States continues advancing its own strategic interests on the continent as well as promoting those of African nations peoples, an active engagement by the North American superpower with the South America giant suggests itself as the policy option to be privileged. Contributor J. Peter Pham is Senior Vice President of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy in New York City. He also hold academic appointments as Associate Professor of Justice Studies, Political Science, and African Studies at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and non-resident Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C. He currently serves as Vice President of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA) and Editor-in-Chief of its refereed Journal of the Middle East and Africa.
Dr. Pham has authored, edited, or translated over a dozen books and is the author of over three hundred essays and reviews on a wide variety of subjects in scholarly and opinion journals on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to the study of terrorism and political violence, his research interests lie at the intersection of international relations, international law, political theory, and ethics, with particular concentrations on the implications for United States foreign policy and African states as well as religion and global politics.

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