With all the news out of Egypt last week in every major paper and streaming in live, the casual observer would easily be forgiven for overlooking a comparatively benign—but still marked—story: Wednesday’s global celebrations in commemoration of the 12th anniversary of Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution. In fact, it’s possible I would have overlooked the occasion too had we not received (from some mysterious email address) an invitation to attend the official celebration in New York at Venezuela’s consulate general on 51st street in Manhattan.
I almost deleted it upon receipt, but there it was, a day or two later, still sitting in my inbox and curiosity took hold. I called Venezuela home for nearly two years at the very outset of Hugo Chávez’ presidency and still have many Venezuelan friends both in and out of the country. What would it be like, I thought? What would they celebrate?
So I slogged down Fifth Avenue through New York’s ubiquitous icy slush and puddles to satisfy a nagging curiosity and observe the Bolivarian revolutionary revelry. The event was open to the public—no sign-in sheets or security checks—and only a few minutes after the 6 p.m. start time the crowd was already getting big. The celebrants were clearly mostly Venezuelan and it seemed like many of the early arrivals knew the consulate staff, but there was also a pretty diverse gringo crowd sporting patriotic Venezuelan hats and flags and bright red t-shirts.
If you happened to forget yours at home: “no problem!” There was a table of giveaway flags and apparel, and even hard-copy-bound books (in English) with select writings by el libertador himself.
Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva—one of Time Magazine’s newly-named most influential people in the world—will travel to Iran next week for what have become regular meetings with his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The leaders are sure to discuss the month-long UN conference on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that began yesterday in New York, their countries’ growing commercial relationship, and ways that Brazil’s emergent roll as an arbiter between Iran and the West can advance their mutual interests.
Overall, Lula’s efforts to expand Brazil’s clout on the world stage have been characterized by refusals to choose sides in historic disputes or submit to pressure from major powers like the United States. His approach to international relations seems rooted in efforts to engage all parties as equals, while avoiding tough subjects like Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Russian authoritarianism or Cuba’s human rights record. The hope might be that by maintaining neutrality in the short term—while simultaneously expanding trade and investment ties to its less savory allies—Brazil’s access to and presumed influence over key foreign leaders will make it a channel through which to conduct sensitive diplomatic negotiations.
What has this strategy achieved? Well, it has definitely generated a lot of news. From Israel to Iran, India to China, Cuba to Russia, Lula’s globetrotting has produced intense media coverage and the belief in many circles that Brazil is a rising power. It’s resistance to U.S. pressure to support stronger sanctions against Iran—even during Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s trip to Brazil in March—certainly drew the ire of the U.S. foreign policy community and made him a hero among those who disagree with the U.S. approach.
But, what about the bigger picture?
Have the Iranians halted their nuclear programs or submitted to unfettered international inspections? No. Has Cuba improved its human rights record? Não. Israeli-Palestinian peace? Keep dreaming. If Lula really wants the world to believe that next week’s abraços with an Iranian tyrant are motivated by anything other than pure national self interest, it’s time for him to actually achieve something for the greater good.
Here’s one idea.
Remember those three American hikers from Berkeley who were arrested in July 2009 when they foolhardily strayed into Iranian territory while hiking in Kurdistan? Their names are Shane Bauer, 27, Joshua Fattal, 27, and Sarah Shourd, 31 and the State Department reported last week that two of them are ill in prison in Tehran. It’s time for Lula to bring them home.
This is a very real possibility for a few reasons...