Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Brazil’s Regional Realpolitik

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It’s not hard to imagine what was behind Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota’s announcement yesterday that Brazil will hire 6,000 Cuban doctors to work in rural parts of Brazil.

As the situation in Venezuela continues to teeter in uncertainty, the Brazilian government has thrown the Cuban government another lifeline. Doing so provides a cushion for a sinking Castro regime that has been kept afloat by the roughly 100,000 barrels of oil per day that Venezuela has sent to Cuba since 2005.

In return, the Cuban government has provided over 30,000 doctors, sports trainers, and advisors at terms very favorable to Cuba.  (You think U.S. healthcare costs are high? Imagine the cost of Cuban doctors. Assuming 30,000 of them at $100 per barrel of oil, those guys are worth the equivalent of $333 per day!)  The artificially-inflated cost of doctors aside, it’s the sports trainers and advisors that are the concern.  I must confess, I have no idea what a Cuban sports trainer is (though I assume he would look something like this.)  In reality, they likely provide a service very similar to the advisors: the political counseling, intelligence and military training, propaganda dissemination, and intelligence gathering that has been key to the chavista government’s ability to consolidate its power. 

For those advisors, President of Venezuela Nicolás Maduro’s unexpected poor showing in the election presents a zero-sum game.  If they cannot shore up the anointed heir of former President Chávez, they may very well lose their lifeline.  For that reason, many have speculated that the Cubans are working overtime to help President Maduro.  (Though, quite frankly, Maduro’s recent vitriolic attacks on the opposition and the United States seem more like those of a wounded animal than an expression of the subtle, strategic advice one would expect from seasoned intelligence agents.) Enter Brazil.  Though it remains to be seen what terms the Brazilians will offer to host Cuban doctors, they have effectively removed the zero-sum equation for the Cubans. Now the Cubans have an alternative to clinging to an increasingly erratic, fractured and uncertain government, and greater possibilities for negotiation with and within Venezuela.  It also ensures a greater political will from the Cubans for Brazilian companies and investors within Cuba. 

If true, Brazil’s announcement represents a stroke of realpolitik genius, and is somewhat unexpected from a country that has promoted itself as a champion of international norms and multilateralism.   Unfortunately, in those areas—despite the historic rhetoric—Brazil’s recent foreign policy has often fallen short.  The best example was Brazil’s silence over the abysmal pre-electoral conditions in the run up to Venezuela’s April 14 elections, in which the incumbent government had unlimited access to public funds, intimidated public employees and monopolized the media.  

Such conditions would never pass muster under Brazilian electoral laws and its independent electoral commission—nor was there a time when they would have been accepted regionally by the  Organization of American States (OAS) and a host of electoral NGOs invited by governments to monitor electoral conditions and voting procedures following rigorous standards and techniques.  Instead, Brazil and the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) that it effectively leads supported Maduro’s victory and remained mute about electoral irregularities. 

Who’d have thought that Brazil’s Itamaraty was such a student of Hans Morganthau and Henry Kissinger? But maybe it will work.


Christopher Sabatini is the former editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly and former senior director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas. His Twitter account is @ChrisSabatini

Tags: Brazil, Cuba, Venezuela
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