This article is adapted from AQ’s print issue on peace and economic opportunity in Colombia
Once upon a time, back in the long-ago mists of, say, 2012, Brazil was still seen as a benign force in the world. Other countries, from Namibia to Peru to Mozambique, were seduced by its lively democracy and admirable record of poverty reduction, and welcomed its new embassies and cash-rich construction companies as a kinder development alternative to Beijing or Washington. What could go wrong?
This heady era, before “Odebrecht” became a dirty word in languages other than Portuguese, is the subject of journalist Fabio Zanini’s new book Euforia e Fracasso do Brasil Grande (Euphoria and Failure of Greater Brazil), a richly reported, often entertaining, and ultimately tragic look at what Brazilian diplomacy might have accomplished. It is also a cautionary tale about what South America’s troubled giant must avoid — at home and abroad — during its inevitable next cycle of big ambitions.
The book’s title is itself a reminder that expansionary dreams are nothing new for the country’s politicians and business leaders. Zanini traces the quest for a “Greater Brazil” to the 1964 to 1985 military dictatorship, which during its own fleeting economic “miracle” pursued ambitious projects abroad such as the Itaipú Dam (shared with Paraguay) and cast itself as a champion of the so-called Third World — the “south-south” alignment of its time.
Under Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, president from 2003 to 2010 and in subtle ways the central character of this book, Brazil focused on what the head of its Navy daringly described to Zanini as “our sea” — the South Atlantic Ocean. The idea was simple: a Brazilian sphere of influence that would protect its own recently discovered offshore oil reserves and help exploit potential new ones off the African coast, cultivating new allies and making Workers’ Party-aligned businesses rich in the process.
Zanini, a former foreign correspondent for Folha de S.Paulo and now its politics editor, traveled to numerous destinations, including Windhoek, Namibia, and Lima, Peru, for this book (available only in Portuguese, for now). Driving along windy coastal roads and visiting new malls, he shows us the good Brazil, the one that I and many others adore: a Brazil of affable and competent diplomats, soldiers and business people who (mostly) respect other countries’ sovereignty, and made huge bets on a rising lower-middle class that had long been stigmatized both in Latin America and throughout Africa.
Yet we also see boasting, insufferable tycoons such as Márcio Mello, head of the now-ruined oil company HRT, who thought that political connections and mulatta receptionists (“Our calling card!” Mello bragged) would be enough to bring them great success abroad. Zanini also expertly uses documents to trace the connections between these magnates and their patrons in Brasília — a deeply corrupt way of doing business, and what the author calls a general “climate of permissiveness,” that led directly to the Car Wash scandal, cost millions of Brazilians (and others) their jobs, ended 14 years of Workers’ Party rule, and may ultimately land Lula in jail.
Surely there is a valuable role for Brazil to play in Latin America and the world, especially given Washington’s current withdrawal. But this book speaks to one of the country’s most corrosive and enduring myths: that Brazil’s size somehow entitles it to power and influence abroad. Zanini shows us that Brazil, blessedly free of militaristic ambition, only realizes its foreign policy goals when it is admired — when it is seen as a force for good. That proved incompatible with the systemic corruption of the Lula years. “In several places,” Zanini concludes, “our country is currently more associated as a threat.” Until that changes, Brazil will remain significantly smaller.