By Tom Hayden (The Nation).
President Obama makes the first visit of his life to Latin America this week. For some time now the thirty-four-nation continent has been ignored by the United States, in comparison with Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Israel/Palestine and now North Africa, not to mention Europe. The irony is that Latin America has experienced a wave of democratic elections and a new era of independence after a generation of US-backed dictatorships. Obama has a choice between establishing a genuine “good neighbor” policy in the anti-interventionist tradition of Franklin Roosevelt or, more likely, building a bloc of moderate allies to offset Venezuela in the region and China in global power politics.
Obama will hold meetings in Brazil, Chile and El Salvador, three countries that have achieved the transition from dictatorship to democracy that the president frequently celebrates.Brazil’s new president, Dilma Rousseff, is a former insurgent who was imprisoned and tortured under the military dictatorship of 1964–85. Her ally the previous president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was jailed under the same military regime.
American presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt to George W. Bush have all made trips to Brazil, but when Barack Obama stepped off the plane on Saturday, his state visit here differed from any that came before. What truly sets apart this president’s Brazil trip is the changed nature of the country he’s visiting now.
Brazil is a wealthier, more confident nation with a more influential position on the world stage than it has enjoyed at perhaps any other point in its history. It weathered the world financial crisis with an economy that grew 7.5 percent last year; Brazil recently began selling off some of the world’s largest reserves of untapped oil; and the country now boasts its lowest unemployment rate in nearly a decade.
The trip comes as China has surpassed the United States as Brazil's top trading partner and in the wake of recent discoveries of vast oil reserves off the Brazilian coast. The reserves _ estimated at between 30 billion and 80 billion barrels _ place Brazil in the top 10 countries in the world in reserves. Since Brazil is energy self-sufficient, that oil would all be available for export.
While Brazil rejects neoliberalism, it has an ambitious capitalist sector and has good relations with US-dominated international financial institutions. But it also is a “social-democratic project,” in Hinojosa’s terms, having significantly boosted its minimum wage, embraced a zero-hunger policy, proposed a tax on international financial transactions and weapons sales and defined itself as the defender of developing nations within the world economy.
The Obama strategy of global realignment is to engage and compete with China, which requires—in addition to leveraging India, Brazil and the Latin American bloc as a huge counterweight to Asia—what Hinojosa and others call a “rebalancing of the world economy and geopolitics.” China already is the top purchaser of exports from Brazil. Brazil’s economy is the world’s eighth largest - or it is also the 7th, and its government and corporations are becoming global players.
But if Obama needs Brazil as a counterweight to China, he will have to accept a historically new arrangement with Latin America, in which Brazil and the hemisphere are no longer submissive to the “white, blue-eyed” financial elites that Lula blamed for the global recession in 2009. Brazil will want Obama to improve relationships with all of Latin America, including rapprochement with Cuban and Venezuela, and adopt a far more progressive economic agenda than anything currently contemplated by movers and shakers in Washington.
The rest of the world is moving on, leaving Obama with a growing choice between isolation and catching up.