The new administration will seek to engage Brazil in an unprecedented way. This is one of the strongest conclusions made by nearly everyone I spoke with while preparing a recently published piece on Obama’s plans for Latin America.
The specifics of how, when, where, etc are yet to come. As many have already noted, there is a (long) short list of people on deck to take over for Tom Shannon. And Cuba will certainly be the first LatAm country to receive some long overdue attention, setting the tone for the Obama administration’s efforts south of the border.
But when it comes to Brazil, there are few in DC who can put their finger on exactly how the US can answer Brazil’s biggest question: so what? So what if you want to work with us, the Brazilians might say to Obama’s team. What’s in it for us?
From Brazil’s point of view, the US is not a free trader. Brazil has perennially confronted – and defeated over a cotton subsidies issue – the US at the WTO. Sugar and ethanol subsidies further exacerbate trade challenges, and to date there has been little to no support from the US on any matters concerning Brazil’s desire to become a player on the UN Security Council (never mind it’s one of the most defunct multilateral forums in existence today).
But let’s say that whoever replaces Tom Shannon has a keen ability to break through to Lula’s people, winning over the especially skeptical Celso Amorim, Brazil’s Foreign Minister and a strong advisor to the president. Then what?
What can Obama possibly offer that doesn’t have to go through Congress or be subjected to the geopolitical strategies of other UN Security Council members? The most clear answer is to support Brazil’s efforts to combat South America’s drug trade.
In a recently released policy paper on Brazil’s new national defense posture, the Brazilian military announced that it will begin shifting its focus from the southern borders to the Amazon basin, specifically to its borders with Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia. To date, the “Cobra” operation, run by Brazil’s Federal Police to patrol the Colombia-Brazil border, has met limited success, largely due to inadequate resources.
With the military high command united behind securing Brazil’s most porous borders, Brazil is in a position to provide support in material and man power to her neighbors that have the desire but not the ability to stop drugs flowing from their countries to flourishing markets in the US and Europe.
And I was waiting for the news to come out. I knew it was a matter of time before Lula would make public his first offer of assistance to combat drug trafficking in the region. It happened on 15 January in a small border town between Brazil and Bolivia, where an international road that connects the Atlantic to the Pacific will be finalized later this year (and the Chinese are happy about that).
Lula said, “he would grant Morales’ request for helicopters and other logistics support to patrol the porous frontier that is a major cocaine-trafficking route from the Andes…”
And this is where Obama’s people – and the Drug Enforcement Administration – should tread carefully. Lula is reaching out in an unprecedented way to assist Bolivia with an international challenge that Brazil now realizes is in its national best interests to combat.
The State Department under Clinton and the DEA should recognize Brazil’s political abilities in the region, and follow her lead. If Obama wants to appease Brazil, the best way is to whole heartedly support the region’s true leader – one with the ability to influence both Colombia and Bolivia (and Venezuela).
With enough support, Brazil could be encouraged to assist Peru, Colombia, and Venezuela with the region’s drug trafficking challenge. The US need not be the region’s policeman when a capable and ready Brazil is in place. It would be folly to try and force a reversal to the days when the US’ agents crawled all over the place poking around behind the backs of local police.
Finally, two caveats: I do not want to down play the DEA's important role in the region, but it is important the DEA remains a team player, as hard as it is sometimes due to concerns over corruption and operational integrity.
And second, I do not wish to promote the use of the military to do police work. The Brazilian Federal Police should take the lead on combating drug trafficking in the region. But I must recognize that in Latin America security sector reform is more of a dream than a reality. And the reality now is that if Brazil’s military will step forward to assist Bolivia and stop the cocaine and coca paste leaking out of that country and through Brazil into Europe and the US, we – and Obama – should welcome that initiative and do what we can to support it.
Thankfully, Lula has committed the Brazilian military before Obama’s team could come in and make that suggestion, which would have been a mistake and bad start considering Brazil’s sensitivities over issues of sovereignty – like what its military does and does not do.
With this announcement in place, the Obama administration has a clear hand to play. Let’s hope they do.
This is a source for analysis, interviews, and commentary on security in Latin America. Herein you will find rumors, the results of off the record interviews, and information you'll not find in international or United States news media.