Brazil and Colombia – Improving Relations?

There are a couple of items in this quick article about relations between Colombia and Brazil worth pointing out.

First, there’s Lula’s involvement. A common trope for the Brazilian opposition to president Dilma Rousseff is to say she’s just a puppet for Lula, who could not (and did not want to) run for a third consecutive term. His involvement in these efforts to strengthen ties between Colombia and Brazil may not prevent Dilma’s (and Lula’s) critics from continuing to assert this, but that doesn’t seem to be what’s going on here. As president and since, Lula has particularly focused on increasing Brazil’s trading options regionally and globally, rather than relying on trade with just the United States and Europe, as his predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, did. This was an excellent strategy for at least three reasons: it allowed Brazil to diversify its trade partners and markets; it reduced Brazil’s dependency on the “traditional” trade partners in the so-called “developed” world; and it helped Brazil’s profile increase globally, both diplomatically and financially. These efforts paid off particularly strongly beginning in 2008; while the global economic crash crippled much of the “developed” world’s economies, Brazil slipped into recession only briefly and was one of the first countries to emerge from a recession. Indeed, since 2008, Brazil’s economy has only strengthened and grown, even while the United States and Europe continue to face grave problems without any resolution in sight.

I mention all of this because, as the article points out, it was “business moguls” and not politicians who accompanied Lula to Colombia to work on ties. This approach isn’t so different from what Lula did as president – try to strengthen ties with any number of possible allies based on import/export needs, infrastructural development, and other economic measures that are mutually beneficial to both countries. It seems clear that both as president and since, Lula’s goals haven’t been strictly political, but rather based in what appears to be a genuine desire to improve the financial standing and stability of his own country. While these goals and his particular approaches to attaining them alienated (and continue to alienate) many leftists in Brazil who feel Lula “sold out,” they have also been generally successful when taken on their own merits.

The other issue worth highlighting is the timing. Lula has begun these efforts now that Alvaro Uribe is no longer president, after his attempt to revise the constitution to allow a third consecutive presidential term fell short. Certainly Uribe’s efforts to allow a greater U.S. presence in Colombia disturbed Lula, who sought to extend Brazil’s influence over the region as a counter-point to North American hegemony. That said, Uribe was not exactly a savory figure to form alliances with, either.  During his second term, revelations from a variety of individuals emerged suggesting Uribe’s government was much closer to violent paramilitary groups that committed violent acts against Colombian civilians: Colombian army officials said the Uribe government employed paramilitaries as civilian informants; a paramilitary member accused Uribe and his brother of collaborating in planning a 1997 attack on a village in Antioquia, where Uribe was governor; one of Uribe’s cousins and a senator had to resign and was later arrested when details emerged of his collaboration with paramilitaries; Uribe’s own sons were photographed with paramilitary leaders; and leaked C.I.A. documents pointed towards Uribe’s ties to paramilitary leaders even while president. All of these stories emerged while Lula was president; although Uribe wasn’t (and has yet to be) charged directly with paramilitary crimes, there were enough accusations and convictions of people close to Uribe to shake faith in the Colombian ex-president himself. I have no doubt that Lula also was hesitant to reach out to Colombia over broader hemispheric politics, and the two disagreed ideologically on a number of issues. But it doesn’t seem absurd to suppose that the increasing controversies around Uribe may have been another factor that would be unsavory to Lula and have stalled Colombian-Brazilian relations.

All that said, it will be interesting to see if/how these ties will increase, or why they don’t if they should fail. As the article points out, Brazil and Colombia do share a 1250-mile border, one that is in the Amazonian basin, where both countries’ states find it increasingly difficult and increasingly important to improve monitoring in an attempt to address what they perceive as significant security interests in the region. Improving business ties won’t directly address that issue, but it may lay the groundwork for greater trust and collaboration on international political relations in the Amazonian borderlands region.

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About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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