Thoughts on Brazil Forgiving African Debt

With all of the recent events coming out of the Brazilian demonstrations recently, other important stories have fallen to the wayside. One of those stories, which took place before the demonstrations, was Brazil forgiving US$900 million of debt to a number of African nations. I had some comments included in the linked story, but I’d like to add a few more thoughts.

Regarding the actual historical context, as I allude to in the piece, the forgiveness figures into a broader effort on the part of Brazilian governments to strengthen ties to the African continent. Such efforts have not been limited to regime types, and have included a variety of ideologies within government, ranging from Brazil’s right-wing military dictatorship of 1964-1985 up through the center-left administration of former union-leader Luis Inacio Lula da Silva and now into the present administration of Dilma Rousseff. The magnitude of these efforts has varied (ranging from jointly-sponsored cultural conferences to hearings before the World Trade Organization), but the forgiveness of debt totaling nearly $1 billion has to be considered one of the biggest steps yet in strengthening these ties. Certainly, the move is symbolic, making clear to African nations that they have a friend in Brazil, but the very real impact of that debt forgiveness could theoretically have a clear impact on many Africans’ daily lived experiences. Should the governments use the monies that would have gone to debt payments to instead pay for infrastructural improvements and growth, then the move will definitely be more than symbolic (though that is contingent as much upon the African countries enjoying forgiveness as it is upon Brazil itself.

Secondly, I think the explanations for the move vary, and bring together a complex matrix of economic matters, international relations, and an effort to project Brazil’s role on the global stage. Certainly, economically speaking, debt forgiveness is a bit of a gamble that will be based upon future outcomes – it is unclear whether it will lead to any real economic deals for Brazil, in the same way that it is unclear whether the debt forgiveness will improve the lived experiences of the majority of the population in countries whose debt has been forgiven. But it also seems quite possible that, in addition to perhaps actually trying to help African populations, the move is designed both with future economic relations and Brazil’s role in the international arena in mind. And I think in this regard, with African in particular, Brazil is trying to offer up an example of how it provides a counterpoint to both the exploitative history of European and North American powers in the continent, and more recently, the growing Chinese presence, based in no small part on resource-extraction, in Africa. I think this could be a case of Brazil countering both historical European/North American and more recent Chinese roles in the continent, serving as a reminder to African nations that they can have friends like Brazil in the international arena without having to replicate relations based on resource-extraction that defined neocolonialism and, more recently, Chinese relations.

Finally, to return to more recent historical precedent, while debt forgiveness is a new component of these relations and thus in some ways a rupture with Brazil’s past ties to Africa, in other ways, Dilma is building on what Lula began. Back in 2007, Brazil brought a case against the US regarding cotton subsidies before the World Trade Organization. It basically argued that the US was refusing to transform subsidies and overproducing cotton in hopes of driving down world prices and hurting other cotton-producing countries. However, though Brazil brought the case before the WTO (which ultimately found the US in violation of international trade agreements), it represented not just itself, but Mali, Burkina Faso, and other cotton-producing countries in Africa – countries that may not have had the resources to challenge the US before the WTO. That marked part of a broader shift from policies that focused on the US and Europe under Fernando Henrique Cardoso to economic policies and diplomatic relations under Lula, policies that turned increasingly to regions like Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.

Taken in light of earlier policies, Brazil’s forgiveness of a not-insignificant amount of debt seems not to be some sudden appeal to Africa, but part of what is at least a 10-year effort to appeal to African nations and to take a greater role in global politics and economics. The debt forgiveness is not the first move in this process, but it definitely is one of the biggest moves; only time will tell, however, its actual importance, symbolic or real.

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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