Brazil’s winter of discontent and intrigue

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    Dilma Rousseff, president of Brazil.

    Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff, speaks during a news conference after the ministerial meeting in Brasilia, Brazil, Monday, July 1, 2013. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)

    This is a tale of intrigue, of Mossad-like operations, a chapter from a John le Carré thriller.  What happened between the capitals of Bolivia and Brazil this past week was really life imitating art.

    It was also about Brazilian domestic politics trumping international interests.

    Here is what we know:  The number two Brazilian diplomat in La Paz, Bolivia, Eduardo Saboia, successfully arranged a clandestine release of Bolivian Senator Roger Pinto Molina from his self-imposed exile in the Embassy of Brazil in Bolivia.

    Pinto Molina, a vociferous opponent of Bolivian President Evo Morales, had been holed up inside the Brazilian Embassy since May 2012 when Brazilian officials granted him political asylum.

    Morales refused to give him safe passage, and instead filed trumped up charges of corruption and abuse of power, thus making Pinto Molina a prisoner inside the Brazilian Embassy.

    Saboia, who had tried on a number of occasions to get Pinto Molina out, was concerned that the Bolivian politician was suicidal.  And so on Saturday, August 24th Saboia hatched a plan to carry Pinto Molina over land to Brazil.

    In a two car caravan bearing diplomatic plates and accompanied by Brazilian Federal Police the pair started their journey to Brazil.  They were not bothered by Bolivian authorities, according to reports about their journey in the Brazilian press.

    Senator Ricardo Ferraco helped the Pinto Molina’s release

    In an interview with the Sao Paulo newspaper, Estadao, Saboia stated that he had not joined the Foreign Service to be a jailer.  Indeed, Saboia had informed Brazilian Senator Ricardo Ferraco (PMDB-ES), who happened to chair the International Relations Committee, that he was going forward with plans for Pinto Molina’s release, apparently undertaken ex-parte of his foreign ministry superiors.

    Senator Ferraco was in on the plan, arranging for a Bolivian businessman to provide an aircraft that flew both Saboia and Pinto Molina to Brasilia.

    This so-called “humanitarian action” was done outside the chain of command of Brazil’s Foreign Minister, Antonio Patriota.

    Thus, over the course of 48 hours a Brazilian diplomat with the help of a Brazilian senator got their man to Brazilian soil and freedom.

    But the result was a sharp response by Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, who used the incident to fire Antonio Patriota, her talented foreign minister.  While there had been rumors circulating for quite some time about Dilma’s desire retire Patriota, it seemed until this incident that he would be remain at Itamaraty, the Brazilian foreign ministry, until the end of Dilma’s first term.

    An explanation for those unfamiliar with Brazilian politics

    What appears on one level to be a minor diplomatic row between two neighbors has much deeper meaning politically.  For Brazilian President Dilma Rouseff, this has been a winter of discontent (and it is winter south of the Equator).

    Starting in late June her government was caught off guard when it witnessed millions of people spontaneously participate in multi-city protests of her government.

    The tripwire was a hike in bus fares in Sao Paulo. But those price increases released a wave of deep-rooted disgust with a government that could find funding to pay billions of dollars for football stadiums for the World Cup in 2014, but not a penny more for better transport systems, or access to education for the growing middle class.

    Rousseff scrambled to get things back in order, with promises of greater investments in health and education.  She recovered slightly in the political polls, an important factor since she and her Labor Party (PT) followers face a tough re-election campaign next year.

    And just when things seemed to be getting back to a new normal in Brazil, U.S. whistle-blower, Edward Snowden, released documents to the British newspaper, The Guardian, about how the U.S. government had been cyber-spying on Brazil since 9/11.

    While such information should not have surprised Brazilians, it came at a time of increased sensitivity to issues of sovereignty.  It also fed into the old anti-imperialist bent of the old President Lula-Dilma Rousseff Labor party (PT) crowd that used it as a way to garner favor with those in the party who have always been skeptical of closer ties to the United States.

    The Rousseff’s  State Visit to Washington

    U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, traveled to Brazil mid August, in part to discuss the forthcoming October State Visit of Dilma Rousseff.

    But conversations about areas of mutual cooperation and interest were overshadowed by sharp words for the American Secretary of State by Foreign Minister Patriota with respect to the Snowden revelations.

    Kerry took these criticisms with grace, but did reiterate that U.S. surveillance efforts were important not only to protect U.S. citizens but also our democratic friends and allies in Brazil and the Americas.  Not surprisingly, Dilma’s standing in public opinion polls increased after the Snowden incident.

    But the final straw for Dilma was this operation of getting Bolivian Senator Roger Pinto over the border, aided and abetted by a member of her foreign service.

    Pinto, a vocal opponent of the Morales government, assisted also by a Brazilian senator who is a member of the opposition party and not a supporter of Dilma, was too much to bear.

    So someone had to pay the price.  And that someone was Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota.  Dilma issued a short statement relieving him of his duties and appointing Luis Alberto Figueiredo Machado, Brazil’s UN Ambassador, to immediately replace Patriota.

    But the story is not over. Patriota will be trading places.  He will head to New York to take over from Figueiredo Machado as UN Ambassador immediately, something that will be beneficial to Brazil’s broader foreign policy agenda of gaining a seat on the Security Council after the 2015 Millennial General Assembly.

    Brazil has expressed concern over the NSA spying on its citizens.

    Ex-Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio de Aguiar Patriota speaks during a meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry at the State Department in Washington, Monday, May 20, 2013. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

    Patriota will serve a Brazil’s ambassador to UN

    Not really much of a punishment or a demotion for a seasoned diplomat like Patriota, who served at the UN and also as Brazil’s ambassador to Washington.

    And for Dilma and her PT supporters who are not inclined to insult their leftist ally in Bolivia, President Evo Morales, sacrificing a much-admired foreign minister was just the action to show Brazilian solidarity with Bolivia’s sense of sovereignty.

    In many ways this is a story of inside Brazilian political futbol but with results that will ultimately not affect the long-term relationship with the United States.

    And as for the Brazilian diplomat, Eduardo Saboia, whose “humanitarian action” brought a Bolivian into exile, he will also be rewarded.

    Rumors are already afloat of a new embassy post, this time as an Ambassador to the West African state of Burkina Faso, which is a serious posting for a country like Brazil that considers these South Atlantic ties important to their broader diplomacy in the global south.

    It has indeed been a winter of discontent, but one that augers happier days ahead for the political ambitions of Dilma Rouseff.

    Johanna Mendelson Forman is a Scholar-in-Residence at the American University School of International Service and a Senior Associate of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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