Obama Goes to Rio: A Nod to Brazil's Growing Power

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A man sells Obama masks in Rio de Janeiro on March 15, 2011

In March 1961, Fidel Castro's Cuban revolution was a three-alarm reminder that CIA-engineered coups weren't enough to keep communism out of the western hemisphere. Living standards had to be raised in Latin America, then as now the world's most inegalitarian region. So U.S. President John F. Kennedy announced the Alliance for Progress to help America's distant neighbors get their societal acts together: democratize, build stronger economies, pull people out of poverty.

The alliance delivered little of that, as evidenced by the military dictatorships and civil wars that plagued the region soon after. Still, it was a laudable departure from Washington's indifference to Latin America, which is why President Obama, who so far has seemed largely indifferent to Latin America himself, chose the alliance's 50th anniversary as the theme of his five-day visit to South and Central America, which starts March 19. And not coincidentally, it kicks off in Brazil, the nation that has done the most (along with Chile, Obama's second stop) to realize Kennedy's vision. In January, Brazil swore in its first female President, Dilma Rousseff; and this month officials announced that its economy, which in recent years has brought millions of poor people into the middle class, grew a roaring 7.5% in 2010 and is now the world's seventh largest.

But Brazilians expect Obama to do more than applaud their domestic achievements. They want him to acknowledge their global importance. The big task he faces this weekend is to mend fences with the Amazon giant after the falling-out the two countries have had over their differing approaches to Iran. Brazil, with Turkey, brokered a deal last May to get the Islamic Republic to give up much of its low-enriched uranium, in order to allay U.S. and U.N. fears that it's making nuclear weapons. The Obama Administration, which believes sanctions are the best way to thwart Iran's nuclear designs, rejected the pact as naive meddling in a hazardous security issue. But the dispute was as much about whether Brazil and Turkey had really earned that large a role on the world's diplomatic stage.

Even if Brazil hasn't yet, it's soon likely to. And what Obama and the U.S. need to appreciate is that Brazil, like India and other developing nations moving to the fore in the 21st century, will be an ally — as it's been since World War II, when Brazil was the only Latin American nation to fight in Europe — but it will be an unconventional one with an assertive, independent spirit very much in keeping with Latin America's historical mistrust of outside powers' hegemony, the U.S.'s or otherwise. If that sounds too idealistic to realpolitikal ears, says Brazil's Foreign Minister and former ambassador to the U.S. Antonio Patriota, so be it. "We lean toward multipolarity," Patriota tells TIME. "One of our defining characteristics is a true universal outreach effort," which he insists is "more in tune with today's realities."

Brazil's international ambitions have taken the U.S. and the rest of the world largely by surprise. For most of the 19th and 20th centuries, the country's enormous potential was stunted by its quasi-feudal class system — a legacy of its founding monarchy, which ended in 1889 — and by military rule. If Brazil was noticed at all outside South America, it was for soccer, samba and hyperinflation. But Brazil's royalist roots also gave it a strong culture of dialogue and negotiation, which nurtured one of the most professional diplomatic corps in the Americas.

By the late 1990s, that Foreign Ministry finally had a powerful country to work for, as civilian government and fiscal sobriety took hold and Brazil unleashed an Asian-style economic boom. Under Rousseff's predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a high school dropout steelworker who became one of the most popular leaders in Brazilian history, the country halved its poverty rate, found massive offshore oil fields and won a bid for Rio de Janeiro to host the 2016 Summer Olympics to boot. (Obama plans to visit one of the gang-plagued Rio favelas, or slums, where the government recently restored law and order.)

As one of the emerging-power "BRIC" countries — Brazil, Russia, India and China — Brazil also made use of its role as the hemisphere's first real counterweight to U.S. clout. Brasília led the creation of a pan–South American union, Unasur, and it has lobbied hard, as Patriota notes, for "more representative, more democratic decisionmaking processes" in global political and economic bodies like the U.N., where Brazil wants a permanent Security Council seat, and the G-8, which Brazil helped turn into what is now the G-20.

Obama at first saw in Lula, whom he once amiably called "my man," a useful hemispheric interlocutor. But clashes over the U.S.'s use of Colombian military bases and Brazil's insertion in the 2009 Honduran coup crisis spoiled their bromance. Then came the Iran episode — and if Brazil overreached, the U.S. also overreacted. Nonetheless, Brazilians were further dismayed last fall when Obama announced the U.S. would back India instead of Brazil for a permanent Security Council spot.

But Obama, who will also visit El Salvador next week — and who, in the wake of the Japan disaster, will have a shadow hanging over the nuclear-energy-development talks he'd planned with Chile and Brazil — knows he has to take Brazil more seriously. And despite Brazil's perhaps projecting a larger profile than it actually has at the moment, says Peter Hakim, senior fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, "It's better to take Brazil seriously now rather than later, when it really is walking into the Security Council to take a permanent seat." Another reason: China, exploiting U.S. disengagement in Latin America, is investing billions of dollars across the U.S.'s backyard, and in 2009 it supplanted the U.S. as Brazil's largest trading partner. As a result, say U.S. officials, Obama is going to Brasília to see Rousseff, whereas in the past new Brazilian Presidents have always traveled to the White House first.

Obama will likely be glad he made the gesture. Rousseff, 63, who was Lula's chief of staff and, in the 1970s, an urban guerrilla who fought against Brazil's 1964-85 military dictatorship, is often portrayed as simply a continuation of her old boss. But she's indicated she'll be less hostile to the U.S. and more skeptical of regimes like Iran's — especially when it comes to human rights, which Lula was often criticized for overlooking. Rousseff has said she disagreed with Brazil's abstention in a U.N. vote last year condemning Iranian rights abuses, which focused on atrocities against women. "She will place greater emphasis on respect for a broad range of human rights," says Patriota, who adds that "her own life story" assures it. Rousseff was tortured in prison by the dictatorship.

In her inaugural address, Rousseff even made a point of vowing to "maintain and deepen" ties with the U.S. "She's a quieter but more hands-on manager than Lula," says Paulo Sotero, director of the Wilson Center's Brazil Institute in Washington. "She knows it's time for rapprochement." Which means there's potential there for an alliance that actually delivers progress.