SAO PAULO — The just-concluded Summit of the Americas in Panama was hailed as historic because it was the first time since the gathering began that both Cuba and the United States were present. And yet, there’s plenty of room for disappointment. The gathering of heads of state could have been even more significant and made a bigger regional impact.
But for that to happen, it would have been crucial to see the relationship between Brazil and the United States as an absolute priority and the main line of power and prosperity in the Americas.
Brazil’s foreign policy choices have proved to be fruitless. The Mercosur free trade bloc of South American countries is adrift. Deals with European countries are still uncertain. Falling raw material prices abroad, mostly oil, are pushing Brazil to seek economic alternatives. The U.S. market is the perfect place for Brazil to anchor exports income.
Meanwhile, the U.S. can’t afford to underestimate Brazil, the world's second largest democracy, which also has the second biggest GDP in the Americas. China is taking Washington for a ride. The fact that so many traditional U.S. allies have joined forces with Beijing in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, despite Washington's warnings, should encourage the United States to look once again to Latin America, where China has also established a strong foothold.
But wasted potential is what defines Brazil-U.S. relations best. Given the absence of any major bilateral business, the importance of the Snowden revelations that President Dilma Rousseff’s communications were being monitored was largely exaggerated. Instead of using the incident as leverage to obtain advantages from the world’s largest economy, Rousseff and Brazil opted instead to offer the cold shoulder.
Photo: Liu Bin/Xinhua/ZUMA
It was a strategic miscalculation. The spying episode further delayed what could have been an ambitious trade and investment agenda.
The potential for cooperation between the U.S. and Brazil is immense, from investments and technology exchanges, to tourism and the United Nations. The case of trade is a striking example. Brazil now exports $25 billion in goods to the United States every year. China, on the other hand, sends the U.S. more more than 20 times that sum annually.
The chitchat on the margins of Panama's Summit of the Americas may have helped rebuild the bridge between the Palácio do Planalto and the White House. But merely reigniting conversation, or offering to mediate Washington's tortuous relations with Venezuela, doesn't represent a great enough contribution to what has to be Brazil's primary interest, namely to develop its economic relationship with the United States.
At the highest level, we need to state loud and clear our predisposition to work for a trade deal with the United States, whether bilaterally or together with other partners.
Rousseff is facing difficult times ahead with the implementation of an amended fiscal policy. Obama needs to deal with a Republican congressional majority that doesn’t guarantee him automatic support for some of his foreign policy initiatives — for instance, with Cuba, Iran, or even the mega commercial deals in the Atlantic and Pacific.
Resuming a relationship between Brazil and the United States will be a long and difficult task. But what's important now is to press the "restart" button.