Geopolitics

Latin American Pariah, The Cost Of Brazil's Isolationism

By turning its back on regional integration, the conservative government of Jair Bolsonaro is putting ideology above the country's long-term economic and political interests.

A photo of Brazilian Presiden Jair Bolsonaro

Bolsonaro ahead of a bilateral meeting at the UK diplomatic residence in New York

Pedro Silva Barros

-Analysis-

After two decades of leading the process of Latin American integration, Brazil's absence at the recent summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) underscores a dramatic change, of course, that is costing the regional giant both politically and economically.

Brazil's isolation isn't, of course, without precedent. Asked once if the Portuguese language would be part of a future "Hispanic" identity, the Mexican author Carlos Fuentes replied that Brazil was a continent unto itself. He saw the country as being a case apart in Latin America given its imperial history, and the circumstances under which it gained independence, nearly 200 years ago.

Indeed, for at least a century after its independence, in 1822, Brazil wasn't even considered to be part of Latin America. The first general history of Latin America that included Brazil was written in 1922 by Scotsman William Spence Robertson, a professor at the University of Illinois.

As time went on, however, Brazil very much earned its place in Latin America and became a champion, furthermore, of integration — both regionally and beyond, as noted by Ernesto Samper, a former president of Colombia (1994-1998) who later served as secretary-general of UNASUR (Union of South American Nations).

Samper once qualified Brazil as a transatlantic generator of agreements between different regional positions. He too sees Brazil as having abandoned its regional vocation.

Brazil's sinking trade with the rest of Latin America

Its absence at the recent CELAC summit, which began Sept. 18 in Mexico City, is glaring in that regard. By far the region's largest country, Brazil was the only one not represented at the event. This was a summit, furthermore, that was meant to renew multilateral presidential diplomacy, which was faltering before the pandemic.

The absence contrasts sharply with the leadership role Brazil, under then president Luis Inacio Lula da Silva (2003-2011), displayed in 2008 when, for the first time in history, the heads of 33 Latin American and the Caribbean States met without the presence of the United States, Canada or another outside power.

Ten years on, Brazil is in self-isolation

That summit took place in the Brazilian city of Bahía and established a common agenda for integration and development. Two years later, through a fusion with the Rio Group, that same alignment of regional governments became the CELAC. And at the time of the 2011 CELAC summit, a communiqué issued by the then government of Dilma Rousseff, president from 2011 to 2016, noted that Brazil had embassies in all states represented at the summit and that its regional trade had quadrupled between 2002 and 2010 to reach $78 billion.

Ten years on, Brazil is in self-isolation, and this will have both political and economic costs — for the region as a whole. The absence of multilateral agreements has made Latin America more polarized and fragmented politically, and more disintegrated commercially. And by not participating in integrative efforts, Brazil is giving up its political leadership and facing economic losses.

Its trade with Latin America has plummeted, dropping from $70 billion in 2017 to $52 billion in late 2020. That included a sharp drop in the trade balance in its favor. Brazil's total trade with the region's 32 countries was 33% less in 2020 than in 2010, at the height of its regional political leadership.

A photo of then President Donald Trump with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro shaking hands at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach.

President Donald Trump with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach.

Allen Eyestone/TNS/ZUMA

Is the Bolsonaro government right?

In January 2020, Brazil suspended its participation in CELAC, stating that the conditions weren't right for the group's "activity in the current context of regional crisis." More specifically, the rightist Bolsonaro government was dissatisfied with the prospect of attending any gathering with the communist regimes of Cuba and Venezuela. Its response was simply to withdraw.

Unlike most Latin American countries, Brazil has kept its embassy and consulates closed in Venezuela since April 2020. The following month, it closed five embassies in the Caribbean. Not surprisingly, its exports to all those countries fell in 2020. The average year-on-year fall was 13%, and in the case of the Dominican Republic, exports dropped 38%.

Is the Bolsonaro government right? Is CELAC just a leftist association?

Unlike other regional groupings like MERCOSUR or UNASUR, it does not even have a charter approved by regional parliaments or its administration. And yet, CELAC summits worked fairly well between 2008 and 2016. Agreements were reached despite ideological differences, and the region managed to speak as a block to the EU and China.

It wouldn't be sensible to hold such summits with either power merely through the Organization of American States (OAS) and without the backing of a regional grouping.

CELAC's diversity is shown in the fact that in the last decade, its rotating presidents have had different political backgrounds. In 2013 it was Chile's Sebastián Piñera, a conservative. The next year the centrist Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica was in charge, and in 2016, the presidency went to the leftist Rafael Correa of Ecuador.

The Trump effect on Latin America

The group's gatherings had never attracted fewer than 20 leaders, at least not until January 2017, when only four leaders attended the Punta Cana summit, in the Dominican Republic. Donald Trump had just become president of the United States, and talks of détente with Cuba, dating from the Obama administration, were at a standstill.

Critics took the line that CELAC and UNASUR were "Bolivarian" clubs to back Cuba and Venezuela's Nicolás Maduro. And yet, Argentina's then president, the conservative Mauricio Macri (2015-2019), had become the rotating president of UNASUR that year and presented a candidate for its secretary-general while defending the group's original ideas.

All of that led, in August 2017, to the formation of the Lima Group, involving 12 American states including Canada. In its first declaration — in a bid to isolate Venezuela — the group urged the suspension of the next CELAC-EU summit scheduled for October 2017.

In January 2019, the Lima Group recognized Juan Guaidó as Venezuela's acting president. It was a move to strip Maduro of legitimacy. But Mexico then withdrew from the Lima Group, followed by Argentina and now Peru. It seems now that the 12 member states had more impact on the Venezuelan crisis before the Lima Group was formed. Their last declaration was from January 2021, days before the end of the Trump presidency.

A mirror and some light

In the meantime, Mexico, under the socialist President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has successfully filled the vacuum left by Brazil. The summit of 16 presidents recently held in Mexico City, with the presence of three center-right presidents from Ecuador, Paraguay and Uruguay, crowns its diplomacy and shows that the policy of isolating Venezuela is exhausted.

Mexico has also been hosting talks between the Venezuelan opposition and government, with Norwegian mediation, and committed itself to different CELAC activities in the past year. The agenda includes plans to create a Latin American space agency and to donate vaccines to countries like Belize, Bolivia and Paraguay.

By sticking, in contrast, to the position of not speaking to Cuba or Venezuela, Brazil has shown its inability to present regional states with a positive agenda. It's now isolated, as a result, on its own continent. The Latin American country that benefited most from integration is now suffering the most from isolation.

What Brazil needs more than anything, perhaps, is a mirror and some light — to give it some clarity on both its past and on where it might go from here.

*Pedro Silva Barros (PhD, University of Sao Paulo) is an economist and researcher at the Applied Economics Research Institute in Brasilia.

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire


According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA

Unsplash/@nemo23


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council


Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire


The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

Unsplash/@hkblind


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke


During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press


Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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