Saturday, April 14, 2012

Sharing the Hemisphere

When British Prime Minister David Cameron visited Washington last month, he was eagerly received, feted even, an encounter that was seen as giddy to the point of annoyance in some quarters. That recent experience was in sharp contrast to the merely cordial meeting between President Obama and President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil this past Monday.

Brazilians and astute observers in the United States were miffed at the relative attention paid to the leaders of the world's eighth- and sixth-largest economies, though one observer offered the charitable interpretation that perhaps this was a going-away party for the UK, before the partnership with Brazil begins in earnest.

This PBS story on President Dilma Rousseff's visit provides a good overview of the issues that shape the bilateral relationship that is emerging as the United States comes -- very reluctantly, it seems -- to realize Brazil's growing importance in the world generally and in the Western Hemisphere particularly. One of the key goals of her visit has been to continue to press for an expanded role for Brazil on the United Nations security council.

(As with her predecessor -- Ignacio "Lula" da Silva --  President Rousseff is better known by her first name than her surname. The Rising Star interview with Lula is also very instructive regarding the emergence of Brazil.)

As the PBS segment suggests, the visit does highlight several areas of disagreement between the Brazil and U.S. administrations, including policy toward the embargo on Cuba, the coup in Honduras, and the realities of climate change.

For more than a century following the presidency of James Monroe, United States involvement in the hemisphere has been characterized by paternalism and intervention, leading the Mexican poet Octavio Paz to lament, "Alas, poor Mexico! So far from God and so close to the United States!" As many dictatorships and civil wars came to an end in the 1970s and 1980s, U.S. attention shifted to other parts of the world, leading to a period described in this video as one of "benign neglect."

The video does play a bit with language, describing the region (at 5:00) as "absent of conflict" by defining away much of the violence related to the war on drugs and repression of labor organizers. At 6:00, President  Obama praises Brazil's progress on energy policy, but he could have gone further, by mentioning some aspects of Brazilian energy policy that  better protect the environment than do U.S. approaches.

Further reading:
Because my career as a geographer in many ways began in Brazil, and because I am fortunate enough to have many students and friends who are in, of, from, or about Brazil, I have written quite a lot about the country. My earliest and most comprehensive writing is about Rondônia, in the western Amazon Basin. Recent articles include Where's the Beef, in which I explain how changes in the beef industry provide additional justification for students in the United States to learn a foreign language -- especially Portuguese.

My Cliffwalk article explains lessons about the gap between the rich and the poor. Brazil still has a greater concentration of wealth than does the United States (or most countries), but Brazil is now leading the United States both in overall economic growth and in the equity of that growth.

Brazilian Embassy in Honduras describes an excellent example of the kind of kind of geopolitical leadership that Brazil is beginning to exert. More generally, readers can browse all of the articles that include "Brazil" on this blog and on the current and original EarthView blogs.

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