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Rousseff Like Lula on Mideast Keeps Brazil-U.S. Ties Chilled

Presdident of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff
Dilma Rousseff, Brazil's president, seemed to signal that she would be less accommodating to dictators than her predecessor when she criticized Iran’s human rights record even before taking office in January. Photographer: Ed Jones/Pool via Bloomberg

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff seemed to signal that she would be less accommodating to dictators than her predecessor when she criticized Iran’s human rights record even before taking office in January.

So far, the shift from former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has been more style than substance, according to former Foreign Minister Luiz Felipe Lampreia.

In March, Brazil, which is serving a two-year term as a United Nations Security Council member, voted against authorizing air strikes in Libya. Then in June, Rousseff declined to meet with Iranian dissident and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi. Two months later, Brazil joined South Africa and India in blocking a move in the UN to pressure the Syrian government as it cracked down on protesters.

Rousseff cited her own experience as victim of torture and said she supports letting Palestine into the UN in her speech opening the General Assembly today. She also said developing nations need to have a bigger say in the operations of multilateral institutions, anti-poverty efforts and plans to fight the global financial crisis.

“As a woman that suffered corporal torture, I know how important are the values of democracy, justice, human rights and liberty,” she said. “The reform of multilateral financial institutions should, without a shadow of a doubt, continue to increase participation of emerging countries, which are principally responsible for global economic growth.”

Permanent Seat

Brazil’s campaign for a permanent seat on the Security Council is ill-served by its failure to confront “destabilizing countries” like Iran, Libya and Syria, said Rep. Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the House subcommittee overseeing Latin America.

“While President Rousseff has pulled Brazil away from the coziness with Iran that was evident under her predecessor Lula, Brazil still seems to coddle and make excuses for these dangerous regimes,” Engel, who co-chairs the Congressional Brazil Caucus that works to strengthen bilateral ties, said in an e-mailed statement before Rousseff’s speech.

Lula visited more than 100 countries during his eight-year term; Rousseff, 63, instead has focused on domestic concerns such as shoring up growth in Latin America’s biggest economy. While she has parted company with Lula on issues including containing spending and corruption, her foreign-policy apparatus resembles Lula’s: Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota was Lula’s No. 2 diplomat.

‘Marketing Tool’

“Lula looked to foreign policy as a big marketing tool to project Brazil’s growing economic power,” Lampreia said. “Dilma has other problems to solve.”

Rousseff’s foreign policy isn’t intended to provoke, said Alexandre Barros, head of Brasilia-based political risk consulting firm Early Warning.

“It was always an American fantasy that Brazil would align itself with the U.S.,” said Barros in a telephone interview. “It’s not about being against something. Brazil just has its own interests.”

In the case of Libya, those interests include investments such as Salvador-based Odebrecht SA’s building of a new terminal at Tripoli’s airport and Rio de Janeiro-based Petroleo Brasileiro SA’s exploration for oil. Under Lula, trade with Iran more than doubled to $1.2 billion a year and the Islamic Republic is now the second-biggest buyer of Brazil’s beef, account for 20 percent of $2 billion in exports.

Economic Growth

After expanding 7.5 percent last year, the most in two decades, growth is Brazil’s economy is expected to grow less than 4 percent this year, according to central bank. The nation’s benchmark Bovespa stock index sank 19 percent this year on concern the global recovery may be faltering and inflation hit a six-year high. The real has fallen 11 percent this month, to 1.7839 per U.S. dollar, easing manufacturers’ fears over a flood of Chinese imports after a 30 percent rally in the currency since end of 2008.

Rousseff will be the first woman to open the General Assembly in the UN’s 66-year history. Her speech will be closely watched for clarification of policies that have sometimes appeared contradictory, said Matias Spektor, an international relations professor at Rio de Janeiro’s Getulio Vargas Foundation.

Last November, after being elected, Rousseff criticized Lula’s abstention on a UN resolution condemning human rights abuses in Iran, including a plan to stone a woman to death for alleged adultery. “I do not agree with the way Brazil voted,” she told the Washington Post in a Dec. 2 interview.

The statement, coming from a woman who was herself tortured while jailed during Brazil’s 1964-1985 military regime, fueled speculation that she would distance herself from her mentor’s Middle East policies, said Spektor.

Iran Ties

Lula, 65, angered Brazil’s Jewish population and the Obama administration by pursuing close ties with Iran, first hosting President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009 and then visiting Tehran. Brazil-U.S. ties reached a nadir last year when Brazil’s UN ambassador voted against tighter sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program and Lula helped Turkey broker a deal to provide the country with nuclear fuel.

Lula, pushed by his Workers’ Party, also maintained friendly relations with such U.S. adversaries as Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, former Cuban President Fidel Castro, and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Rousseff, in contrast, hosted Barack Obama in Brasilia less than three months after taking office, likening her election as Brazil’s first female president to his historic win as the first black U.S. head of state.

Less Rhetoric

While Rousseff has avoided the rhetoric of her former boss, who compared the crushing of pro-democracy protests in Tehran to a fight between rival Rio de Janeiro soccer fans, her government has taken positions unwelcome to the U.S.

In addition to abstaining on the UN vote on Libya, Brazil in August teamed with India and South Africa to block UN moves to freeze foreign assets of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s family and impose an arms embargo on the country after he sent out troops and used artillery to suppress protestors.

The three countries, all of which aspire to a permanent seat on the Security Council, issued a statement Aug. 10 urging restraint on all sides. Lampreia said the move was “tantamount to an endorsement” of Assad’s killing of thousands of civilians. The positions by the three countries drew criticism from Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the UN.

“Let me just say, we’ve learned a lot and, frankly, not all of it encouraging,” Rice told reporters Sept. 13.

Palestine Recognition

On Iran, Rousseff angered Brazil’s opposition and human-rights groups by declining to meet with dissident Ebadi when she visited Brazil in June. Rousseff also backed Lula’s recognition of Palestine based on borders before Israel seized control of the West Bank in 1967, a position that may pit her against the U.S. if Palestinian authorities seek full UN membership.

As a rising global power, “Brazil needs to define its principles now and stick to them,” Rep. Connie Mack, the Florida Republican who chairs the House subcommittee on Latin America, said in an e-mailed statement.

Rousseff, speaking to Brazilian foreign service graduates in April, called for a “truly multi-polar” international system, one that reflects the changing balance of power in the 21st century. While Rousseff may shy away from foreign policy, Brazil is more relevant to the global economy than when Lula took office in 2003 and the government is likely to use its growing heft to make its voice heard, said Spektor.

“There’s been a change of style since Lula, but I’m not sure it’ll amount to anything more than that,” he said. “The more powerful countries like Brazil become, the more tensions we’ll see.”

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