- The Washington Times - Friday, March 13, 2009

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) - His meet and greet with the U.S. president was bumped to Saturday, and when the White House announced his official visit, they misspelled his name.

But when Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva becomes the first Latin American leader to sit down with President Barack Obama this weekend, he brings undisputed clout.

Silva runs the world’s fifth-most-populous nation and ninth-largest economy and has close ties with leaders across the political spectrum. He’s been asked to lobby Obama for free trade on behalf of conservatives in Colombia and for dropping the U.S. embargo against communist Cuba. Even Hugo Chavez has asked Silva to carry an olive branch to the new administration.

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“I’m going to ask that the U.S. take a different view of Latin America,” Silva said before leaving for Washington. “We’re a democratic, peaceful continent, and the U.S. has to look at the region in a productive, developmental way, and not just think about drug trafficking or organized crime.”

In fact, it’s what Silva won’t bring that shows how the global financial crisis has changed the geopolitical order.

“He will not have his hat in his hand or an outstretched palm saying ‘I need money,’” said David Fleischer, a University of Brasilia political scientist. “But he will ‘have his heels on’ _ a Brazilian way of saying he is in the favorable position.”

Brazil has become a major U.S. trading partner, with cautious economic policies that have helped it weather the crisis better than almost all other major economies. With huge new offshore oil finds and abundant ethanol, Brazil could be key to helping wean the U.S. off Venezuelan crude and shift to cleaner energies.

Still, the White House made several moves interpreted as snubs by the Brazilian media.

Silva aides said the trip was pushed forward from Tuesday because of the St. Patrick’s Day holiday _ making Latin America once again look like an afterthought. Then, the White House announcement misspelled his name as “Luis Ignacio” and put “Lula” _ a nickname that decades ago became a legal part of the Brazilian leader’s name _ in quotes.

The White House quickly corrected the mistake.

The meeting between Obama and Silva is expected to cover wide ground: The financial crisis, ending the Cuban embargo, energy, trade, and tempering relations with Venezuela and Bolivia _ both of whom have expelled U.S. ambassadors in the past year.

While such subjects have been broached between the two nations before, analysts say Brazil’s stable economy and strong democracy give it new credibility.

For decades, global financial crises have humbled Latin America’s commodity-driven economies, resulting in a familiar ritual: Leaders would travel to Washington, ask for bailout money, be chastised by experts at the World Bank and International Monetary Fund and be forced to swallow austere and unpopular economic measures tied to the aid.

Now Silva wants a prominent role for Brazil and other emerging market nations in rewriting the rules for the global financial system, replacing dictates from these Washington-based organizations. It’s a message he’ll also take to April’s G-20 summit in London.

Each time such policies were imposed in the past, sentiment toward the U.S. grew more hostile, fostering a rise in anti-American populist leaders such as Venezuela’s Chavez, Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa.

“Brazil is seen as the key partner in a new era of hemispheric relations,” said Mauricio Cardenas, director of the Latin America Initiative at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington. “Obama wants Brazil to play that role _ to be a bridge to Venezuela, Cuba and other not-so-friendly nations.”

Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim said he thinks a personal relationship between Obama and Silva, both of whom broke through social barriers with their elections _ would significantly improve relations between the two nations.

“There is an intellectual affinity, I’d say, that will permit relations (between the U.S. and Brazil), that are good now, to become much more profound,” he said.

Their biggest topic is likely to be energy _ biofuels and oil.

Brazil _ the world’s largest exporter of ethanol _ has seen little traction on its demand that the U.S. lift a 53-cent-per-gallon import tariff on the alternative to gasoline. But in the past two years, Brazil has made offshore oil discoveries of some 80 billion barrels _ which could turn it into a major exporter of crude.

“Obama is likely to ask if Brazil can supply oil to the U.S. to diminish dependency on Venezuelan oil,” Fleischer said. “Lula will say ‘no’ _ but will propose the U.S. remove its surcharge on ethanol imports and use Brazilian ethanol to meet its energy needs.”

Silva stands on more solid economic ground than most leaders nowadays.

U.S. and European nations are struggling to keep banks afloat with massive government intervention _ long a major economic sin _ after fostering easy credit that helped create the U.S. housing bubble.

In contrast, Brazil under Silva already increased state control of its banking system, but maintained rules that made private banks averse to risky lending. The policy that seemed overly cautious and growth-stifling before the crisis now looks wise in the economic free fall.

Since being elected in 2002 as Brazil’s first working-class president, Silva also embraced free market policies and made history last year when ratings agencies raised Brazil’s debt to investment grade. Now data from the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development show Brazil weathering the financial crisis better than most.

“Overall it remains fair to say that Brazil is likely to do better than most emerging markets, and undoubtedly better than in the past,” said Luiz de Mello, who runs the OECD’s Brazil and South America desks.

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