Some minutes ago I finished my first in-class presentation on Brazilian Foreign Policy. I could feel all of my Portuguese vocabulary just flying away from my mind minutes before my presentation. I’m the only exchange student in my class and even my group seemed a little nervous not knowing how I was going to do. “What’s the summary of what you’ll present?” asked one of them. I suspect she was somehow testing my Portuguese…
But enough of that. The presentation went incredibly well and I’m happy to feel capable of improvising and analyzing Brazil’s involvement in Latin America during the Cold War in front of a large group. How did it happen? I’m still not entirely sure, but the topic is so interesting that I decided to share with you some history that has traditionally been ignored.
Read any history book on the political landscape of Latin America during the late 60s and early 70s and you will most likely be led to believe that Brazil played an almost-insignificant role in other countries’ politics. Historians and political scientists have typically pointed at the US for its involvement in the region as a hegemonic power interested in sabotaging any left-wing political victory in Latin America. A different language, culture, and history of colonization are all factors that have led us to conclude that Brazil hasn’t really focused its Foreign Policy on Latin America.
While most of the above may be true, it turns out most books won’t be precisely teaching you what really happened between 1965 and 1975. Brazil’s former president Médici – military dictator between 1969 and 1974 – believed that the ideological war in Latin America at the time was an internal conflict, consequence of the poverty and inequality that have historically characterized the continent. Médici concluded early in his time in power that any solution to the region’s ideological war would also have to be internal. During his administration Brazil participated in the overthrow of a democratically-elected leftist president in Bolivia, the weakening of Uruguay’s most important leftist coalition, and the training of military forces that would eventually overthrow Salvador Allende in Chile.
In 1971 Médici visited former president Nixon to motivate him to get even more involved in Latin America. Records of the meeting show that Médici left Washington quite unhappy about Nixon’s decision to not drastically increase the economic and military aid given to Bolivia’s and Uruguay’s right-wing regimes. It turns out that between 1970 and 1974 Brazil took the lead in the “fight against communism” in Latin America and constantly tried to get the US to pay more attention to the region. In September 11th of 1973, Salvador Allende suffered a coup d’état in Chile and this meant that, according to the Brazilian Foreign Minister at the time, the Southern Cone’s revolutionary “snowball had been reversed.”
A number of internal and external factors led Brazil to shift its attention away from the region after 1974. Pinochet in Chile and Geisel in Brazil would lead, respectively, the two countries on different paths towards a harsher military rule and more relaxed policies. It wasn’t until the 1990s that Brazil would regain such strong interest in Latin American politics.
Next semester I will start writing my thesis back in Richmond. I have decided to give a more historical touch to my examination of the Brazilian-Peruvian international border in the Amazon region. As it turns out, Brazil’s involvement in Latin America has been much more important than what I once thought. Among all of the academic lessons I have gained while studying abroad in Brazil, this may be the one that will have the greatest impact in years to come.
If you are interested in reading more about Brazil’s involvement in Latin America between 1970 and 1975, you can follow this link (http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14682745.2011.641953) to the article by Tanya Harmer (2012) that was the basis of my presentation and this blog entry.