What is Behind Brazil’s Timid Approach to Protests in Venezuela?

Mar 04, 2014
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The contrast between the Brazilian Foreign Ministry’s criticism of the crackdown on protesters in Kiev and the cautious statement released as protests spread in Venezuela was highlighted in commentary published in the Brazilian media last week that was critical of Dilma Rousseff’s timid foreign policy, in contrast to the active diplomacy during the Lula administration. 

”The situation in Venezuela is different from Ukraine,” Rousseff said, defending her government’s posture. She noted that Venezuela has achieved important social gains in democracy for the poorest sectors of the population and that those gains should be preserved. Referring to the protests, the Brazilian president added that “Brazil supports freedom of expression,” stressing that “we believe, under any circumstance, that dialogue, consensus, and democracy building are better than any kind of institutional rupture.”

Most observers in Brazil, including those who oppose Brasília’s often accommodating attitude vis-à-vis the Bolivarian governments of South America, agree that the conflict in Venezuela is unlikely to lead to an outcome similar to the Ukrainian crisis, which resulted in a change of government.  Even critics of chavismo view opposition leader Leopoldo López’s strategy of forcing a show down with President Nicolás Maduro as naive, dangerous, and potentially counterproductive.  “Were it to succeed, it would likely lead to a military intervention and to less—not more—democracy in Venezuela,” says one analyst who follows events in Caracas closely and has no sympathy for either Maduro or Rousseff. This analyst, reflecting a broadly shared view in Brazil, said that the more measured approach of the governor of the state of Miranda, Henrique Capriles, who narrowly lost the presidential election to Maduro last year, is preferable. With the Venezuelan economy rapidly deteriorating and divisions emerging in the chavista camp, Capriles is betting on a recall election which, according the country’s constitution, can take place mid-way through Maduro’s term. Such an institutional path to regime change in Caracas would be widely supported in the region.

As in the past, the Workers Party’s Bolivarian inclinations, regional stability, and the protection of Brazil’s sizable business interests in Venezuela remain the drivers of Brasília's calculations regarding the turmoil in its neighboring Bolivarian republic. Obviously, Brazil’s capacity for regional leadership, which has not been much in evidence lately, will be severely tested if President Nicolás Maduro fails to bring the situation under control without resorting to civil rights violations, tactics which are already causing divisions in the chavista camp.

Rousseff may find guidance and inspiration in the actions of her two immediate predecessors.

In 2002, during his last year in power, former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso denounced an attempted coup against then-President Hugo Chávez as a violation of the continent’s democratic charter adopted the previous year. In early 2003, a recently-inaugurated President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva led the creation of a “Group of Friends” of Venezuela, which helped stabilize the situation. In 2008, Lula acted decisively to help defuse a domestic crisis in Bolivia, undermining a strategy of confrontation pushed by Hugo Chávez. The current Venezuelan crisis seems bound to require Brazil to articulate a collective response through UNASUR (the Union of South American Nations). The association has issued statements urging Venezuelans to seek solutions to the tension that preserve the constitutional order. Collective action does not, however, seem imminent.  Diverging opinions have surfaced within the Brazilian government regarding the nature of the Venezuelan crisis and how to approach it. The sympathy of part of left to the Maduro government is not amply shared in society. On February 19, the daily Folha de São Paulo reported that a Mercosur communiqué issued days before describing the protests as “criminal actions by violent groups bent on spreading intolerance” caused consternation in Itamaraty, the foreign ministry, where it was seen as unbalanced and unhelpful to crisis resolution. According to Brazilian Foreign Minister Luiz Alberto Figueiredo, the Mercosur note was misinterpreted. “We repudiate all types of violence and intolerance, independent of its origin,” he said in an interview. “We are for dialogue with the opposition in Venezuela." One key domestic factor in Dilma Rousseff calculations as the turmoil in Venezuela unfolds is the unpopularity among Brazilians of Bolivarian governments in general and of chavismo in particular.

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