The Wholesale Attack on Brazilian Sovereignty: An Interview With Former Foreign Minister Celso Amorim
For the past 25 years, Celso Amorim has been Brazil’s most important diplomat, serving as Foreign Affairs Minister in the governments of Itamar Franco (1993-1995) and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (2003-2010), and Minister of Defense for Dilma Rousseff (2011-2015). Born in 1942 in the port city of Santos, Amorim graduated at the top of his class at the Rio Branco Institute, the Brazilian government’s diplomacy school, in 1965. This earned him a scholarship to the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, where he spent 3 years, followed by 3 years at the London School of Economics studying under Ralph Miliband. After working for several years as a Portuguese literature professor at the Rio Branco Institute he was invited to head Embrafilme, the Military Government’s film agency, in 1979. Shortly afterwords he was fired for financing the film Pra Frente, Brasil, by Roberto Farias, which shows scenes of political prisoners being tortured by the Military.
Nominated as the International Affairs Secretary in the Science and Technology Ministry in 1987 by the José Sarney administration, Amorim has served in every government since except the current one (2016-present). His tenure as Lula’s Minister of Foreign Affairs was marked by Brazil taking an active role on the international stage. Under Amorim’s guidance, Brazil expanded its role in Mercosur, Unasul, IBSA and the BRICS, became more active in the UN Security council and improved trade relationships with countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. In a 2009 article in Foreign Policy, David Rothkopf called him, “The World’s best foreign minister”.
I spoke with Celso Amorim on May 16, 2018. The interview has been edited for readability.
I would like to ask you about a concept called sovereignty … What is sovereignty, why is it important and what did Lula’s government do to increase Brazilian sovereignty?
Well, I hope you don’t want me to go into the history of the concept of sovereignty since the 16th Century more or less, when it was established. It’s really the capacity to determine your own destiny- up to a point of course because everyone lives in the World and the circumstances of the World are also influential. But it is, at least, to be able to guide your own country in a way that corresponds to the interests of your people. Basically I think that is what sovereignty means. That you can face external pressures in a way that is not submissive. Of course you have to negotiate very often but you have to define your own priorities according to your own interests and the interests of your people. I think that is basically what sovereignty is and of course that implies some control over your natural resources. The United States is very conscious of what sovereignty is because when a Chinese company decided to buy an important technology company in the United States president Trump just vetoed it. So sovereignty is this. There are some assets which are essential to your capacity to determine your own destiny, of course taking into account the circumstances of the World. I think this is what we want. In order to do that of course you need to have a foreign policy that is able to be affirmative of your views and to defend this policy, enabling you to face any possible threat that may exist.
How do you think Lula’s government strategy towards the question of sovereignty differed from, for example, those of Fernando Henrique Cardoso or Itamar Franco?
Very simply. I’ll give you an example because I think its better to exemplify than to try to define. Lula’s attitude in relation to the deep water petroleum reserves in which he established the government role for Petrobras is one case of preserving our natural resources. Another example was his authorizing the development of a nuclear propelled submarine which would be able to be vigilant about our very long coast. One has to keep in mind – sometimes we forget – that Brazil has the longest Atlantic coastline in the World. I would say that in foreign policy, which I was more active in, his government contributed to build a more multi-polar World in which each country is not necessarily subject to anyone’s hegemony. How did he do that? I would exemplify this with the integration of South America which is now being abandoned by the present government, because even if Brazil is big, it’s not big enough to face the big blocks like the United States, which is a block in itself, China, which is a block in itself, or the European Union. The integration of South America was important, relations with other countries in the South, including in Africa and also India and so on, and we also contributed to the creation of BRICS which somehow gives greater balance to international relations. These are some examples but, regarding economic relations, I could also mention our attitudes vis a vis the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) that was being pushed by the United States, our attitudes in relation to the DOHA trade rounds in which we completely reversed the trend to have a very negative agreement from the point of view of developing countries. Well, these are some examples of sovereignty, and of course this was all based on greater social justice which increased the government’s legitimacy. I say legitimacy not only because it was elected, but also because it had the actual support of the great majority of the Brazilian people, especially as Lula worked to reduce inequality in Brazil.
How does this approach differ from the Michel Temer government’s policies?
In almost every respect, the Temer government is doing exactly the opposite. Internally it is, of course, taking measures which increase inequality instead of decreasing it, like the new labor laws and the freezing of expenditures in health and education by constitutional amendment, which is something that is absolutely unheard of anywhere in the World as far as I know. And externally there is a foreign policy which in the best moments is just nothing and in the worst moments is doing things like contributing to the disintegration of South America by deactivating Unasul, which was a big achievement during the Lula government, and by not having any initiative in relation to the BRICS and other groups like IBSA (India Brazil South Africa). They are diminishing our presence everywhere – even in relation to Palestine and Israel by not having an independent attitude. They have a very submissive attitude which tends to give more importance to one or another internal lobby than to the real interests of peace in the World. So these are some examples, but I could add some others, for instance by allowing Embraer to go into a merger with Boeing – of course everyone knows who will dominate the result of this merger – so these are some examples. I could go on and on.
During the time that you served as Minister of Foreign Relations for the Lula administration and Defense Minister for Dilma Rousseff, what are a few policies that Brazil implemented that, in your mind, pleased the US Government? What are a few policies that you think may have angered them?
First of all, our preoccupation was not to please or to not please anyone. Our preoccupation was to pursue our own interests in solidarity with other countries, especially in our region, in other developing countries in our region and in Africa. By doing so, we may have frequently displeased the United States. For instance there was our attitude in the WTO meeting in Cancun 2003 during which Brazil led the resistance to an agreement that would have been detrimental to developing countries. But having said that six months later Bob Zoellick, who was the chief negotiator from the United States, got in touch with me to see what kind of agreement could be possible, what was the kind of position that could be formed in favor of an agreement. So even when we displeased the United States we didn’t do that just to annoy them – we were pursuing our interests. And I think that was, to a large extent, understood. So much so that when, for instance, Bush called for this Summit of the G20, I can not be sure if it was the first but one of the first people he called was President Lula to say, “I’m thinking of having this G20 meeting in order that the important countries can see how we can deal with the World economy after the Lehman Brothers crisis.” This is one example. There have been other cases, though, in which the United States actually was interested in the presence of Brazil, like the Annapolis Conference for the Middle East, the Palestine/Israel question. Brazil was one of the very few developing countries to be invited. I had a good dialogue with Condoleezza Rice in that respect. Of course we didn’t agree on everything but we talked with each other respectfully. Later on, President Obama actually asked President Lula to help broker an agreement with Iran. We helped. We obtained exactly what had been requested from Iran. We brokered it together with Turkey. And when it finally came out it was an achievement. But in May 2010 – I can not say to my surprise because they already had given signals – to our disappointment the United States, led then by Secretary of State Hilary Clinton I am sure, preferred to pursue a role of sanctions and negative actions and dismantled the effort that they themselves had asked us to implement. So was the United States angry? I’m not sure. And bringing Cuba to the OAS. It was in Brazil that Cuba participated in all the forums that exist in South America and Latin America and the Caribbean for the first time. It happened in late 2008. So that was a step that made it necessary to also have Cuba in the Summit of the Americas. Obama himself recognized that. But later on, Trump went in a different way. So it’s very difficult to say. It’s not our task to know what will please the United States and what will displease the United States. Our task – and this is part of sovereignty – is to pursue our own interests and to a larger extent also the interests of other countries like ours, other developing countries, starting with South America.
OK, I asked you that question because….
I can tell you what actions by the United States displeased us. One of them was refusing the agreement that they had asked us to promote with Iran. Certainly what displeased us – I was no longer Foreign Minister but I was the Defense Minister – was the spying on our President, the spying on our oil company, the spying on our Ministry of Energy. So these are some examples of things that displeased us. But even so we did not break our dialogue with the United States because, of course, the United States is extremely important. It’s still the most important country in the World.
I asked this question because, as we know, there was a Coup d´Etat in Brazil in 2016.
And one of the things leading up to the Coup was the Lava Jato investigation (Operation Car Wash) and its paralyzation of the Brazilian engineering and construction industry, which cased 500,000 immediate layoffs and a drop in GDP in 2015. And we know that Lava Jato is a joint operation between the US Department of Justice, the FBI and the Public Prosecutors team from Curitiba led by Sergio Moro, which, according to a motion for reversal filed by Lula’s defense team in March, 2018, is based on illegal informal communications between the Brazilian judiciary and the US Department of Justice.
So we know that there was some involvement of the United States in events which led up to the Coup and Lula’s imprisonment. What reasons would the United States have to want to be involved in all of this?
I can give you a very simple example from the old Chinese proverb that a picture is worth 1000 words. There was a cover of the American issue of the Economist which showed an upside down map of the Americas. South America was on the top and the rest was below it. The title of the front page article was “Nobody’s Backyard”. I think that the simple fact that, when it appeared in 2009 or 2010, the planners and the intelligence people in the United States… I think when the intelligence people had one of their regular meetings which I suppose they have in spite of the lack of coordination sometimes, they saw that map saying that South America and Latin America is no longer the United States’ back yard and it is promoting things like the BRICS, like independent meetings with Arab countries, having meetings on their own, creating Unasul without the patronage of either the US or Europe… I think all that – I wouldn’t say anger, necessarily – I think all these things suddenly raised eyebrows in Washington and someone said ‘well we have to put these things right, put these guys where they belong, which is in the back yard.’ I’m not saying that everything was planned by the United States. It’s very difficult to say and I have no evidence for that, but certainly there was this cooperation that was mentioned even by Kenneth Blanco from the Department of Justice. He said that there was very informal cooperation with the judiciary in Brazil, which is a scandal really because if you have agreements related to justice or to law enforcement they have follow the rules. And following the rules implies going through the appropriate channels. Informal cooperation is a way of exerting direct domination over less conscious actions. That is what happened. I was the Foreign Minister and I could see it all the time, not only the American Ambassador – I’m not saying it was only the US but the US are more powerful – trying to go around the Foreign Ministry. They would say, “oh, the Foreign Ministry is very bureaucratic, it’s very obstructive.” Of course we were – we were the front line of sovereignty. So when you raise these questions I think you are probably right. I don’t have many pieces of evidence that I can draw on, but certainly this proof of the informal cooperation is important. The spying, of course, was not innocent. Do you think they spied on Dilma because there was a risk of a communist government? There was nothing like that. They spied because they were interested in things that were around the Oil industry and, later on, the nuclear energy industry and of course all the cases that were related to those industries. The case that there was very strong cooperation between US officials and Brazilian officials in Lava Jato is very convincing. The real objective of the Lava Jato investigation is removing not only Dilma and not only Lula as a person, but its a project, a project for a country in which sovereignty occupied a central place.
Was financing engineering companies like Odebrecht through the Brazilian National Social and Economic Development Bank (BNDES) an integral part of Brazil’s foreign policy?
Not Odebrecht in particular but, of course, support for all the Brazilian engineering companies abroad was a very important aspect of our presence in Africa and our presence in South America and those things created jobs in Brazil, contrary to what a large part of the Brazilian elite believed. So I have no doubt that all these instruments which are linked to Brazilian sovereignty and the capacity of Brazil to be present in other places in the World were destroyed on purpose. It’s impossible to have… It’s not only Odebrecht, it’s all the Brazilian construction companies, which were certainly the most dynamic sector of Brazilian industry acting abroad, that were affected. Now, another important company, Embraer, is being swallowed by Boeing. And the lending arm of BNDES was curtailed. What BNDES was doing, actually, was like any bank in Europe generally does in terms of bringing special conditions to loans for activities in very poor or vulnerable countries. So this is part of the wholesale attack on the pillars of Brazilian sovereignty. It is not only the foreign policy that is formulated in the Foreign Ministry but also the concrete means through which this foreign policy is exerted. And this certainly includes the engineering companies. Not only them, but Embraer also, as I mentioned before. But let us say the solutions or the ways they chose to attack were different but with a similar result in that Brazil is now much weaker in its presence abroad. And BNDES of course is part of that as well.
The PT is a left or center-left political party and the democratic party in the United States is considered by some people to be center-left. Obama once called Lula “the man” and praised Brazil a lot but at the same time his government was illegally spying on Brazil, listening to Dilma Rousseff’s telephone conversations and spying on the petroleum industry. Do you think that the PT governments of Dilma and Lula made a mistake in trusting the democrats too much?
I don’t think this is the problem. I don’t even think that Obama had full control over what happened with his hidden government or whatever you call it – deep government – in the United States, which involves the intelligence community plus maybe some sectors of the defense industry. So Obama probably didn’t know. Of course he came to know afterwords. I think these things happen independently. I’m not saying anything new. I lived in the United States in the 1970s and in other periods. I read, for instance, the Ellsberg Reports and the Pentagon Papers. Many things that happen do so without the knowledge of the President of the United States. So Obama did not necessarily determine those actions. I’m not saying this to excuse Obama. Of course Obama also disappointed us in other ways. I mentioned the agreement on the Iranian nuclear program. But I think these things are the doings of a deeper state, which exists in the United States, which sees things from a very geopolitical security point of view and, as I mentioned to you before, when they saw this cover of the Economist they were not happy. That’s not the idea. It’s not Brazil that has to be leading South America. It must be the United States. That’s part of the ideology of the deep government. I think Obama tried to have a more conciliatory view, certainly not breaking with the deep government but trying to find different ways and I think it is very significant, for instance, that in the Summit of the Americas that took place in Trinidad and Tobago in 2009, he asked for a meeting with Unasul – the same Unasul that is being destroyed now by our own government, without the United States having to fire even a shot in that. So you have to see these things as part of a two-fold movement. Part of it is this deep government in the United States which of course has links to financial capital, which has links with the military establishment and of course the intelligence agencies which I mentioned. You have to see this also in the light of this very passive, even submissive attitude of the Brazilian elite which doesn’t want Brazil to be assertive in international affairs. Which prefers to see Brazil like a good subordinate of the United States. It’s always been like that in South America. Before we discussed integration seriously with Mercosur and later on with Unasul and other initiatives, the main competition between Brazil and Argentina was to see who was the United States’ best friend instead of trying to be friends with each other. Of course we should be friends with the United States as well, but defending our own interests first.
Lula was arrested 38 days ago on charges with no material evidence. Do you think there are going to be free elections this year?
I took the initiative of launching a manifesto called “Elections without Lula are a fraud”. It is a manifesto that was signed by many intellectuals in the United States, by people like Noam Chomsky, by many other intellectuals in Europe, by Nobel Prize Laureates, by ex-Presidents and ex-Prime Ministers. The polls show that the candidate favored by the Brazilian people is Lula, by far. He wins in all scenarios in the second round, and in the first round he has twice as many votes as the second place candidate. He is certainly the one who is preferred by the people. So I think that all our efforts should begin towards making it possible for Lula to be a candidate. I know it’s an uphill battle, especially from the judicial point of view because this didn’t happen all at once. It is a process that went through the impeachment of president Dilma but went all the way, focusing on Lula. Just this week Judge Moro- it’s an incredible thing even from the point of view of appearances – the man who conducted the investigation and the condemnation of Lula, is receiving a prize in the Brazilian American Chamber of Commerce. Is that a coincidence? I don’t know. In politics I don’t believe in coincidences, everything is related somehow. So I think this is the most telling fact and the most telling image of what is happening now in relation to Brazil. The Judge is being rewarded for the good service he made. I’m not saying that he got money or anything like that but he is being recognized as the man of the year because he was able to put Lula in prison. In Latin there is an expression, et quid prodest, ‘who profits from it’. So I think the prize gives the answer.
Some outlets in the American and English media are saying that Guilherme Boulos is the heir to Lula even though he is only polling at 0.5%. What will happen if Lula is not allowed to run?
Well I think this is still speculation. Of course it is important in politics to speculate, but I think we have to focus on the task of the moment. The task of the moment is still trying to have Lula run and starting his campaign. There is no law that prevents him from campaigning. Although physically he is in prison, he is an idea, he’s an image and it’s very interesting that with him in prison he still has twice as much support as the second place candidate. It is almost unheard of. If you think of similar examples they have to do with colonial or semi-colonial situations like South Africa or India in the times of Gandhi. Lula is a unique case. Can you think of any Western democracy in which someone in prison, who has been in prison for 5 weeks now, was ever, by far, the most preferred candidate by the people? I think this is something that has to come through and be understood even by the judges even if they are formally following what the law prescribes. This goes totally against the central idea of democracy, which is people’s sovereignty. Sovereignty has two faces. We spoke a lot about it externally, the sovereignty which is preventing other countries or other nations or other centers of power from dominating your country. But there is the internal face of sovereignty, which is the fact that the government has to reflect what the people want. That is the principal that Jean Jacques Rousseau established of the people’s sovereignty. And what is happening in Brazil is a frontal attack against people’s sovereignty. I hope at some point, because there are still some stages to go, even people in the judiciary who have been negative or hesitant may see that this is the best thing for Brazil, irrespective even of some particular interests. Lula is not actually a firebrand revolutionary. He wants reform, he wants to have a society that is more equal in which Blacks and women are all treated appropriately and have equal opportunities but he is not someone who wants to destroy private property. He showed that. So I hope people will see that, and see that the best solution is to free Lula – it’s difficult, you may think that I am too idealistic but anyway maybe I am – and to allow him to run for office. And then of course if someone else wins, OK. But I think he will win.