UNASUR Puts Out its First Fire in Bolivia: Brazil Makes the Difference

Brazil’s active intervention to de-escalate the Bolivian conflict went beyond rhetoric and statements, showcasing its diplomatic style and the goals of a great power that managed, in a single move, to curb imperialistic ambitions "in its own backyard" and isolate attempts to heighten tension in the region.

The Moneda Declaration,1 unanimously approved by all 12 members of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) can be considered a triumph for Itamaraty diplomacy.2 The resolution’s nine points combine solid, unrestricted backing of Evo Morales’ government with strong warnings for the opposition. These caveats are embodied in a commission-forming initiative to "conduct an impartial investigation" into the Pando massacre, thus ensuring that it does not go unpunished.

In short, the opposition remains internationally isolated and must bear in mind that countries in the region are unwilling to allow further violent actions intended to destabilize and eventually overthrow the Morales government or divide the country.

The Declaration’s last three points show subtle yet firm nuance with respect to previous points. They prompt Morales’ legitimate government to dialogue with the opposition in order to "agree to the search for a sustainable solution within the framework of complete respect for the rule of law and prevailing legal order." It goes further, establishing a commission to support "results from the roundtable discussion" and a commission to provide "support and assistance" to the Bolivian government.

One immediate consequence of UNASUR’s declaration and Brazil’s actions was the agreement reached Sept.16, between the government and the opposition. In at least three respects it means a clear reverse for the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) government. First, it accepts one of the opposition’s principal demands: that the departments receive a percentage of the Direct Hydrocarbon Tax, which the government had decided would finance "Renta Dignidad" for retiree pensions. Second, it invites as UNASUR’s "facilitators and witnesses" the Catholic Church, European Union, Organization of American States (OAS), and the United Nations. Third, it suspends the holding of the Constitutional Referendum for at least a month. In return, "social peace" is expected.

This is a victory or a defeat, depending on your point of view. If we start from the day after the August referendum that gave President Morales a 67% approval rating, it is obviously a step backward. If, as not-unfounded rumors claim, a coup d’état was in the works, Morales’ government managed to overcome one of its most difficult predicaments in 30 months, although the future remains uncertain.

In any case, the opposition managed to undermine the resounding August victory, which should have begun to resolve the "strategic stalemate."

The Gas Bill

By carefully linking the steps that led up to the Moneda Declaration, we can conclude that it offers unrestricted, yet conditional, support for Morales, and that the conditions, without any doubt, were imposed by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s government. On Sept. 11, after the Pando massacre and facing the army’s hesitancy to enforce the state of emergency, the government requested formal statements of support for Bolivian democracy from its regional counterparts, particularly in Venezuela, Argentina, and Brazil. Argentina and Venezuela released statements that same day, albeit with completely different tonalities, but Brazil complied only on Friday, the 12th.

It is well-known that Hugo Chavez demonstrated his willingness to send the military to defend Morales’ government, prompting an immediate response from the Bolivian Commander in Chief, General Luis Trigo, who acted more quickly to respond to Chavez’s angry comments than to prevent the Pando massacre. The statement by the Argentine Foreign Ministry expressed "complete and unconditional support" for Morales, in the face of what it deemed "serious acts of violence and terrorist sabotage" by the opposition.

Lula’s foreign policy adviser, Marco Aurelio García, said his country would "not tolerate a fracturing of democratic order." However, the president was more ambiguous despite his support for Morales: "The opposition has the right to oppose, but everything has a limit. If they overstep those limits, everyone loses; and I believe what Bolivia needs is for everyone to win. I am calling on the Bolivian people—workers, government, and opposition—to allow Bolivia to find its own destiny, strengthening its democracy."

On Friday the 12th, the Brazilian Exporters Association’s (AEB) vice president, José Augusto de Castro, reacted to the previous day’s seven-hour decrease in the gas supply due to an opposition attack on the binational gas pipeline: "As long as Bolivians limit themselves to disturbances in the border area, everything is fine. What they must not do is interfere with the gas pipeline." Bolivia pumps 31 million cubic meters of gas to Brazil each day, which is 70% of all gas used by São Paulo’s industries and 100% of Porto Alegre’s.

"Planalto"3 had to act once the gas supply was in danger. The autonomist opposition, whether spontaneously, or "as advised," hit the bull’s eye by blowing up a vulnerable gas pipeline. According to several sources, on or about Sept. 11, Brazil was preparing to send Policy Adviser García and Foreign Ministry Secretary General Samuel Pinheiro Guimaraes to La Paz, to join Argentine Foreign Minister Jorge Taiana and begin mediation measures. With the Brazilians already on board the plane, the mission was aborted because Morales, supported or pressured by the armed forces, did not give his approval for mediation by Brazil.

There are at least two explanations. One is that Morales was hoping for a strictly internal solution to the conflict and therefore gave priority to deployment of military and police forces in order to safeguard the gas supply and establish the state of emergency in Pando and Santa Cruz. According to the state news agency "Agencia Brasil," on the other hand, Morales appeared to be pessimistic about reaching an agreement with the opposition and counted on social mobilization to defuse the situation.

This last version underscores the Bolivian president’s annoyance at Lula’s gentle yet persistent pressure on him to negotiate with the opposition and particularly at contacts between the Brazilian government and "Media Luna"4 autonomists. When asked if he had made personal contacts, García admitted that "the idea is for the Brazilian Embassy (in Bolivia) to make those contacts."

Be that as it may, the fact is that developments during the La Moneda meeting confirmed existing differences among UNASUR countries and between Planalto and "Palacio Quemado."5 During the presidents’ meeting, following a lengthy exposition by Evo, Lula asked if he planned to allow dialogue or force to prevail. He advised Morales to "give priority to dialogue without relinquishing force." It would appear that Lula had doubts about Morales’ intentions, doubts similar to those expressed by the opposition in mentioning Evo’s "self-imposed coup."

According to the same explanation Chavez received a swift, negative response from Rafael Correa and Lula when he tried to include a paragraph criticizing the United States’ role. Later, when host Michelle Bachelet proposed OAS participation in the document, the motion was rejected by Lula, this time with Chavez’ support.

Brazilian Power

All signs indicate that Brazil emerged from the Bolivian crisis strengthened. As Minister of Defense Nelson Jobim stated a few days before, referring to the new Strategic National Defense Plan, regional hegemony is a goal: "Today we are experiencing one of our clear objectives, the affirmation of Brazil as a great power. And that means the precise application of the effective power of dissuasion."

In the Bolivian crisis, this function of power means maintaining a certain equidistance in the government-opposition conflict. Lula’s international adviser clearly conveys this idea in a phrase (whether his or attributed to him) that synthesizes Brazil’s position: "The problem is that the country is experiencing a series of reforms within its democratic framework, but both the opposition and the government act as though they were facing a revolution."

Brazil’s stance may lead a good portion of the continent’s leftists to ponder whether it has surrendered to empire, or as a variation on the same theme, to believe that Lula’s government is playing George W. Bush’s game. Brazil certainly has shown little enthusiasm for some regional integration projects such as "el Banco del Sur" (Bank of the South) and "Gasoducto del Sur" (South American Gas Pipeline), which is why both have stalled. However, things cannot be reduced to mere ideological options.

The same day the government and opposition signed an agreement to pacify the country, Washington decided to add Bolivia to its "black list" of countries not resolutely combating drug trafficking, along with Venezuela and Myanmar. David Johnson, head of the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, maintained that Morales’ government "continues to support the expansion of lawful coca leaf production despite the fact that current levels of legal cultivation far exceed demand for traditional consumption."

While the Bush administration adds more fuel to the fire in hopes that the blaze will not subside, Planalto takes the opposite road, as it did on March 1, 2008, following the Colombian attack on the Raúl Reyes camp. Brazil designed its regional diplomatic blueprint some time ago and is limited to the precise execution of agreements. In his latest book, the distinguished intellectual Samuel Pinheiro Guimaraes, current secretary general of Brazil’s Foreign Ministry, analyzes his country’s policy toward the United States as well as regional partners. He asserts that the axis of Brazil’s foreign policy should consist of a strategic alliance with Argentina, "the gradual, persistent, and patient building of South American political unity, and the firm rejection of policies that subject the region to U.S. strategic interests."

During the present crisis Brazil did not stray one iota from this strategy. On the other hand, one frequently forgotten point is that Brazil has its own interests in Bolivia, and they do not always coincide with the MAS government’s. The partially state-owned oil company Petrobras continues to play a decisive role in the exploitation of Bolivian hydrocarbons and is the Andean country’s main investor.

Furthermore, Brazilian participation in agro-business is very important. In Santa Cruz some 200 Brazilian families cultivate 350,000 hectares (865,000 acres) of soybeans, 35% of Bolivian soy production. These agricultural workers have political clout, since they represent one-third of the members of the Bolivian-Brazilian National Chamber of Commerce and are also part of the Association of Oil Seed and Wheat Producers, an association of 12,000 agricultural workers from Santa Cruz.

In a variety of ways, Brazil controls approximately 20% of Bolivia’s GDP. This percentage should increase in the next few years through strategic investments in infrastructure, energy, and mining, which are frequently financed by the powerful Brazilian Development Bank . However, these investments and interests are concentrated in the "Media Luna" area, particularly in Tarija and Santa Cruz provinces. No matter how hard to admit, and despite the intentions of the current rulers, "Brazilian power" serves to upset the delicate balance between the agro-exporting East and the "Quechua-Aymara" West.6 To further complicate matters, Brazil’s objective national interests are more closely aligned with Santa Cruz than with La Paz. This may explain, though not justify, the equidistance maintained by Lula’s government, which can only serve to promote stability in a country on which much of the subcontinent’s future depends.

End Notes

  1. Original UNASUR document formulated at the Chilean presidential palace, La Moneda, known as the Declaración de la Moneda (see "Resources").
  2. Itamaraty is the popular name for the Brazilian Foreign Ministry headquarters building in Brasilia.
  3. Popular name for Brazilian Presidential Palace.
  4. The Media Luna consists of the Pando, Beni, Santa Cruz, and Tarija provinces which together make up the eastern 2/3 of the country and are crescent shaped.
  5. Popular name for Bolivian Palace of Government, located in La Paz.
  6. Quechua and Aymara are among several ethnic indigenous groups that make up approximately 70% of Bolivia’s population; also two of Bolivia’s official languages.