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Foreign Policy

What Will Lula Do in U.S. Backyard?

Nov 10, 2022
  • He Wenping

    Research Fellow, West Asia and Africa Studies Institute of the China Academy of Social Sciences

Former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and incumbent Jair Bolsonaro, respectively, won 50.9 and 49.1 percent of the votes in their October 30 runoff — a narrow 1.8-point difference. Lula will be inaugurated in January and begin his third presidential term.

The 77-year-old Lula is one of the founders of the Workers’ Party in Brazil. He was born into a poor family and began working at a metal processing plant at 18, losing the little finger of his left hand. He posted a picture featuring his left hand on a Brazilian national flag on Twitter after winning the election, apparently to highlight his grassroots background and determination to work for fairness and eliminate poverty.

Lula’s victory wasn’t a simple personal comeback. It represents the completion by leftist parties in Latin America of the last — and biggest — piece of the “pink wave” in Latin America’s political puzzle. Since 2018, a host of leaders on the left have emerged from elections in such major countries as Mexico, Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Honduras, Chile and Columbia, fulfilling another left turn in Latin American political history.

Will this left turn result in the United States losing its traditional backyard, and accelerate the de-Americanization process in the region? The answer should be in the affirmative, as the process had begun before Lula became Brazil’s president-elect.

The economic downturn, worsening poverty, impacts of the pandemic and U.S. control have combined to prompt rise of the Latin American left. The leftist leaders all come from society’s bottom rungs, so they have personal experience with the hardships of the lower classes. The socioeconomic policies they adopt are also more inclined to tilt toward fairness and justice in society, to protect the underprivileged and bridge wealth gaps.

During his tenure between 2003 and 2010, Lula created an “economic miracle” — an annual growth rate of 4.3 percent, with the Brazilian economy becoming one of the world’s top 10 and its Gini coefficient dropping 1.1 percent annually. During the right-wing Bolsonaro presidency, however, Brazil’s average annual growth has been a meager 1.14 percent, far below the average of 24 emerging economies and 19 Latin American and Caribbean countries. Brazil’s annual growth over the past four years ranked a tepid 12th among those 19. Moreover, Bolsonaro — dubbed the Brazilian Trump — has, like Trump, shown little regard for climate change and COVID-19, looking away as the Amazon rainforest is being destroyed and as 700,000 people died in the pandemic.

Unfortunately, the struggling Latin American nations have received little economic assistance from the nearby United States, while the U.S. has exerted “maximum pressure” on Cuba and Venezuela over the past few years and interfered with the presidential election in Bolivia via the Organization of American States, sinking it into long-term political chaos.

In addition, following the hegemonic logic of the Monroe Doctrine, which  assumes that “America is Americans’ America,” the U.S. in 2018 put a poison pill clause into the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada, stipulating that any member state must notify the other members three months in advance before signing a free trade agreement with a “non-market economy country.” A member may withdraw and establish its own bilateral free trade agreement after six months. This clause clearly constrains Mexico’s economic and trade cooperation with many countries, including China.

There has been growing momentum for de-Americanization in Latin America in recent years. When the U.S. again hosted the Summit of the Americas in early June after a 28-year hiatus, it was considered a perfect stage for U.S. home-turf diplomacy and an opportunity to consolidate the U.S. “backyard” after the inauguration of Joe Biden. Since the Biden government refused to invite leaders of Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, more than 25 Latin American leaders condemned the U.S. exclusivity, and leaders of such countries as Mexico even openly boycotted the summit. They believe the US attempted to turn the summit into a vehicle for promoting U.S. interests — a footnote to U.S. hegemony in the region.

After his election, Lula has repeatedly indicated that Brazil would enhance cooperation with BRICS nations in the future, and he expressed hope that he could visit China again to better understand the way the Chinese economy operates. He also pledged to consolidate Latin American cooperation mechanisms, present an independent Latin American voice on the international stage and promote the establishment of a new model of global governance.

It seems Latin America may become Latin Americans’ own Latin America, not just someone else’s backyard.

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