The Washington Dissensus: A Privileged Observer's Perspective on US-Brazil Relations

The Washington Dissensus: A Privileged Observer's Perspective on US-Brazil Relations

by Rubens Barbosa


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During the five years that he represented Brazil in the United States (under both the Cardoso and Lula presidencies), Ambassador Barbosa witnessed presidential elections that brought opposition parties to power in both the United States and Brazil, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the outbreak of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the election of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

In this memoir, translated from the Portuguese, Barbosa recounts the most significant regional and global issues that arose, alongside the domestic political conflicts within a divided North American society. Barbosa provides sophisticated analysis of economic relations during these changing times, and also explores the many US misconceptions about Brazil and the Latin American region.

From the privileged post of observation that an ambassadorship in the American capital represents, Barbosa had the exceptional opportunity over a considerable length of time to closely follow relations between Brazil and the United States. He witnessed relations evolve under two governments as they developed distinct foreign policies, which at times led to a breakdown in understanding between the two countries.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780826520128
Publisher: Vanderbilt University Press
Publication date: 12/15/2014
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Rubens Barbosa served as Brazil's Ambassador to the United States in Washington from 1999 to 2004 and as Ambassador to the Court of St James's in London before then. He has held a number of senior positions in Brazil's Ministry of Foreign Relations and Ministry of Finance. Barbosa has a master's degree from the London School of Economics.

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The Washington Dissensus

A Privileged Observer's Perspective on US-Brazil Relations

By Rubens Barbosa, Anthony Doyle

Vanderbilt University Press

Copyright © 2011 Editora Nova Fronteira Participaçõas S.A.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8265-2013-5


Brazil and the United States

Brazil-United States Relations under FHC and Lula

When I arrived in Washington in June 1999, President Bill Clinton had only a year left in his term of office and President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, three. Assuming the embassy in Washington after five and a half years as ambassador in London was the biggest challenge I faced in my career. In the American capital, I witnessed the elections of Presidents George W. Bush, in 2000, and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, in 2002, and helped in the democratic transfer of power to the Partido dos Trabalhadores (The Workers' Party), as President Cardoso wished.

I lived in Washington during a time I consider to be one of the most significant in the history of Brazil-US relations. It was a period in which Brazil's international visibility had clearly extended beyond Latin America. The tone and content of our bilateral relations would never be the same again.

Relations with the United States during the eight-year presidency of FHC had been pivotal in terms of Brazilian foreign policy. Brazil was reeling from a succession of four international financial crises (Mexico, Asia, Russia and Argentina) and the restoration of financial stability depended on US support, both directly and through the International Monetary Fund (IMF), as occurred during the crisis of 1998–1999.

At Clinton's invitation, FHC had visited Washington in the early months of his first term of office and formed a personal rapport with the US president, and this greatly facilitated communication on both sides. At a time of such major internal change in Brazil, the general understanding was that it was important to maintain a constructive relationship with the United States if we were to benefit from our bilateral relations.

A convergence of interests and values did not prevent certain fundamental differences from arising between the two countries, as became evident with regard to the issues of the Mercosur and Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and the involvement of the military in the war on drugs. Nevertheless, you could say that these matters were resolved without much ado, and with the Brazilian government always upholding the national interest.

When I arrived in Washington, Brazil was in economic turmoil, much worse than 2011 would turn out to be. The Brazilian government was struggling to stabilize the economy and restore the country's credibility as an investment hotspot. I continued the effort to keep the bureaucratic channels open for the exploration of Brazilian interests, which were concentrated in the financial area at the time. The order was to boost trade-flows and strengthen the already highly diversified ties between Brazil and the United States.

Another aim was to consolidate Brazil's position as the United States's main interlocutor in South America. Washington responded to our foreign policy actions and maintained a positive relationship with Brazil, respecting our characteristics and interests.

In the first year of the Lula administration, Brazil's approach to the United States remained the same as it had been under FHC, as the positive results of the visits both presidents made to Washington in 2002 and 2003 attest.

During his first visit to the United States, on December 10, 2002, Lula, then president-elect, publically stated: "I come to Washington with a message of friendship from Brazil and the aim of beginning four years of frank, constructive, and mutually beneficial relations between our two countries."

After drawing a parallel between Brazil and the United States, the incumbent president declared: "History shows that we failed, at times, to avail ourselves of opportunities to build a wider partnership. We might have derived more benefit from the impetus that came of our shared fight against Nazism in Europe to create, in times of peace, a degree of cooperation worthy of our nations. However, I am convinced our bond can grow, if our societies get to know each other better ... if we shake off our stereotypes and prejudices ... if we learn to value the affinities and respect the differences that exist between us."

On the same visit, during a meeting with Bush, Lula said that he wanted to take relations with the United States to a new level. He proposed that the countries draft a common agenda involving their respective presidents, ministers, diplomatic corps, and commercial sectors, in order to create a much ampler political, diplomatic, and commercial framework for action. It was a move that gave rise to the ensuing slew of comparisons with FHC.

On one hand, Lula genuinely seemed to want to continue with the outgoing government's policy and cement a more mature phase in Brazil–US relations, one geared toward Brazil's traditional target fronts of economic growth, technology transfer and, in the wake of his election, human development and social promotion—"Zero Hunger" was the mantra at the time. Throughout the FHC years and during Lula's first two visits to Washington, our relationship was flourishing. However, while the centrality of bilateral relations between Brazil and the US was initially recognized by the incoming administration, the reality that followed bore little resemblance to the picture President Lula had painted on those first visits.

From 2003 on, Brazil's foreign policy priorities underwent changes that had negative consequences for our relations with the United States. The worldview of the Lula government started to pit the developing countries against the developed world.

The priority placed on South–South relations, with Brazil stepping up its actions in South America, Africa, and the Middle East in terms of politics and trade, and its active pursuit of partnerships with emerging nations, consigned the developed world to the background.

From 2004, the more affirmative foreign policies of the Lula government, such as Brazil's intensified presence on the world stage and its support for the creation of South American institutions that excluded the United States, expanded the areas of friction between the two countries and led to a clash of policy and opinion on themes that extended beyond South America.

In the months preceding my return from Washington in April 2004, there were signs of anti-Americanism in certain sectors of the Lula government, the result of the growing influence the Partido dos Trabalhadores was bringing to bear on foreign policy. The situation had grown increasingly complex in the wake of September 11, as Washington became less tolerant of dissonance.

On the other hand, the convergence of interests and values between Brasilia and Washington—such as the protection of democracy and human rights, free trade and the fight against terrorism and narcotics—ensured frank and positive dialogue with the US authorities, despite occasional differences.

I always endeavored to carry out the precise instructions I received from Presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to broaden bilateral relations with the US, reducing the differences and exploring new perspectives for cooperation. "If the US want to play, then we'll play," President Lula told me when I first visited him at the Planalto on January 3, 2003, for a briefing on what he would say in Washington on his first official US visit that March.

With the exception of a US lobby to oust ambassador José Mauricio Bustani as director-general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) during the FHC administration, when Celso Lafer was foreign minister, at no time did the Americans act in a manner that betrayed the principle of mutual respect, the bedrock of any bilateral relationship. And even during the lamentable episode involving Bustani, a clear expression of the arrogant unilateralism of US foreign policy under Bush, the United States understood that the bilateral relationship was never in question, so much so that Brazil was offered the opportunity to nominate another Brazilian to the same international post.

My contact with the US government, particularly with the State Department, was always fruitful. It is interesting that, during my years in Washington, the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, which covers the Americas in general, was always chaired by secretaries of state of Cuban or Mexican origin.

In a sense, events in Cuba and Mexico determined how the United States handled their interests in Latin America, which was seen as a single bloc. In practice, the State Department did not have separate policies for Central America, the Caribbean, and South America.

In the routine examination of subjects of Brazilian interest, I always tried to show the secretaries of state—Peter Romero, Otto Reich, and Roger Noriega—and those responsible for the region under the White House National Security Council that the specificities of Brazil and the economic and commercial interests it shared with the US precluded it from being handled in the same generic way as the rest of the region.

Throughout my ambassadorship, the open and frank dialogue with our main US interlocutors extended to the other agencies of the administration, which started to view the Brazilian embassy as an informed interlocutor with strong support in Brasilia.

Of the many examples I could cite to indicate the degree of credibility and trust we had obtained with Washington, one involves John Maisto, who was in charge of Latin American relations on the National Security Council. Maisto called me one night from the Situation Room in the White House and asked me to consult with FHC about the possibility of his trying to convince President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela to support the application of the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance at an upcoming vote at the Organization of American States (OAS). The treaty had been invoked by Brazil after September 11. I spoke to President Fernando Henrique and explained the urgency and importance of his interjection. "Contrary to American belief, I don't have that kind of influence over Chávez," he joked. Even so, he agreed to speak with the Venezuelan president. When FHC called me back, he said the conversation with Chávez had been positive and that he'd agreed to give the matter some thought. The following morning, when I went to meet Minister Celso Lafer at the airport to accompany him to the OAS meeting, I met the Venezuelan ambassador, who was also there to pick up his chancellor. He told me that Chávez had changed his mind and that he would not be causing any trouble at the conference of American nations.

On another occasion, aware of an impending visit to Brazil by President Jiang Zemin of China, President Bush called FHC to ask him to intercede on his behalf to secure the release of the crew of an America fighter plane that had gone down in China some time before. It was a situation the Americans had been unable to resolve. After talking to Zemin, FHC contacted Bush to say that the crew would be released, but not straight away, and that a Chinese response to the American President would take some time to arrive. Such telephone exchanges between the two presidents became a frequent occurrence, with the embassy normally being informed and mediating proceedings.

In nearly all of my conversations with the State Department and National Security Council, my interlocutors only ever discussed political and economic matters of interest to both countries or concerning South America in general.

In the 1990s, the main themes of US relations with the region, largely financial and economic in nature, were, given the economic difficulties of many South American countries at the time—Brazil included—followed most closely by the US Treasury. As a result, this was a period during which visits by secretaries and high-level Treasury Department officials were more numerous than those from any other area of the US government. The Department of State was the key diplomatic interlocutor, but the Treasury, Federal Reserve Board (FED), US Central Bank, and even the Defense Department were effectively those who formulated and implemented foreign policy for South America.

As it was pursuing negotiations on the creation of the FTAA, the United States changed its stance on Mercosur in the latter half of the 1990s and became more overtly critical of the group. However, contrary to speculations at the time, these objections did not turn into restrictions upon Brazil's initiatives in relation to Mercosur and other matters of regional integration, at least not during my time in Washington.

As an illustration of the absence of any such restrictions, I might mention the meetings I had with Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Pickering, at which he wanted to know the outcome of the first summit of South American presidents convened by FHC in 2000 and asked me to extend the US government's congratulations to the Brazilian president on the success of this historic gathering.

During the usually bi-annual meetings between Brazilian foreign ministers (Luiz Felipe Lampreia and Celso Lafer during the FHC administration and Celso Amorim under Lula) and their US counterparts, the embassy prepared the groundwork for an agenda that might vary depending on the conjuncture, but remained structurally unchanged: bilateral relations, with emphasis on economic and trade issues (the FTAA, protectionist disputes, intellectual property); hemispheric relations (Cuba, Peru, Argentina, Colombia, Venezuela, and Bolivia); global themes (energy and the environment) and occasional matters of international politics, such as the conflict in the Middle East and relations with Russia, China, and India.

During the FHC government, these meetings did not always make the headlines, but they did invariably serve to broaden dialogue and strengthen the bond of mutual trust.

The diplomatic agenda between the two countries was, however, ample and diversified, and it is certainly worth mentioning some examples of how the embassy acted in relation to the main themes under discussion.


In the early 1990s, the peace process in Colombia was a recurrent theme. Toward the end of the decade, the United States began negotiations with the Colombian government on Plan Colombia, a financial and military aid package designed to help tackle narcotics and contain the guerrilla insurgency led by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a situation the US authorities claimed was being sensationalized in the international press. Washington wanted to keep Brazil abreast of US-Colombian understandings and wanted to know if we would be willing to help with the peace process. In 1997, Minister Lampreia informed Secretary of State Madeleine Albright that Brazil had already expressed its support for the peace process, but that it had its reservations regarding the US military component of the plan.

According to Minister Lampreia, in 1999 Marco Aurélio Garcia, then secretary of foreign affairs for the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), approached him to offer PT's mediation should the Brazilian government choose to make contact with the FARC. Given its ties with the FARC, Garcia claimed PT would be able to make the necessary connection. Years later, when these overtures came to light on the eve of the Brazilian presidential election of 2010, Marco Aurélio Garcia issued an official note in which he denied any such offer and claimed to have been invited to Lampreia's cabinet to discuss the matter of Brazil's support for President of Peru Alberto Fujimori. At no time, the note states, did Marco Aurélio offer assistance, personal or on behalf of the party, in negotiations with the FARC, because "there are, and never have been, any such ties between the party and that organization."

In August 1999, I sent a draft containing suggested elements for a Brazilian policy on the mounting tensions in Colombia to policymakers in Brasilia. In this document I offered to help arrange a visit to Brazil by Barry R. McCaffrey, the man in charge of US counternarcotics policy and therefore a relevant interlocutor on Plan Colombia. With my frequent contacts with McCaffrey, I was able to understand the complexity of the issue and the level of the US government's involvement. However, I always discouraged any attempt to engage Brazil.

According to the Argentinean newspaper El Clarín, the Colombian president Andrés Pastrana had declared that Brazil was "the only country that did not support Plan Colombia" Brazil's misgivings on the issue stemmed not only from the instability that the escalating military conflict with the FARC was causing along our borders, but from the US military presence in Colombia, where US military advisors and bases were located uncomfortably close to Brazilian territory.


Another recurrent theme in my conversations was the situation in Venezuela, especially the verbal attacks on the United States by President Hugo Chávez. I recall one senior staffer at the Department of State telling me that "we don't need any more crazy presidents in South America" and that Chávez, in the light of his "international responsibility" as a head of state, ought to be more careful in his declarations. As this diplomat saw it, the hike in oil prices at the time was not due to economic factors of increased demand alone, but was also due to Chávez' irresponsibility, especially in his incendiary speeches to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).


Excerpted from The Washington Dissensus by Rubens Barbosa, Anthony Doyle. Copyright © 2011 Editora Nova Fronteira Participaçõas S.A.. Excerpted by permission of Vanderbilt University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Preface: Brazil and the World, xi,
1 Brazil and the United States, 1,
2 Panoramic View from the Embassy in Washington, 27,
3 Presidents FHC and Lula in Washington, 65,
4 Diplomatic Negotiations in Washington, 108,
5 Being Ambassador in Washington, 151,
6 Work at the Helm of the Embassy in the United States, 183,
7 Developments in Brazilian Foreign Policy toward the United States, 209,
8 Historical Perspective, 238,
Name Index, 251,

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