Could Marina Silva put Brazil’s foreign policy back on track?

The woman who might be Brazil’s next president could shake things up both at home and abroad.

By: /
22 September, 2014
By: Oliver Stuenkel
Assistant Professor of International Relations at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation

Last month, Marina Silva and her advisers faced a formidable challenge. After Eduardo Campos’ tragic death on August 13, Silva, Campos’ running mate who is known in Brazil simply by her first name, suddenly turned into the best-placed candidate to defeat President Dilma Rousseff in the upcoming elections. While other candidates had months to hone their arguments, Marina’s team had merely days to finalize the document that lists her policy proposals.

During the previous election campaign in 2010, she was seen as a protest candidate. Now, with less than two weeks before the country’s Presidential elections on Oct. 5, she has turned into a serious contender, and the first option for many of those who are dissatisfied with the way the country is governed.

In many ways, Marina is a remarkable candidate. While the Rousseff, the incumbent, hails from an urban middle class family, and Aécio Neves is the grandson of an important political leader, Marina grew up in poverty on a rubber tree plantation in the Amazon. Illiterate until age 16, she was then educated in a convent, becoming the only person in her family to learn to read and write. Then, years later, she earned a history degree, making ends meet as a housekeeper. Another 10 years later, she became Senator of her home state, and then Minister of the Environment in the Lula government.

International issues will not be decisive in this election, of course. Voters care most about issues such as health care, education, public transport, public security, the fight against corruption and the economy.

And yet, compared to previous elections, foreign policy issues are set to play a more important role in the final countdown before Oct. 5, underlining a growing notion among voters that the way Brazil relates to the world directly impacts their well-being.

While security issues such as the Crimean Crisis are unlikely to matter much, candidates will have to explain their proposals on topics around South American trading bloc Mercosur, possible trade agreements with the European Union and the United States and the rise of China.

The more likely a victory by Marina seems, the more will people seek to understand her ideas about Brazil’s foreign policy. Here are the issues worth noting:


As big regional negotiations such as one between the EU and United States advance, one cannot but notice the prospect of a world divided into trade blocs. Brazil will have to make up its mind about which strategy to pursue. In the case of the negotiations with the EU, this involves making a decision about whether to take a highly protectionist and rather unpredictable Argentina along or whether to pursue a two-speed solution, temporarily leaving Argentina behind.

According to her program, Marina would opt for the latter option of the “two-speed Mercosur” to facilitate the conclusion of trade negotiations with the European Union, among others. She argues that focusing on the WTO is fully compatible with seeking other regional and bilateral trade deals. That seems reasonable, and even Brazil’s current government has been increasingly open about its willingness to negotiate without Argentina. Marina is also supportive of the ongoing process to fully liberalize trade between the Pacific Alliance and Mercosur, and calls for Brazil to make regional integration its top priority.

Regional leadership

Similar to her arguments made during the campaign four years ago, when Marina said that Brazil had a “key role in mediating between the different regional interests” through exercising “respectful and supportive leadership” in the region, the 2014 program reads as a commitment to play a more active role in the neighborhood.

While she frequently mentions defending human rights and democracy in South America, her program does not suggest a reckless idealistic position that may endanger strategic interests, or that may make Brazil look like a regional bully. Over the coming days, she will certainly have to say how she would deal with the ongoing political crisis in Venezuela.

Global governance

Contrary to critics who argue that Marina would radically change course, there are signs that she could seek to reemphasize the importance of foreign policy after a relatively lackluster performance under Rousseff. Notably, she stresses that both Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Lula contributed to strengthening Brazil’s international projection, and has repeatedly argued, since 2010, in favour of reforming the international system — such as the UN Security Council, the IMF, and the World Bank — to increase its legitimacy and provide Brazil with more responsibility.

Furthermore, as globally recognized environmental leader, Marina has repeatedly argued that Brazil had the potential to assume international leadership in the debate about environmental sustainability. It is in this context that her proposals are most innovative — ranging from engaging with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and strengthening the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization (ACTO). A more sophisticated strategy in the Amazon will also please nationalists, many of whom worry about Brazil’s limited capacity to control its Western borders.

Despite expressing her desire to improve ties to the United States, Marina’s proposals do not imply weakening Brazil’s ties to the Global South; to the contrary, she explicitly refers to the BRICS grouping and the importance of Brazil-Africa ties (differing from Eduardo Campos’ views expressed in an interview published by Política Externa).

That will make it difficult for supporters of Lula’s foreign policy to attack her approach. Nothing suggests that Marina would seek to undo his notable achievements (or, for that matter, Rousseff’s main achievement, Brazil’s laudable internet governance initiative).

Her proposal to promote Brazilian culture more systematically on a global scale —she mentions learning from European institutions such as the Alliance Française, the British Council and the Goethe Institute — deserve attention and hint to a welcome willingness to introduce new ideas to strengthen Brazil’s international visibility. In the same way, she suggests modernizing the Rio Branco Institute, Brazil’s diplomatic academy, and further strengthening the dialogue between Itamaraty (the Ministry of External Relations) and civil society.

Putting foreign policy back at the center?

Finally, and most importantly, Marina argues that Rousseff did not sufficiently value Brazil’s Foreign Ministry. And indeed, under no other Brazilian leader in recent history has the Foreign Ministry — historically above the political fray — been so secondary. As a result, Brazil’s foreign policy under Rousseff has been far more hesitant and passive than during the presidencies of Cardoso and Lula.

Silva, on the other hand, is a world-renowned environmentalist with the capacity to influence the global debate about sustainable development. As President, Marina’s international visibility — and room for initiative — could easily match that of both Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2002) and Lula (2003-2010).

The election of Marina would make her the world’s first environmental leader turned President, and could easily turn her into a global spokesperson on the matter. Equipped with a set of innovative policy proposals and a politically empowered Minister of the Environment, Brazil could turn into a key actor, an internationally visible agenda-setter capable of generating international momentum on the issue.

Her program suggests that Marina would pursue an activist foreign policy, built on the notion that established countries’ dominance in the global conversation is highly counterproductive and unlikely to produce sustainable solutions to the world’s most pressing issues such as climate change, financial volatility, human rights and nuclear proliferation.

More than ever before, Brazil’s stronger voice — be it in the UN Security Council, during climate change negotiations, as a mediator in Venezuela, as a defender of democracy in Guinea Bissau, or as an agenda setter on internet governance — is needed to create a richer and more balanced global debate.

That requires a President unafraid of taking courageous decisions and occasionally generating international controversy.

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