The Lula Government’s Foreign Policy: An Interview With Emir Sader

May 12, 2011

This interview took place in Rio de Janeiro shortly after Dilma Rousseff took office on New Year’s Day.


What were the most noteworthy characteristics of the Lula government’s foreign policy? And how was it different from Lula’s predecessor?


One of the first defining moments of the Lula government in international policy was when it helped to block the offensive of the U.S.-sponsored Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), which would have established a hemisphere-wide free trade zone modeled on NAFTA. Brazil and the United States would have had a fundamental role in the final phase of the implementation and formalization of the FTAA. Nevertheless, the Lula government’s decision to prioritize the regional processes of integration led Brazil to veto the FTAA, opening the space for MERCOSUR to be revived from its state of inactivity, and almost inexistence.


In the same way, this strategic about-face of the new Brazilian foreign policy allowed and promoted the emergence of new forms of integration and regional cooperation, such as UNASUR, the Bank of the South, the South American Defense Council and the South American Community of Nations. A strong association of diverse countries from across the Global South joined this alliance of Latin American nations, among whom, of course, the BRIC nations—Brazil, Russia, India, and China—are an emblematic example.


Under this framework also, without a doubt, the Lula government established a strong cooperation with Africa, particularly with the Portuguese-speaking countries, which were completely rejected in terms of foreign policy under Lula’s predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995–2002). This allowed us to not only begin to repay the historic debt our country has to Africa, but also establish tight connections of economic exchange, supporting large projects in infrastructure and educational and scientific cooperation, from a completely non-paternalistic perspective, and clearly in solidarity and brotherhood. Likewise, in terms of international trade, China became Brazil’s principal partner, with South America second and United States in third place.


In summary, during the Lula government there was a very substantial change in foreign policy from that of his predecessor. It was a very radical break that could also be seen in the other areas of public policy carried out from 2003 to 2010—changes that, without a doubt, will also underscore the foreign policy style of the new president, Dilma Rousseff.


What was the most significant change of the Lula administration in terms of international geopolitics?


Brazil was always the privileged ally of the United States, whether it was during the Brazilian military dictatorship (1964–85) or during the government of Cardoso. The Lula government abandoned this inferior position, adopting a clearly multipolar direction in its foreign policy. The most concrete way of consolidating this new path was to try to intervene, in the most autonomous and active way, in the definition of agreements or in the resolution of conflicts in which the North American government is involved and whose participation has done nothing but intensify conflicts and multiply tensions. I think that without a doubt, the involvement of the Brazilian government in looking to expand the parties involved in negotiations in the case of Palestine as well in Iraq are eloquent signs of this significant change in foreign policy.


In this same way, Brazil has proposed the real democratization of the United Nations, particularly the increase of the number of permanent members on the Security Council. Brazil hasn’t only fought actively to occupy a permanent seat on this Council, but to make it more open and less immune to the arbitrary whims of the most powerful countries on the planet.


Is this a renewed version of the “third worldism” that grew out of the Non-Aligned Movement in the 1960s and 1970s?


In a way, yes, but now there is a larger emphasis on the recognition of the South, as a geopolitical reference that includes the emerging countries and, at the same time, although the references to imperialism have diminished, a counter-position to the arrogance and systematic violation of popular self-determination that orients the foreign policy of the hegemonic nations. During the Lula government Brazil has been a key actor in this change, and as I said, the BRICs are the clearest expression of the prominence that the emerging countries have achieved.


Will there be changes in Brazilian foreign policy during under the Rousseff government?


It is my understanding that in general, there should be continuity. The new minister of foreign affairs, Antonio Patriota, is closely connected to his predecessor, Celso Amorim, and he will follow the fundamental policies that guided foreign policy under the Lula government. At the same time, another important person who helped to define the path that Brazil took in this area, Marco Aurelio Garcia, will continue as special adviser to Rousseff, as he was with Lula.


It is probable that the absence of Lula and Amorim, with all of the international prominence that they had, will decrease the high profile of Brazilian foreign policy, as least in the beginning. Rousseff’s most characteristic and active themes of political involvement have been more economically and socially oriented, in terms of strengthening and transforming the state. Perhaps foreign policy will lose a bit of the central role that it had during the Lula government, although it is still too early to know. What appears to be without a doubt is that the general focus that guided the change and radicalization of Brazilian foreign policy during the last eight years will continue and strengthen.



Pablo Gentili is the director of the Brazilian section of the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO) at the State University of Rio de Janeiro. Emir Sader is a Brazilian sociologist and political scientist. He is executive secretary of the Latin American Council of Social Sciences (CLACSO) and the author of The New Mole: Paths of the Latin American Left (Verso, forthcoming). This article was originally published in Portuguese on Emir Sader’s blog at Carta Maior ( Translated by NACLA.



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