|Brazil unilaterally recognised Palestine in 2010, prompting other South American nations to follow suit [GALLO/GETTY]
During Brazil's two decades of military dictatorship, it would have been unthinkable that a female former revolutionary would lead the country in the 21st century.
That transition, from autocracy to democracy, might offer some lessons for rebels across the Arab world, Brazil’s longest serving foreign minister told a forum organised by the Al Jazeera Centre for Studies in Doha, Qatar.
"Who would have thought an intellectual, a metal worker and a kind of revolutionary would follow a military dictatorship?" Celso Amorim, the former foreign minister and career diplomat, told a crowd on Thursday, speaking about Brazil’s former and current leaders.
"Whatever happens [rebellions across the Arab world] will create a new political situation in the Middle East. This is for certain," he said.
And, while he refused to directly give advice to Egyptians, Bahrainis, Tunisians or Libyans, Brazil's experiences appear to have some parallels with the developments underway in the region today.
Brazil's dark past
In 1964, the Brazilian military launched a coup, toppling a populist democracy led by the leftist president, Joao Goulart. The military closed parliament in 1968 and the generals created a 'democracy' with two legal political parties - Amorim describes them as the parties of "yes" and "yes, sir".
The military dissolved student organisations, attacked leaders from the trade union movement, censored the press and tortured or 'disappeared' its opponents. It was the sort state behaviour that many Arabs are all too familiar with.
|Ceso Amorim, Brazil's former foreign minister, is proud of combatting inequality [Chris Arsenault/AJE]
From 1968 to around 1975, Brazil’s economy expanded, with GDP growing by 10 per cent some years. But, as is common in top-down governments, the gains were not widely shared. Growth did not trickle down to the poor and inequality ballooned.
"During the military government, we had high economic growth, but social inequality increased," Amorim said. "The most important thing Brazil did [during my two terms as foreign minister] was the reduction of inequality."
In Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, privitisation and so-called market reforms in 2004 "triggered an impressive acceleration of growth," according to a 2008 International Monetary Fund (IMF) survey. But 40 per cent of the population continued to live on less than two dollars a day, while skyrocketing property prices made apartment ownership almost impossible for many middle class families. The pie may have gotten bigger, but many bakers remained hungry.
"A society that is very unequal always has the pressure of instability," Amorim said.
The chasm between the 'haves' - often those with links to the regime - and the 'have nots' is profound in Egypt. The same is true in Libya and most Arab countries.
To tackle inequities, Brazil’s government, under President Luiz Ignacio Lula de Silva, a former metal worker and union leader, initiated a series of programmes, including scholarships and income subsidies for the poor, Amorim said. Subsidies are given to poor families under certain conditions: For example, that they send their children to school.
Money is given to the female head of the household, rather than the husband. "It doesn't go this way in the Muslim world, [but] in Brazil, if you give the money to the father, they drink it all," Amorim said.
Religion and revolution
Since becoming democratic, 30 million Brazilians have joined the middle class, with 30 million more leaving abject poverty for less grinding poverty, the former foreign minister said. But the country still has a long to go if the goal is to eliminate vast income disparities.
Moves towards democracy in Brazil did not happen overnight; they transpired slowly throughout the 1980s. And religious institutions played a key part in that transition, said Matthew Flynn, a sociology lecturer and Brazil specialist at the University of Texas. "I'd imagine that religious institutions will play a pretty prominent role in [any transition] in the Middle East," Flynn said.
The Workers Party (PT), which currently holds power, was formed in 1978 by labour agitators in the country’s industrial heart-land, religious activists from the Catholic Church and human rights groups. "They [the PT] were pretty active in forcing elections, along with other independent parties," Flynn said.
Dilma Rouseff, Brazil’s current president and the country’s first female leader, began her political career as a leftist guerrilla, fighting the military dictatorship.
Lessons to learn?
But violent revolution did not bring down the Junta. "When the military government fell, we didn't immediately write a new constitution," Amorim said. "We elected a committee which spent two years writing a new one" in a process that finished in 1988. After elections in 1989, Brazil was generally believed to be a democracy.
Chile, Uruguay and Argentina also threw-off the shackles of military rule, along with most other counties in the region.
Mark Katz, a professor of government at George Mason University, believes there is "very good reason to believe the Middle East will go down the path of Latin America".
"People were pretty hopeless about it [democracy in Latin America]," Katz said. "But in the end, it has turned out pretty well for the most part.
"What is going on in the Middle East is incredibly positive."
If Katz is correct, and the uprisings across the Middle East result in more democratic governance, it is likely that ties will increase between Latin America and the Arab world.
The first Arab-South American countries summit took place in Brasilia, Brazil’s capital, in 2005, with a follow-up hosted in Doha, Qatar in 2009. For now, trade is the main thrust of the relationship. "The biggest trade surplus Brazil has is with the Arab world," said Amorim.
Outside of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) encompassing petroleum rich countries in the Arabian Gulf, Arab economies are not particularly well integrated. "This [regional integration] is a place where we can share our experiences," Amorim said.
Founded in 1991, Mercosur, a trade bloc between Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, could provide a model for Arab countries, especially in North Africa, the former ambassador said.
And, integration within the Arab world could have benefits beyond increased economic growth, said Jamie de Melo, a professor at the University of Geneva in Switzerland who studies economic relationships. "Countries that are neighbours and have regional trade agreements, preferential trade agreements, seem to be less likely to go into conflict," de Melo said.
Beyond trade, Brazil has weighed into broader issues in the Middle East. South America’s largest country unilaterally recognised a Palestinian state in December 2010, prompting other South American countries to follow suit. The country also maintains cordial relations with Israel.
"In November 2009, we received the presidents of Iran, Israel and the Palestinian Authority," Amorim said. "How many other countries can say that?"