A summit of hope

Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim spoke to Aljazeera’s Rachid Jaafar about the country’s economic and political status and the relevance of the Arab-South America Summit in Brasilia.

Celso Amorim (L) takes questions while in Damascus
Celso Amorim (L) takes questions while in Damascus

Rachid Jaafar for Aljazeera: What are the main changes that have taken place in Brazil since Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva became president almost two and a half years ago?


Celso Amorim: The country has recovered confidence in itself. It faced a problem of credibility internally and externally.


Internationally, mainly because the fiscal policies were in doubt, the debt of the country was in doubt, inflation was getting higher again. All these required very stem measures in these years. The economy now is growing at 5.2%, employment is at record levels.


We don’t have a significant problem of foreign debt any more.


All these things diminished the Brazilian vulnerability vis a vis foreign markets and flows of capital.


Internally, there was a problem of credibility too, in relation to social questions.


Brazil has progressed very much in some areas. We are maybe the third or fourth producer, for instance, of civil aircraft in the world.


Many people only think we produce coffee or orange juice. It is a country that has has made a lot of progress in science and technology. We have a joint satellite with China, for instance.


On the other hand, it’s a country with immense social debt. There are many people who are very poor.


We have at least 40 or 45 million people below the poverty line. What President Lula did was to put the economy right and start social policies that give hope for people.


We had to undergo two important reforms, one in social security another in fiscal structure. Social security was very painful because, in many cases, the people who would be affected were people that belonged to the same trade unions that supported President Lula during all his political life.


The fact the government is looking to the poor trying to have social programmes that improve the situation is very important.


AJ: You recently concluded a tour in the Arab world. What was the purpose?


CA: I’ve been travelling almost as much as Ibn Batuta.  I’ve been to 15 or 16 Arab countries, almost all the Arab League.


There are several purposes. Brazil has a great indebtedness to the Arab immigrants and Arab culture. Even before the influx of immigrants from the 19th century onwards, we had the influence of Arab culture through the Iberian Peninsula.


But the political and economic relations were not at the same level.


President Lula tried to correct that. He paid a visit to five Arab countries in the region.


The other purpose was to transmit to the governments the objectives of the summit.


This will be the summit of hope.

Brazil produces more than just oranges and coffee

Brazil produces more than just
oranges and coffee

I saw things that were hard to see in Palestine. I could witness tremendous progress in Qatar or in other places. In many places also I saw things that are very similar to Brazil and the diversity I mean different shades of colour.


AJ: Why has nobody thought of convening such a summit before?


CA: When we started talking about the summit, people were asking: ‘Why? What for?’ Now, people are asking why not before?


The summit has already been a success because, since President Lula visited the Arab world, maybe 16 months ago, less that one year and a half ago- our trade with Arab countries has already increased 50%.


And that’s not all oil. Our exports also increased 46%.


You’re speaking of significant figures as we improved from $5 billion to more than $8 billion.


It’s a very strong movement and we still hope to have more Arab investment in Brazil.


We are interested in investing in the Arab world.


What I say about Brazil is true about the whole of South America because we are in the process of integration in South America which requires investment and infrastructure.


There is a lot of business to be done. We will be able to offer technical assistance because the level of development in the Arab world is not even. In some cases we can help more and, in other cases, we will be receiving some help but always in mutual benefit.


AJ: There seems to be a focus on trade. Are there other aspects of mutual interest between South America and the Arab world?


CA: I mention trade because it is a good indicator since it has numbers. Other issues are more difficult to characterise in figures but the relations go much beyond.


For human relations, we have this immense contribution of the Arab world to Brazil and to other countries.


We have 10 million or 12 million people of Arab descent. In the Arab world, we would be one of the biggest countries in the Arab World with 10 million people if you consider it that way. We have twice as many Lebanese as in Lebanon.


The summit is creating new opportunities for cultural exchanges. 


AJ: Brazilian diplomacy has been very active. Is Brazil trying to become a voice of the developing world and bring social justice to the international system?


CA: Social justice is very much to the heart of President Lula. He was a metal worker; before that he was in even humbler positions.


He sincerely wants to contribute to change, internally and internationally. Internationally, he took several initiatives; one on combating hunger.


Farm subsidies are a bone of contention for Brazil

Farm subsidies are a bone of
contention for Brazil

This is one aspect. The other is trade. You know the role of the Doha Development Round, what we want is to have a relationship that is fairer, that is a more just relationship.


It means eliminating the scandalous subsidies to agriculture that affect not only countries like Brazil, which has a big export potential, or Uruguay or Argentina which have a big potential but also countries that import food because they cannot develop their own production. I can give you an example with cotton: Some 10 to 12 years ago, Brazil didn’t export cotton because the subsidies given in one of the developed countries were so huge that we didn’t even consider exporting cotton.


The same thing may happen with rice. In Latin America many countries would be able to export rice if it were not for the huge subsidies of other countries.


AJ: The Doha mandate addressed this issue at length a few years ago. Did it succeed in correcting this imbalance in the international trade system?


CA: Everything we tried to do in Cancun and after Cancun in Geneva was to give effect to the Doha Development Round, to the Doha mandate which foresees elimination of export subsidies and substantial reductions of domestic support (domestic subsidies).


They call it domestic – it is a kind of euphemism but they are subsidies all the same and they have an impact on international trade.


We would eliminate them if we could, but it’s not possible in the short run. But we want to have a real, effective reduction of subsidies.


It’s not a question of rivalry it’s a question of pragmatism. It would be foolish to rival the big powers of the north: The United States and the European Union which are our clients after all.


What we want is better, more just rules of trade so we can have exchanges with each other on the basis of a level playing field.


We can’t have a level playing field if you are putting all the money of these huge treasuries of the US or the European Union or other developed countries into the production of the goods that we are competitive on.


We have been preached at during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s that we had to liberalise trade. Now, we said: “OK, we want to liberalise trade but, come on, you have these huge subsidies. We have to finish these distortions.” This is the first step. There is no confrontation – it is negotiating.


AJ: Has your voice been heard or is the north still dictating the rules on international trade?


CA: They like to dictate when they can but it is becoming more difficult.


All these things fit with what President Lula has been calling for: Creating a new economic geography which has an impact on the political geography of the world.


Improved air communications are a must, says the FM

Improved air communications
are a must, says the FM

We are not doing business inside South America instead of doing business with the United States; or with the Arab World instead of Europe.


We want to diversify and to have more dialogue.


If you go to the Brazilian trade about 15 years ago or so, rough figures, our trade with the developing world would be something like 15% of our total trade. Even with the countries of the Mercosur, it was about 4-5%.


Nowadays, our trade with the developing world is 45% of our total trade.


One big challenge is the creation of air links. Mr Moussa had to go to Frankfurt to come to Sao Paulo or to Rio. If you look at the map you have a much shorter, direct line.


But it requires imagination and boldness. We hope that at this summit the business forum will create the proper atmosphere for business people to take bold steps. One of them would be the creation of air links.


AJ: Brazil has been pushing diplomatically to obtain a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council. What has been achieved?


CA: This is not an obsession. It is part of the process of reform of the United Nations. Nobody can understand why the United Nations has to operate in the 21st century with a structure that was born in the first half of the 20th century. It is no longer possible.


It diminishes the legitimacy of the Security Council.


We think it is important to have a better understanding on the questions like social reconstruction and peacekeeping because they go together very often.


There are several things that have to be looked at in the reform of the UN. But, since you mentioned the Security Council, we are now coming to a decisive moment.


Even permanent members, that doesn’t mean they are eternal. I think we can subject all this process to a review in 10 or 15 years’ time so that would allow us to see if we did the right thing or if there is anything to be changed.


Amorim believes the Security Council must be revised

Amorim believes the Security
Council must be revised

We have to reform. I was Ambassador to the United Nations and I remember when there were sanctions against Libya, and Brazil favoured early suspension of the sanctions. But there was a moment in which the Arab League and the African Union said they would no longer apply the sanctions because they have made up their minds they were obsolete.


This was also because they did not think the Security Council had the sufficient legitimacy because representation was not  correct. If there is a reform, there must be developing countries among the permanent members.


Ideally they should be on an equal footing. I would prefer to see the veto of the existing permanent members decline progressively rather than ask for the veto for more countries. Permanence gives power because it is power of information, power of the contact, and power of being there and people seeing you helping solve problems.


Countries like Brazil and India can play a role. I’m sure African countries can play a role and Arab countries would also be necessary in that context.


AJ: There is a saying in the US that Latin America is the backyard of the US in a reference to the traditional American hegemony on the region.


With this active diplomacy to forge a leading role in South America and in the developing world as well, world affairs, is Brazil trying to tell its powerful neighbour to the North, in a diplomatic way, to stay away and let Brazilians take care of their own destiny?


CA: We are no one’s backyard. If anyone still has that vision, it is totally wrong.


We have an interest in keeping stability in South America and we have been trying to help in that respect.


We did that in relation to Bolivia when there was a difficult transition. We have done it in other places as well. W do it discreetly, without pressure or threats of military action, but with persuasion and dialogue.


In Venezuela, the options that were on the table seemed to be radical ones. They would put either the government or the opposition against the wall. We tried to bring dialogue and, in the end, there was a solution that was in accordance with the Venezuelan constitution. It was a democratic one – nobody can criticise that.


AJ: With all these disparities: strong economy vs poverty, technological advances vs social disparities, can Brazil become a major power on the world scene?


CA: I think President Lula would agree there is this disparity and that is a shame. It is part of the heritage. We come from a society that was in the 19th century based on slavery.


It takes a long time to move, but we are moving. Take the Zero­ Hunger Initiative. This programme, which consists of transferring money to poorer families, became broader and by the end of next year it will be encompassing the whole 45 million people who live below the poverty line.


That is how we are trying to work on that because if you are just trying to be great in the economy or even in foreign policy but you don’t solve your social problems then it’s an empty greatness because the only real greatness comes from the well-being of the people.

Source : Al Jazeera

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