Brazil's leader starts earning allies


Published: Friday, January 3, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 2, 2003 at 9:33 p.m.
BRASILIA, Brazil - Breakfast with Hugo Chavez, dinner with Fidel Castro.
The first day in office for Brazil's new president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, projects the image of a leftist alliance in Latin America - one that Chavez, Venezuela's president, has already nicknamed the "Axis of Good."
Such an alliance could hinder U.S. efforts to create a Free Trade Area of the Americas stretching from Alaska to the tip of Argentina by 2005.
Despite the perception of a new Latin American troika, doubts abound that Silva really wants to form a bloc with such close ties to Chavez and Castro, Cuba's leader.
But by giving Latin America's other two leftist leaders such a warm welcome a day after his inauguration, Silva gets huge political mileage in Brazil, where Castro and Chavez are revered by the far left of his party.
The United States sent trade representative Robert Zoellick to the inauguration, seen by the Brazilians as something of a snub because Silva had called him "the sub secretary of a sub secretary of a sub secretary" during his election campaign.
At the breakfast meeting, Chavez asked Silva to send technical experts from Brazil's state-owned oil company to replace some of the 30,000 Venezuelan state oil workers who have joined a crippling nationwide strike. Silva said he would consider the request.
And before dining Thursday night with Silva, Castro told Associated Press Television News that Brazilian-Cuban relations will grow stronger now that Brazil has its first elected leftist president.
Castro and Chavez had front-row seats in Congress at Silva's inauguration Wednesday, where an estimated 200,000 Brazilians waved red flags. Many were dressed in red and white clothes, the colors of Silva's Workers Party.
The Cuban and Venezuelan leaders had dinner together, and talked until 4 a.m. Thursday at the Brasilia hotel where Castro is staying.
But experts said Silva's efforts to accommodate Castro and Chavez in Brasilia could be carefully calculated political window dressing.
Silva angered his party's left wing by appointing fiscal moderates to key cabinet posts, but needs its help to push programs through Congress, where he lacks a majority.
"Embracing Castro and Chavez, the symbols of anti-U.S. influence in Latin America, gets Silva political capital in Brazil," said Stephen Haber, a Latin American expert at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. "But this is a dangerous game, you go too far one way or the other and this will blow up in your face."
Silva doesn't want to scare away investors, who already sent the value of the Brazilian currency, the real, down 40 percent last summer over fears that his administration might not follow responsible economic policies.
So far, Silva seems to be pleasing his supporters without spooking financial markets. The real, which ended down 35 percent last year, finished stronger Thursday as the market reacted positively to second-tier finance ministry appointments.
Named to the posts were a mix of left-leaning, moderate and liberal economists with strong credentials, along with officials from the administration of former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso who will keep their posts.
Chavez coined the "Axis of Good" term after Silva was elected in October, hailing the victory and saying Venezuela, Brazil and Cuba should team up to fight poverty.
"We will form an 'axis of good,' good for the people, good for the future," Chavez said at the time.
But Brazilian political scientists dismissed the possibility of an "Axis of Good" being created by the meetings between Silva, Castro and Chavez.
"There is no way this represents the beginning of Chavez' 'Axis of Good' and much less the 'Axis of Evil' imagined by right-wing Americans," said Luciano Dias, a political scientist at the Brasilia-based Brazilian Institute of Political Studies.
Silva, who is popularly known as Lula, "would never even consider creating a nucleus of leftists in Latin America, he is too smart for that," Dias said.
Chavez left his strikebound and politically riven country despite the crippling work stoppage aimed at toppling him from the presidency of the world's fifth largest oil producer.
Silva also has a compelling reason for staying on friendly terms with Chavez: The long border the two countries share.
"Brazil worries very much about violence in Venezuela spilling over into Brazil," Haber said. "So you want to have peaceful relations with the Venezuelan, regardless of who is in charge."
During his breakfast with Silva, Chavez also brought up the idea of increasing cooperation among Latin American state-owned oil industries and set up a company called Petro-America.
"It would become a sort of Latin American OPEC," Chavez said. "It would start with Venezuela's PDVSA and Brazil's Petrobras," and could come to include Ecopetrol from Colombia, PetroEcuador from Ecuador, and PetroTrinidad from Trinidad and Tobago."
Last week, Cardoso's outgoing administration sent a tanker to Venezuela carrying 520,000 barrels of gasoline, but that barely dented shortages around the country.
If Silva decides to help Chavez with Brazilian oil workers, it probably won't accomplish much either, said Albert Fishlow, who heads Columbia University's Brazilian studies program.
"If he does it will be minimal and not enough to affect the situation," Fishlow said.

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