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South America

Geopolitics of Brazil

Brazil is South America’s emerging power. It is the largest and most populous country in the continent; and it benefits from a favourable geographic position, important natural resources and a growing economy. As such, it is taking a more active international role both in the region and beyond. Yet, it must also face notable challenges; notably corruption, criminality, inequality and others; all of which may undermine its rise as a great power.

Geography and Brazil’s rise

Like any other country, Brazil’s geopolitics can be examined as a combination of three factors: dimension, configuration and position.

Brazil covers a total area of about 8,515,000 square kilometres, making of it the 5th country in the world in terms of size. This puts Brazil in a favourable position to dominate the continent, as it can access any region with relative ease. Similarly, its 7,500 kilometres-long coastline on the Atlantic Ocean enables Brazil to easily project its power abroad and to engage in lucrative maritime trade.

In terms of configuration, Brazil’s territory can roughly be divided in two parts. The north-west is centred on the Amazon river basin and its vast rainforest, the largest in the world and a real treasure in terms of biodiversity. The south-east is made up of ridges and mountain ranges crossed by the Parana river. As a matter of facts, watercourses are an important feature in Brazil’s geography: the country has a complex hydrographic system that brings significant benefits to electric power generation and agriculture, which is also favoured by Brazil’s warm climate. Most of Brazil’s 208 million citizens, the majority of which are young people, live in the cities along the coast. This has resulted into vast metropolis where economic prosperity meets overcrowded slums.

But position is Brazil’s most important characteristic. It borders ten nations, meaning all the countries in South America except Ecuador and Chile. None of its neighbours represents a real threat, and not only because relations are generally good: Brazil is simply more powerful than any of them. Even Argentina, the second most influent country in the continent, cannot seriously challenge Brazil’s supremacy due to a worse geopolitical and economic situation. Other states are not a real matter of concern; yet, they are important for Brazil’s own geopolitical ambitions. Brazil wants to extend its influence westwards to connect the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans so to unlock its innermost territories, become the centre of coast-to-coast trade and increase its regional influence. To reach this objective, Brazil needs to keep the URAPABOL area in its sphere of influence. This zone takes its name after the three states composing it: Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia. They are seen as South America’s geopolitical pivot, meaning that the power who controls them can extend its influence over all the continent and obtain a dominant position. Moreover, the URAPABOL states were also seen as useful buffer zone against foreign threats and Argentina in particular; even though today the likelihood of a war is really remote. For these reasons, Brazil is attentive to maintain a solid political, economic and demographic presence in these three countries. But Brazil’s is also located along the Atlantic’s coasts, meaning that it can easily reach the large American and European markets to the North; as well as Africa with its natural resources and many fast-growing economies. So, Brazil also wants to become a naval power to boost its economy and develop its Navy to project its power abroad.

Brazil’s economic & military outlook

Apart from geography, Brazil also has natural resources, a considerable economic potential and important military means.

Brazil is certainly South America’s leading economy, but its outlook is made of mixed figures. This year, its GDP is projected to reach 1.9 thousand billion dollars, which goes to 3.5 thousand in terms of Purchasing Power Parity. The expected growth rate is of 2.4% in current prices. Brazil was at the 9th place on the list of the world’s largest economies in 2018, and it is expected to reach the 5th position by 2050. Its per capita GDP will stand around 16.7 thousand dollars in 2019, a relatively low figure to be combined with an unequal distribution of wealth. After years of high inflation, the price growth seems to have stabilized at around 3.5%. The debt of the central government is on the rise, amounting to almost 79% of the GDP in 2017, Along with a slight budget deficit of around 1%, this trend can become problematic in the long term. Unemployment affects 10.7% of the population today, and 4% of Brazilians lived below the poverty line in 2016. The trade balance has been in constant surplus for years, sustained by agriculture and manufacturing exports. As a matter of fact, Brazil is a true agronomic giant and its industry is also developing in many sectors. In addition, it also hosts significant hydrocarbon and mineral reserves, and is a leading producer of biogas. However, this has negative environmental consequences: huge swathes of the Amazon rainforest have been cut to grow the crops required for producing biogas; and also for other reasons like timber production. Brazil has nuclear reactors for energy generation and infrastructures are being improved, but much work remains to be done.

This overview shows that Brazil is indeed an emerging country, but like other economies in analogous conditions it has still considerable challenges to deal with. Corruption, poverty and inequality continue affecting its economy. This has important repercussions on the country’s political life, since similar matters are a cause of social unrest and high crime rates. In fact, Jair Bolsonaro has been elected President largely out of promises of tackling corruption, reforming the economy and crushing criminality.

Brazil is the main power in South America also in military terms. It spends regularly more than 1.32% of its GDP on defence, and it possesses large and well-equipped armed forces who remain politically influential. The Army includes, among others, specialized units for jungle warfare and a vast park of vehicles. It also maintains the Strategic Rapid Action Force, ready to be deployed anywhere in the country at a short notice. In recent years, due to better relations with Argentina and in accordance to its strategy to extend its power westwards, it has relocated many units in the Amazon area. The Air Force operates fighters, cargos and airborne warning & control planes. But the Navy is the most notable component of the Brazilian military, as it is a powerful mean of power projection. Today, it includes diesel-electric submarines, landing ships and a helicopter carrier plus naval aviation and marines; and it also plans to deploy a nuclear-powered attack submarine by 2025. Finally, Brazil also possesses a considerable defence industry and carries on its own space program.

Brazil’s foreign relations

Brazil’s foreign policy is largely based on multilateralism. It maintains pretty good relations with its neighbours, and it is a member of the main regional bodies like the Organization of American States, the Union of South American Nations and the Southern Common Market; where it plays an important role in promoting integration. It provides economic aid to developing countries, notably African ones; but this is also motivated by economic interests, like accessing resources and opening new markets for Brazilian firms. It also takes part to UN missions and promotes the enlargement of the UN Security Council. Moreover, it is a member of the informal BRICS group along with Russia, India, China and South Africa; and it keeps cooperating with all of them all while maintaining good ties with the US and with European countries.

Now that Bolsonaro is President, US-Brazil relations will receive a boost: Bolsonaro is openly pro-American and share many similar views with Trump: they oppose immigration, they are close to Christian and conservative groups, they promise to crush criminality and fight terrorism, they are favourable to death penalty, they support the rights of gun owners, their economic policy focuses on privatization and deregulation at home while protecting their industry from foreign competition by introducing tariffs, they criticize authoritarian regimes and are very friendly towards Israel and other pro-US states like Japan or South Korea, and they are hostile to foreign (and especially Chinese) economic penetration in their countries. Since Brazil is the main power in South America and the only one capable of countering US supremacy to some degree, Bolsonaro’s election is a gift for America: it virtually ensures that Brazil will remain friendly and that it will oppose rival powers like China and Russia. Both of them are indeed expanding their presence in South America to access resources and to subtract the area from American influence, but now their efforts risk being thwarted. Nevertheless, China remains a central economic partner for Brazil, and along with Russia it will continue to extend its presence in South America. Brazil, on its part, will maintain its multilateral approach to diversify its partnerships, maximize its benefits and increase its global influence.

Conclusion

Brazil is South America’s main power and its influence in international affairs will certainly increase in the future. Yet, its economic growth is not as spectacular as China’s or India’s; and it has to face many challenges like poverty and inequality, environmental degradation, corruption and social unrest. All such factors will limit its geopolitical role. But Brazil, is that contrarily to other emerging countries, it is not involved in rivalries with other states and it is not challenging the existing international order. Instead, it focuses on multilateralism and mutually-beneficial cooperation. This is probably the most remarkable aspect of Brazil’s rise: at least by now, it looks that it will be peaceful and not destabilizing.

Where is Venezuela Heading?

Understanding Venezuela’s foreign policy

Venezuela often dominates the news agenda on account of its profound economic crisis and associated societal ills, including the dubious distinction of boasting one of the highest crime rates in the world.

Venezuela is often depicted as a revolutionary power owing to the so-called “Bolivarian Revolution” started by the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez. Ideologically the Bolivarian revolution is a mix of Venezuelan nationalism, Pan-American regionalism and socialism.

Whilst enormous academic and media attention has focussed on how “Bolivarianism” has shaped Venezuela’s economic policy since 1998 (the year Hugo Chavez first came to power), comparatively small effort has been expended on understanding how the Bolivarian revolution has influenced Venezuelan foreign policy in the past two decades.

Welcome to KJ Vids. In this video we will examine the ideological, political and strategic considerations shaping Venezuela’s foreign policy.

 A Socialist revolution?   

Venezuela radically changed direction in the late 1990s with the advent of Hugo Chavez and his “Bolivarian” revolution. First elected to the presidency in December 1998 Chavez proved to be a remarkably resilient revolutionary leader in the face of massive internal and external opposition.

During his fifteen years at the helm of Venezuelan politics, Chavez faced determined opposition by US-backed political groups, widespread industrial unrest culminating in a general strike in 2002-2003 and an ill-fated coup attempt in April 2002. It is widely accepted in the expert community that much of the political, industrial and business opposition to Chavez was sponsored by the United States government.

But the nature of Chavez’s politics, and specifically his radical economic policies, intensified divisions in Venezuelan society leading to a highly charged polarised environment. Chavez’s support base was mostly amongst the poor – especially Venezuela’s indigenous (i.e. non-European) community – and the lower middle classes, whereas opposition to his rule was concentrated amongst the middle class, which is dominated by people of European origin.

Whilst drawing attention to Chavez’ shortcomings (in particular his demagoguery and single-minded pursuit of ideological-based economic policies) it is important to avoid the propaganda of his enemies who have tried to paint him as a dictator or failing that an authoritarian leader.

Throughout his 15-year reign Chavez operated within the confines of the Venezuelan constitution and by and large he respected the checks and balances of Venezuela’s democracy. By contrast, Chavez’s opponents consistently displayed disdain for Venezuela’s democratic institutions by continually fomenting unrest and attempting to overthrow Chavez through extra-illegal measures, notably an extended general strike and a failed military coup.

Chavez’s radical economic policies, and specifically his concerted attempt at the redistribution of wealth and opportunity, was fuelled by high oil prices in the first decade of the 21st century. The qualified success of some aspects of Chavez’s economic policies led to high hopes amongst left-wing activists in Latina America, and more broadly on the global stage, that Venezuela was successfully implementing a socialist economy.

But the reversal of these qualified successes, particularly after Chavez’s death in March 2013, has called into question the sustainability of “Chavismo”, Chavez’s quixotic take on the Bolivarian ideology. These shortcomings have come into sharp relief under the leadership of Chavez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro.

In the past couple of years Venezuela has been gripped by a severe economic crisis interspersed with riots and widespread civil disorder. On top of this the country suffers from multiple systemic societal disorders, notably one of the highest crime rates in the world.

The combination of these ills points to the failure of “Chavismo”, and specifically the socialist economic policies underpinning it. But before we rush to judgement on Venezuela, it is important to note that the final script has yet to be written. To that end, it is noteworthy that Maduro’s government is proving to be resilient in the face of concerted and ferocious opposition.

More importantly, the socio-economic base of “Chavismo” appears to be largely intact, in spite of Venezuela’s profound economic crisis. This speaks to the intense polarisation of Venezuelan society and raises the prospect of civil war further down the road, especially in the event of foreign intervention in Venezuela’s domestic affairs.

The “Bolivarian” foreign policy

Named after the 19th century Venezuelan military leader, Simon Bolivar, who liberated vast swathes of South America from the grip of the Spanish Empire, the Bolivarian ideology is essentially a form of pan-American nationalism centred on national sovereignty as the building bloc of Hispanic solidarity.

“Bolivarianism” has been utilised by a variety of political movements in South and Central America and it is elastic enough to serve a multitude of political goals and ends. But in its native Venezuela, Bolivarianism is associated with militarism and a tough and uncompromising approach toward notions of national sovereignty and independence.

Hailing from a military background, Hugo Chavez fit the conventional Bolivarian mould perfectly, but he was also sufficiently innovative to marry up elements of the Bolivarian ideology with his own socialist ethos. The result was “Chavismo” which has had a profound impact on Venezuela’s foreign policy.

Immediately after coming to power Chavez pivoted toward Socialist Cuba, a revolutionary state with a legendary anti-imperialist reputation. By extension, Venezuela distanced itself from the United States which from the very outset has attempted to overthrow Chavez’s Bolivarian revolution.

Chavez’s tough stance on American hegemony was entirely in keeping with his nationalist ethos and more importantly it resonated widely and deeply amongst nationalist communities across Latin America.

In trying to understand Venezuela’s post-1998 foreign policy, it is helpful to think of it as forming three concentric circles. The first circle is composed of the main political-ideological pillar of the Bolivarian revolution, which is centred on anti-imperialist sentiments, and specifically opposition to the US role in Latin America.

The second circle is centred on achieving Latin American unity and wider notions of pan-Americanism. In practise this involves greater engagement with Latin American states, in some cases to the point of interfering in the internal affairs of regional states with a view to strengthening nationalist and socialist movements.

The third circle is concerned with developing global positions, and specifically using Venezuela’s oil wealth to develop influence and outreach beyond Latin America. To that end, Bolivarian Venezuela has sought to develop strong ties with major non-Western powers, notably Iran and China.

Pushing back against America

During the early years of “Chavismo”, Chavez’s huge reputation and his massive influence on public opinion across Latin America was interpreted as the locus of a continent-wide Socialist “Pink tide”. The “Pink tide” was depicted as representing a decisive political and economic tilt toward the left, and by extension a decisive rejection of the dominant neo-liberal economic model.

In so far as the United States is the chief proponent of the neo-liberal economic model, Venezuela was necessarily in opposition to it. But contrary to conventional wisdom Chavez’s anti-Americanism was not primarily driven by socialist ideology. For a start, in the early years of his reign Chavez proved to be a moderate socialist in so far as he refrained from the root and branch rejection of the capitalist model.

Instead Venezuelan foreign policy developed an anti-American trajectory for primarily two reasons. First, in keeping with the Bolivarian nationalist ethos – and mindful of America’s consistent intervention in Venezuelan domestic affairs throughout the 20th century – the “Chavistas” had to be by definition anti-American.

There was also an immediate practical need for a tough attitude towards the United States inasmuch as Venezuela had a pressing need to contain American influence both domestically and more broadly in its immediate environment. This need intensified when the US government openly reached out to the Venezuelan opposition and leading industrialists with a view to fomenting unrest in the country.

Under Nicolas Maduro’s leadership attitudes towards the United States have hardened still further. This development is a direct reaction to hostile US policies which seek to isolate Venezuela in South America, in addition to weakening it from within by fomenting unrest and insurrection.

The forlorn quest for Latin American unity

The Chavistas never stop talking about South American unity. To be fair their vision of “unity” is not entirely unrealistic in so far as they envisage a broad-based solidarity bound by minimalist principals revolving around nationalism and a rejection of neo-liberal economic models. These principles resonate widely across the continent and they continue to energise a multitude of political parties and movements in every Latin American country.

More specifically, despite its economic crisis, neo-Bolivarian Venezuela continues to be a source of ideological inspiration across the continent. Notwithstanding these positive features, it is fair to say that Venezuela’s policy of promoting South American unity has failed.

For a start, the continent is as divided as ever and by extension American influence, particularly in Colombia, Brazil and Chile, is arguably as strong as it has ever been. Second, Venezuela is politically isolated on the continent as demonstrated by its strained relationship with the continent’s biggest power Brazil.

Furthermore, Venezuela faces hostility from neighbouring Colombia as Caracas has supported left-wing political and guerrilla groups in Colombia for the past 20 years. This has largely been a reaction to Colombia’s outreach to anti-Chavez groups in Venezuela.

A “global” foreign policy?

The Chavistas have always aspired to a global standing. Buoyed by high oil prices, in the first decade of the 21st century they set out to develop influence and sympathy across the world. This led to some strange policies, notably the decision in 2007 to supply cheap fuel to bus services in London, the capital of the United Kingdom. The deal was a flamboyant demonstration of gesture politics designed to strengthen the position of London’s then left-wing mayor Ken Livingstone.

Theatrics aside, Venezuela has undertaken serious moves on the international stage. The most important and far-reaching, both in terms of Venezuela’s global outreach and the reaction it elicits from the US government, has been Caracas’s alliance with the Islamic Republic of Iran.    

Originating in the close personal bond between former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hugo Chavez, the embryonic Iranian-Venezuelan alliance has persisted to this day (albeit at a less dramatic level), thus allowing Iran to establish a firm foothold in Venezuela. This is in keeping with the broader Iranian policy of penetrating Latin America with a view to achieving strategic parity with the United States.  

By developing strong ties to countries like Iran and China, Venezuela both improves its global standing and simultaneously acquires an insurance policy against American threats to overthrow the Bolivarian revolution.

In conclusion, whilst Venezuela has failed to achieve its core foreign policy objective of creating a united Latin American front, nevertheless it has successfully raised its international profile by developing sustainable ties with major non-Western powers like China and Iran.

The Truth Behind the 1989 U.S. Invasion of Panama

The raid into Panama was the largest US combat operation since the Vietnam War. At the time the US trotted out various “noble justifications.”

The narrative was to overthrow the military dictator Manuel Noriega who was accused of drug trafficking and supressing democracy.

A key narrative was that Manuel endangered U.S nationals, similar to how Russia justified the invasion of Crimea and its intervention in Eastern Ukraine in 2014 – to “protect Russian speaking nationals”

But in an all too familiar fashion, this wasn’t the true story. Like Saddam, Noriega enjoyed US support and was actually recruited by the CIA before he turned into a wayward ally.

Noriega was recruited as a CIA informant while studying at a military academy in Peru. He received intelligence and counterintelligence training at the School of the Americas at Fort Gulick in Panama, in 1967. He remained on the CIA payroll until February 1988.

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1973 Chilean Coup D’état

Democratically elected in 1970, Chilean President Salvador Allende was pushing forward his “Chilean way to socialism”

Land reforms and even free milk for children were being introduced

The new Government also attempted to nationalise Chile’s lucrative copper mines which were mostly owned by US firms.

The US firms were compensated much more than their book value. But this wasn’t good enough for the US

In 2014, a series of declassified US documents revealed how Richard Nixon’s admin was running a campaign to destabilise Allende’s Government

One section showed how the US copper companies in Chile had been complaining of increasing tax pressure and their worries about nationalisation.

To Chileans, the US firm Anaconda symbolised American dependency. It was considered by most to be a foreign state within a state

With a covert action budget assigned, the CIA’s operation was described as a “program to hamstring Allende and play for the breaks”

Eventually a military coup in 1973 backed by America paved the way for Augusto Pinochet to take full control within a year.

Pinochet launched a wave of brutal purges against remaining opponents

In order to burnish the new Junta’s image at home and abroad, the CIA co-produced a “White book of the change of Government in Chile”

The book effectively whitewashed the general by blackening the President he overthrew in 1973, Salvador Allende

This coup was merely another American counter-revolutionary strategy which has been demonstrated in other parts of the world.

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