Paulo Sotero’s Take on the State of U.S.-Brazil Relations / by Mark Langevin

Paulo Sotero, Director of the Brazil Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, published a short briefing in November of 2012, “Pursuing a Productive Relationship between the U.S. and Brazil,” that serves as a point of departure for debate surrounding the state of U.S. –Brazil relations in 2013.

In the briefing he argues that converging economic interests and activities serve as “the principal driver” of U.S.-Brazil relations.  Much of the briefing pivots off of the trading relationship and the importance of U.S. foreign direct investment in Brazil as a factor of the latter’s development, especially as Brazil prepares for the 2014 men’s Soccer World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.  For Sotero, the private sectors of both countries understand the importance of the relationship and both governments have been expanding the range of consultations to treat many of the most important private sector issues, including: trade and finance (including negotiations of a Trans-Pacific Partnership without Brazil participation so far), defense and security, “open government,” and technology and innovation. Sotero’s short briefing cannot treat in detail all of the challenges and opportunities now apparent in the bilateral relationship, but he tries to make the case that both countries recognize their mutual interests (largely on economic terms), want to achieve the benefits of working together, and understand the political risks of not moving forward with the bilateral relationship.

Sotero’s interpretation of the state of the bilateral relationship is important given his position as one of the key experts on Brazil inside the Beltway and steps from both the White House and Congress.  Moreover, his argument that relations between the private sectors and firms of both countries are becoming critical to “driving” the relationship forward and shaping its challenges and opportunities in the present and future is an essential slice of a broader explanation of bilateral relations under Presidents Dilma and Obama. Yet, it’s only a slice.

Sotero is not alone in is neglect of the informal, but increasingly dense social relations unfolding between U.S. and Brazilian citizens.  Most observers and scholars of this bilateral relationship repeat this analytical gap, including Peter Hakim of the Inter-American Dialogue.  However, people are too important to leave behind in any analysis of U.S.-Brazil relations.

Several years ago I wrote in American Diplomacy,

“Possibly the most important, but least examined structural factor shaping contemporary U.S.-Brazil relations is the recent boom in Brazilian emigration to the U.S.  Few scholars of U.S.-Brazil relations note the disproportionate numbers of Brazilian immigrants residing in the U.S.  Almeida and Barbosa (2006) make little mention of Brazilian emigration to the U.S. and its impact upon bilateral relations.6 Hirst (2005) notes that Brazilians residing abroad and in the U.S. have created a new diplomatic issue for the Brazilian government and have become a major duty for the nine (9) Brazilian consulates located in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.7 Yet, Hirst downplays the importance of Brazilian emigration by reporting that

‘Compared to other Latin communities in the United States, the Brazilian group does not hold a strong sense of community and its members usually perceive their presence in the United States as temporary...  Brazilians form an isolated group within the immense population of immigrants in the United States.  Their social networking is based on family reunification processes and/or new links, especially by intermarriage, with U.S. citizens (2005:60).’

Hirst is correct to conclude that Brazilians do not form a large immigrant community by comparative U.S. standards. However, their increasing numbers and geographic concentration in and around many of the United State’s most important urban centers now shape bilateral relations in ways unanticipated by either Almeida and Barbosa (2006) or Hirst (2005).

Hirst (2005) reports that 600,000 Brazilian resided in the U.S. during the first half of the decade, comprising only twenty five (25) percent of all Brazilian immigrants worldwide.  These estimates are much less than those calculated by the Brazilian federal government whose methodology measures the large influx of Brazilians who overstayed their visas or crossed U.S. borders to obtain work or join family members residing in the U.S in recent years.  The Brazilian government estimates that over three million Brazilians lived abroad in 2008.8 Those living in the U.S. amounted to forty two (42) percent of all Brazilian immigrants and numbered 1.28 million.  Taken together, Brazilians who resided in the other leading recipient countries, including Paraguay, Japan, the United Kingdom, Portugal, and Spain in 2008, composed only 23.5 percent of Brazilian immigrants. While the numbers of Brazilians emigrating have probably receded in recent years due to the global financial downturn and Brazil’s quick recovery;9 the eventual expansion of the U.S. economy is likely to invite further Brazilian emigration for work and family reunification.

Indeed, as Hirst (2005) indicates, Brazilians residing in the U.S. have created new pressures upon Brazil’s U.S. based consulates and the Foreign Ministry (or Itamaraty as it is called).  There are significant concentrations of Brazilian immigrant communities in Boston, Miami, and New York with secondary, but growing communities in Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.  Approximately 700,000 Brazilians work and live in the Boston and New York areas alone. The state of Florida has the largest trade flows with Brazil and over 300,000 Brazilians live in the Miami area with other significant communities in Orlando and Tampa Bay. Increasingly, Brazilian immigrant communities and representative social organizations, such as the Brazilian Immigrant Center in Boston, are working through consulates, the Foreign Ministry, local elected officials, and Brazilian congressional representatives to advance their distinct interests and policy preferences in both the U.S. and Brazil.  In this sense, Hirst (2005) underestimates how immigrant based social networking can quickly escalate into community organizing, political organization, and eventually concerted activity to change government policies and programs in both countries.

In recent years, Brazilian immigrants working alone and in concert with the Brazilian government have advanced a number of key concerns.  In 2003 Brazilian immigrant leaders from the Boston and New York areas met with President Lula to discuss the possibility of instituting consultative mechanisms between Brazilians residing in the U.S. and his administration. In 2004 Brazilian immigrant organizations in California played key roles in the formation and development of the California Senate’s California-Brazil Strategic Partnership. In 2005 Brazil’s San Francisco Consulate General, Georges Lamaziere, spearheaded the first ever Brazilian Immigrant Conference at the University of San Francisco.  Later that year, Brazilian immigrant leaders, the Brazilian Immigrant Center, and the Brazil Strategy Network coalesced to organize the first ever National Summit of Brazilian Immigrant Leaders in Boston. President Lula’s Workers Party promotes and maintains an organizational structure linking party militants residing in the U.S. with its National Directorate. Brazil’s Ministry of Labor and Employment published a guide for Brazilians living abroad in 2007 as an effort to assist immigrant communities in Europe and the United States to better understand their precarious working conditions and legal protections. In 2006 the Foreign Ministry established a sub secretariat for Brazilians living aboard and convoked the first ever conference on immigration in 2008. In October of 2009, the Brazilian foreign ministry held the second Conference of Brazilian Immigrant Communities and launched the innovative website, Brasileiros no Mundo: Portal das Comunidades Brasileiras do Exterior (Brazilians in the World: Web Portal of the Brazilian Immigrant Communities).15 Brazilian immigrant communities and representative organizations throughout the U.S. sent delegates to this conference to present an array of documents and proposals to promote greater government attention to the experiences and concerns of Brazilians living in the U.S., including the need for more consular services and bilateral cooperation to ease the movement of people and money across borders.  These initiatives, anchored to the very large population of Brazilians now residing in the U.S., reveal the density of social relations bridging these two nations and illustrate the growing number of organizational and political intersections between these immigrants and governmental authorities.

Brazilian emigration to the U.S. is also accompanied by growing remittances to family members and business associates in Brazil.  By 2004 remittances from the U.S. to Brazil accounted for 50 percent of all remittances received by Brazilians. According to the Bendixen and Associates report, 1.3 million Brazilians received remittances from relatives or friends living abroad in 2004, totaling $5.4 billion or nearly one percent of Brazil’s Gross National Product (GNP).  Although the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) reports that remittances to Brazil have recently declined  to $4.7 billion in 2009, it is likely that this fall in individual transfers is momentary. Although some Brazilians have returned home due to the economic downturn in the U.S. and Europe, it is likely that remittances from the U.S. to Brazil will continue to grow in tandem with the U.S. economic expansion and coupled to the broadening set of social and economic relations between the citizens and residents of both countries.  While remittances to Brazil are much less important than those sent to other nations in the Americas, they do constitute the second largest transfer to Latin America and the Caribbean, next to Mexico. Indeed, if Brazilian emigration to the U.S. and remittances to Brazil are valid indicators, then the social relations between the populations of the U.S. and Brazil challenge government policymakers from both countries while providing a solid base for greater cooperation.

If there are political consequences for either of the two governments’ management of the bilateral relationship it is more likely to emanate from the growing legions of Brazilians who have businesses, partners, and families in the U.S.  Sotero does not explain the political risks, both short and long term, to mismanagement of the bilateral relationship, but certainly the two governments’ work on immigration issues, the flow of people traveling between these two nations (the U.S. is the second largest nationality visiting Brazil, just behind Argentina; and approximately 40 percent of Brazilians residing abroad live in the U.S.), is critical to the Brazilian national government and a small group of members of the House of Representatives and Senators representing large Brazilian communities in Boston, Florida, Los Angeles, New York City, Newark, and San Francisco among other locations.  More work needs to be done to reveal how bilateral relations impacts domestic politics in the U.S. and Brazil, but certainly Sotero points to its importance.

Lastly, Sotero makes no mention of the U.S. cotton subsidy dispute in which the World Trade Organization (WTO) has authorized Brazil to implement a series of retaliations against U.S. imports and intellectual property to rectify the damage done by the illegal support programs for U.S. producers of cotton, including direct payments, marketing loans, and export credits.  The cotton conflict certainly has attracted the attention of private sector representatives of both nations, largely through the Brazil-U.S. Business Council and its Brazilian Trade Action Coalition (BRAZTRAC), both influential in suspending Brazil’s implementation of the over $800 million in authorized retaliations in 2010.

The cotton dispute is the crux of U.S.-Brazil relations, a thorn that keeps on bleeding the good will and best intentions of diplomats from both countries.  Brazil and its cotton producers have invested so much into this WTO case, that they must have something to so for it if and when the case is resolved (meaning the elimination or significant reduction of world price distorting support programs and subsidies). The U.S. has been careful never to accept full blame or commit to full compliance. Rather, the United States Trade Representative has largely allowed the U.S. Congress to try to resolve the case, despite little interest expressed by either the House or Senate leadership to fully comply with the WTO sanctions.  Despite repeated alerts from the Brazilian government that the transformation of direct payments into government subsidized risk management (crop/income insurance) programs would continue to distort world prices; the chairs of the agricultural committees in both chambers have pretty much settled on granting U.S. cotton producers a government subsidized future.  If the U.S. government is unwilling or unable to comply with the WTO sanctions and meet the minimum expectations of Brazil, then the relationship will fall far short of its promise and certainly years away from any meaningful partnership on issues facing both countries and world.

The growing list of consultations between the governments of the U.S. and Brazil have only improved the families and fortunes of U.S. and Brazilian citizens on the margins.  Yes, more is needed as Sotero, among many others, suggests.  However, it may be time to stop adding to the list of consultations and sit down to resolve a short list of conflicts that plague the promise of this bilateral relationship. Certainly the cotton dispute and liberalizing the human movements between the two countries should be considered for placement on the short list.