“Don’t underestimate Brazil’s influence”, says Celso Amorim

Few Brazilians have followed Brazilian diplomacy in the last 60 years as closely as Celso Amorim. The ambassador was present in important episodes of Brazil’s history. He actively participated in the delicate and complex activity of fostering important partnerships that helped raise Brazil’s prominence in world geopolitics.

In the 1990s, when he was Brazil’s ambassador to the UN, he saw the country being called upon on important issues and helped sew strategic alliances. His work heading ministries in the governments of Lula and Dilma Rousseff resulted in the consolidation of Brazil as an emerging power with an active voice in the international community. 

Today, far from public life, he observes a Brazil increasingly distant, closed and without the prestige of yesteryear. “Brazil has disappeared from the world,” he laments. However, even making severe criticism of Brazilian foreign policy, he reveals ways to overcome the institutional crisis that affects the country and explains that, even with the effects of bad choices, there is room for Brazil in an increasingly complex geopolitical context. “Don’t underestimate Brazil’s influence,” he jokes.

ATLANTICO first spoke with Celso Amorim in 2015. His optimism at the time gave way to skeptical looks, pragmatism, and hope. In this conversation, he talks about Brazil’s current situation, the opportunities for rapprochement with Africa, and the new geopolitical contexts, with the BRICS and AfCFTA.

Celso Amorim no Conselho de Direitos Humanos durante a Sessão Especial sobre a a situação dos direitos humanos no Território Palestino Ocupado e em Jerusalém Oriental. Créditos: Jean Marc Ferre/UN
Celso Amorim at the Human Rights Council during the Special Session on the situation of human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and East Jerusalem. Credits: Jean Marc Ferre/UN

ATLANTICO – What is the place of Brazil in today’s world? 

Celso Amorim – From the structural point of view, Brazil is still the same. It has suffered some shakes, but it is still the same in terms of GDP, population and territory. The economy has fallen a lot, but it will certainly return to be among the ten largest economies in the world. So it is an unquestionably important country and it will continue to be. 

Conjuncturally, Brazil is in the worst situation that I have known since I started to follow closely and be a participant in Brazilian diplomacy. I joined the Rio Branco Institute in 1963. I have followed foreign policy for almost six decades and I have never seen Brazil in such a bad situation.

Of course, during the military dictatorship there were other aspects: people were tortured and died. This was all very bad, both for the people who were persecuted and who suffered from this, and for the perception that the world had of Brazil. So much so that Brazil spent many years without even running for the United Nations Security Council because it thought it would not be elected. 

But, let’s see. From the Geisel Government on, Brazil was constantly improving. Of course, some improvements were not enough. It’s not that I thought of everything as being fine then, but there was an expectation of improvement in Brazil. There was a democratic transition in course. Then the first direct election. Even the impeachment of Collor united Brazil. The general national feeling was that this was a necessary thing. This gave the impression of a great strength of a national, democratic, Brazilian project. 

What I see today, starting with the impeachment of Dilma – an illegal impeachment, in my opinion – legally manipulated, and then the imprisonment of Lula, we saw that everything was part of the same process, all culminating in the election of an extreme right-wing leader, more and more extremist. Brazil disappeared from the world. The only reason it has not totally disappeared is that it still causes problems. It is the epicenter of the pandemic, because the variants [of the coronavirus] develop here. It is responsible for the burning of the Amazon and, now, for the drying up of the Paraguay River. And the foreign policy is reflecting this. 

Don’t underestimate the influence of Brazil. The Brazil that I saw growing back there, that was rising and that gained all this dimension is based on democratization, on the search for Social Justice and the financial stability itself that made it possible. This was our country: respected and loved in Africa, Arab countries, South America, and Latin America. Respected without being feared. This is what is most important. This reality enabled us to make movements such as the IBSA [India-Brazil-South Africa Dialogue Forum, held in 2010], with the first South America-Arab Countries Summit [it was held in 2005 in Brasilia] and the BRICS, which is a remarkable fact, an indisputable international reality. 

The United States turned to us when they needed to solve something related to Venezuela. The same when they needed to resolve something at the WTO or in the Middle East and wanted support from an influential country in the developing world. This is the country that I saw. 

Of course, when they came here they recognized that there were problems. When a UN rapporteur came to investigate summary executions, he saw that there was a problem. There are problems everywhere. But there was a clear willingness to solve these problems. 

Will it recover? I think it will. It will take time. Some marks will remain. But the world has changed. When Lula took office, Brazil had an uncontested position of leadership in South America and Latin America. Today I don’t know if it would be the same. Brazil is still very important, but I see Mexico leading. I don’t think this is bad. But we would have to adapt to these new realities. 

I have never seen Brazil in such a bad situation

ATLANTICO – And how to overcome this reality? What is the most challenging thing to be loved and respected again as before?

Celso Amorim – The problem has a name. The institutional crisis in Brazil, with the divergence between three powers, is called Jair Bolsonaro. We have a president who is constantly threatening a coup and putting in question the electoral processes themselves. He also says that the people should buy rifles instead of beans. Everything has to be done within legality. 

We need, above all, a normal government. Of course I don’t want it to be just a normal government. I want a progressive government. The Sarney government, for example, defended democracy, and had high inflation, with high and low points. But Brazil was moving forward. And it kept on moving. The Collor government, despite internal problems, created the Asunción Treaty, the nuclear agreement with Argentina. Human rights, labor rights and even environmental rights advanced during the Collor administration. We have to speak the truth, despite the real problems. 

I have the same to say about the Itamar government, in which I acted as minister, that continued this same process: Ouro Preto Protocol, Marrakesh Protocol and the first proposal for the creation of the South American Free Trade Area (ALCSA). This greatly strengthened Fernando Henrique’s government, which inherited a lot of international credibility. And this credibility was transformed into admiration and love in Lula’s government. And, since then, it has fallen. So you see, it is possible to recover. 

Foreign policy is based on multiple material factors, such as the country’s economy and military power. But it is also based on the famous soft power, which brings together factors such as sympathy, credibility and trust. And trust, I think, is going to be shaken for some time. 

The fact is that Bolsonaro was elected. There may have been fake news, as there was in England and in the United States. And the fact that he was elected will continue to generate distrust. That is why I say that it will take some time to consolidate this trust again. Before, we had a growing confidence. And all of a sudden it is going to take a blow that has taken us to the lowest point of our recent history. 

You take Figueiredo’s speech at the UN in 1982 [of course we were not in a democracy] and it was a speech of a third world leader if you compare it to the nonsense that was uttered by the Bolsonaro government and the stupidities that were said over time by Chancellor Ernesto Araújo [Brazil’s Foreign Minister between January 2019 and March 2021].

Geneva, November 2010: Celso Amorim at the Global South-South Development Expo (GSSD Expo) [Credits: Lucien Fortunati / UNDP]

ATLANTIC – Brazil deepened its approximation with Africa almost two decades ago, but in recent years it has had, to say the least, an apathetic relationship with the continent. Meanwhile, other players such as China and the United States have been expanding their presence there, while African nations have been making efforts to develop and strengthen their institutions and, above all, have shown interest to engage in dialogue. What potential has Brazil lost? How can this distancing compromise our position of relevance as an exporter of innovative social technologies?

Celso Amorim – I met a Kenyan researcher called Calestous Juma, who had a phenomenal phrase: “we have to cooperate because for every African problem there is a Brazilian solution”. And I have echoed this several times. This was the perception they had of Brazil, and I am telling you countless stories from my life experience because they illustrate this. 

When I was Minister of Defense, I was in Namibia and the president told me a very interesting thing. “We like the cooperation with Brazil because the others come here to give us bread. And Brazil teaches us how to make bread.”

There was an example during the Lula government that is impressive. I developed a special relationship with the South African agriculture minister at a World Trade Organization meeting in Hong Kong where she defended something similar, at a critical moment in the negotiations. We came back on the same plane, talked about some programs on family agriculture, and after two years there was a big meeting in Brazil organized by us at Itamaraty and promoted by president Lula. Some 37 African ministers and some vice-ministers came. Most of them did not know each other and met in Brasilia. It was amazing how Brazil had become a magnet for international cooperation among developing countries. 

One example is the program we had between the cotton producing countries in West Africa (Mali, Togo, Benin, and Chad). It was a program of great importance for the development of the region, and Brazil did that in some way without getting any immediate return. Of course we were interested in them defending the same position we did in the World Trade Organization. But this was an extraordinary thing. I went there to collect the first samples of cotton planted with the help of Embrapa [Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation].

In Mozambique we were working on a project for an antiretroviral factory that I learned later became a painkiller factory. It is not the same, but it is still a drug factory when Mozambique did not dream of having a drug factory. These things leave a very deep mark beyond the economic interests. 

Brazil’s trade with Africa has multiplied fivefold in a few years. You might think that the base was very low. But it was not. If we take Africa as a whole, I would say that it would be the fourth largest market for Brazilian exports, below only the United States, China and Argentina. In front of Germany, France and Italy. So, one cannot say that it is of little importance. Africa was fundamental for the election of Roberto Azevedo at the World Trade Organization and even more fundamental for the election of José Graziano at the FAO.  It was fundamental for Brazilian trade at the same time that Brazil was cooperating, bringing good things to the Africans.  So I think it is something that will have to come back. In the long run, this is unquestionable. 

Let me tell you something. In general, in all the countries where Lula has been, I have been at least once more. But I have been five or six times in some, as is the case of Guinea-Bissau.  The annual energy consumption of Guinea-Bissau is that of a shopping mall in São Paulo. It is a country of two million inhabitants. So, you see that anything you do there helps a lot. Brazil has done something but still, did very little, even in our governments. It is not easy either. But it must be a permanent commitment. Another thing that has also contributed to bringing us closer to Africa is Haiti, a country where Brazil has conducted many technical cooperation programs in the area of family agriculture.

Brazil has disappeared from the world

ATLANTICO – Still within the perspective of Cooperation, how do you see the role of South-South Cooperation in the current context, so complex, with political and economic crises? What is the responsibility of the rich countries, which are comparatively less and less rich? And what is the role of the Civil Society organizations? 

Celso Amorim – They are less rich and more selfish! (laughs) South-South Cooperation is absolutely fundamental. I had some participation, not much, when Nyerere was creating the South Centre, which still exists today and has an important role in the diffusion of ideas. My concern was to approach other countries that had the potential to cooperate. And maybe the first example that exists and that we sometimes forget, because we talk a lot about the BRICS, was the IBSA, a partnership between India, Brazil, and South Africa. Of course the reality has changed a bit, but at the time the central idea was cooperation between three large democracies, multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multicultural, and each one in a different continent of the developing world.  IBSA was an example that contributed a lot to the BRICS. This cooperation is absolutely fundamental.

Without a doubt, these initiatives are really consolidated when they are no longer state initiatives. Initially, they are state initiatives. Let’s take the example of Mercosur. When we created Mercosur, nobody was talking about it, nobody knew what it was. The entrepreneurs were not interested yet. One trip, I saw an ad in the newspaper with something that said “Dial Mercosur”. I thought, “Hey, it’s come true!”. I think it is very important that the Brazil Africa Institute, independent, with the dynamism it has, works with cooperation, breaking new ground. As well as the Brazilian Arab Chamber of Commerce, which helped us a lot in the South America-Arab Countries Summit.

Celso Amorim in the 1980s. [Credits: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Brazil]

ATLANTICO – You participated in the construction of Mercosur in the 1990s and in recent years we have followed the formation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which has become a reality and is being consolidated. What lessons can AfCFTA learn from Mercosur?

Celso Amorim – It is complex because each country and each area has to face its own problems. I think that Mercosur advanced a lot, but there is a serious threat with the Biden government in the US and the Bolsonaro government in Brazil. Also, the comparison of AfCFTA with Mercosur is flawed because Mercosur is further along. Mercosur is a customs union, which perhaps on a broader level, with all of Africa, is more complex to do. But we had UNASUR, which is based on something that was never formalized as a whole but in practice became official, which is a Free Trade Area of South America. When we signed an agreement between Mercosur and the Andean Community, already having an agreement with Chile and having a special arrangement with Guyana and Suriname, we created, in reality, a Free Trade Area of South America and I think that this would have the possibility to interact in a more direct way with the AfCFTA. 

Mercosur is a step forward. For this, greater homogeneity is needed. And this is not simple, as we are seeing. And my desire is for Mercosur to expand, but with this government everything has become more difficult. Regardless of this, one of the first actions of a new government would be to revive UNASUR. Perhaps with small adaptations to avoid the crises that occurred in the past. UNASUR is the ideal partner for Africa. I don’t know how far we can go with CELAC, which involves all of Latin America and the Caribbean. CELAC today is just a forum, which originated in a meeting in Bahia [in 2008] . Then there was a meeting in Mexico and another one in Caracas. It was the first time that the Latin American countries met at that level without the tutelage of the United States, Canada and the European Union. CELAC is very important, but it is a forum. It has political will but it is not a treaty or an organization. I don’t know, in the economic area, how far it can go. Because some countries already have free trade agreements with the United States, like Mexico and some Central American countries. 

Mercosur has to seek a special relationship with SACU [Southern African Customs Union], which involves all of southern Africa.   The southern cone of Africa can have a more direct relationship with Mercosur. It is a variable geometry thing. But certainly, we will have a lot to learn from each other. Including with the defects, the limitations and the difficulties. Brazil cannot hide from its size. Brazil is the largest country in South America. And nowadays you talk to other leaders here in the region and they refer to the “Brazilian echo”, or “the great Brazilian void”. This has to change. If this doesn’t change, Brazil will be left out.

The institutional crisis in Brazil, with the divergence between three powers, is called Jair Bolsonaro

ATLANTICO – How do you evaluate the BRICS today? In what way does China’s size hinder the group?

Celso Amorim – The BRICS is a complex geopolitical reality. It is not a simple thing, there is rivalry between China and India. But the economic part, represented by the bank, has worked well. China is dominant. You can’t hide this reality. But I think that China also needs the other countries in terms of international legitimization. You see, the BRICS, as you know, was an acronym invented by a British economist, Jim O’Neill, in 2001, if I am not mistaken. We worked together at Goldman Sachs.

But it really only became a group with the creation of the forum. It was a proposal from the Russian minister to me. China joined without enthusiasm, but then, naturally, it began to realize how useful it was. I think that it is necessary to seek a certain balance within the BRICS and this is not easy. A certain revitalization of IBSA, for example, would help this balance.  I think that a combination of these things would allow BRICS to be the embryo of a great organization of the developing world or a great alternative to a very dominant form of organization that was that of the United States. 

The integration of Latin America and the potential of the BRICS could serve as a driver. You see, on the other side you have the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA), you have other things, you have the African Continental Free Trade Area. All of this can be coordinated in some way. Now this requires imagination, willingness, diplomatic competence, and a lot of patience. You don’t do something, like the integration of South America, only with a good idea. A good idea is fundamental. And political courage is also fundamental, but this is done with a lot of patience and a lot of work.

Brasília, March 3, 2010: US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, with President Lula and Celso Amorim. [Credits: U.S. Department of State]

ATLANTICO – What would be your disposition to contribute to a possible return of Lula to the presidency of Brazil? Would you accept a ministry, for example? 

Celso Amorim – There are still many things. First, we have to guarantee the elections. We have to have a good alliance of democratic forces. I have nothing against the third way. Let there be a third way! I think it is healthy that we have a third or fourth way. There is no problem with that. Now we can’t build a third way on top of disqualifying Lula, who is the candidate with the greatest popular support. I think this is wrong.

I work in favor of this 24 hours a day. I will do whatever I can to help. Of course, my abilities and talents are limited and, for this reason, I am not invited to do much. But if they request me, I will be on hand. As for the government, it is still a long way off.  From a personal point of view, if Lula is elected, I would be happier to have a small room in the back of the office where I can have a cup of coffee with the president. This would be much more interesting than making many trips. I already know the whole world. There are few places in the world I haven’t been to. Surely, they will find someone younger to make these trips.

Celso Luiz Nunes Amorim was born in Santos, on the coast of the rich state of São Paulo, on June 3, 1942. He graduated in 1965 from the respected Rio Branco Institute and, first in his class, was awarded the right to study at the Diplomatic Academy in Vienna, where two years later he obtained a postgraduate degree. His first diplomatic post was in London and, since then, he has developed one of the most distinguished careers as ambassador of the country. Twice Minister of Foreign Affairs, in the governments of Itamar Franco and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (in the latter, during the eight years of his mandate), he was also Minister of Defense and president of Embrafilme (a state-owned Brazilian film company, now extinct). As ambassador, he stood out as the country’s representative in London and the UN. He is married to Ana Maria Amorim and father of Vicente, Pedro, João and Anita.

Main image credit: Casa de América