US Secretary of Defense James Mattis met with the Brazilian Defense and Foreign Ministers on Monday to discuss bilateral and regional issues. But what is the reason for the Pentagon’s sudden interest in Brazil, a month and a half after Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to the country?
“Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis met with Brazilian Foreign Minister Aloysio Nunes on August 13 at the Itamaraty Palace to reaffirm the long bilateral relationship between the United States and Brazil,” said Pentagon spokeswoman Dana W. White in one of the few statements about Mattis’ meetings in the Brazilian capital of Brasilia. “They agreed that their common values in inter-American principles of human rights, the rule of law and peace are a solid foundation for a long-term strategic partnership.”
— Embaixada EUA Brasil (@EmbaixadaEUA) August 13, 2018
Mattis’s official agenda included discussions of alternatives for advancing cooperation in the technical, scientific, political-military, and defense industries, such as the US use of the rocket launching base of Alcântara in Maranhão.
But for some experts, there might be something else going on.
According to International Relations professor Thomas Ferdinand Heye of the Federal Fluminense University (UFF), while there are in the US those who wave to Latin America with the idea of building a wall or imposing tariffs on commodities, there are also those actors who want to strengthen Washington’s ties with countries in the region, in search of alliances, support or to maintain the tradition of the continent being “America’s backyard.”
In this expert’s opinion, there is now a clear interest on the part of these actors to be present in Brazil and in the other South American countries to cope mainly with the growing influence of China.
“China is very present for some countries in the region. We cannot forget that, for example, the Inter-American Development Bank report shows that China invested in a decade more infrastructure than the United States in half a century,” said Heye. “So China is getting very strong in Latin America at the moment, in recent years, and that’s a new thing in the region.”
According to the professor, before, the United States used to be the largest commercial and political partner of most of the countries in the region, but with relative distance since the end of the Cold War. Now he sees the strengthening of a more interesting agenda, including in the case of Brazil, with the discussion of the sale of Embraer, there is the need for the country to have access to inputs for its war industry and US controlled technologies.
“Then there would be interesting things on our side to propose,” he said.
On Venezuela, Heye does not see the current crisis in the country as one of the driving forces behind the US Secretary of Defense’s visit to Brazil and other South American states, since, for him, the US military option against Caracas would have unilateral character, without the support of neighbors.
“The United States does not need the Lima Group or any set of countries if they want to make a unilateral decision. Now they will not do that because it has an absurd political cost for the Americans,” he explained.
For one journalist specializing in defense, Roberto Caiafa, the visit of Mattis to Brazil can be seen as “absolutely normal” in terms of existing relations between the two countries. The main highlight, according to him, must be given to the context in which this event is inserted, with the main focus being the Alcântara base:
“We have a context where we have a space program with serious difficulties – we have a Brazilian Space Agency with a bottleneck of needs to be able to leverage processes also very large and we have a declared interest, old and known, of the Americans with the Alcântara launch center in Maranhão – and certainly this US presence at that level indicates that there must be some sort of government-to-government conversation regarding the issue of using the Alcântara launch base,” he said.
— Embaixada EUA Brasil (@EmbaixadaEUA) August 14, 2018
For Caiafa, the idea of advancing this issue of Alcântara depends very much on the understanding of what Brazilians have on this agreement. According to him, if the Brazilian side understands that its space agency faces serious difficulties with growth and recognizes that there is a nation with a consolidated commercial program, which, among other ambitions, intends to go to Mars, wanting to become a partner in this sector, there is no reason to “not talk to the United States to reach an understanding” so that Alcântara is used, especially if the full potential of the base is taken into account.
“Alcântara today has the potential to become the main aerospace base for launching rockets into space,” he said.
The journalist believes that the United States is a more than an obvious option of the partnership that Brazil needs to develop its aerospace potential, without even considering Russia.
“We had a previous attempt with Ukraine that was a complete failure, so we already know what does not work. If there is an understanding of respect for both Brazilian and US laws governing the protection of technological secrets – the understanding of what is sovereignty or not – I think we can perfectly reach an agreement that can be very useful for both Brazilians and Americans, certainly,” he concluded.