The Miami Herald
Aug. 15, 2002

Brazil largely ignoring bloody Colombia war

Andres Oppenheimer

  SAO PAULO, Brazil - A question that is rarely raised in diplomatic circles but has always bugged me: Why is Brazil -- the biggest country in South
  America, and increasingly a regional leader -- hiding under the bed when it comes to helping find a solution to the bloody war in neighboring Colombia?

  The question came to mind last week, when Brazil sent a low-profile delegation to the Aug. 7 inauguration of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. One
  would have imagined that, given its international activism and geographic proximity, Brazil would have sent a top-level delegation to the inauguration
  ceremonies. But it didn't.

  Uribe's inaugural address was attended by the Presidents of Venezuela, Ecuador, Argentina, Panama and Honduras, and by the foreign ministers of
  these countries plus those of France, Cuba and the Dominican Republic. By comparison, Brazil sent the president of its Supreme Federal Tribunal.

  Granted, Uribe's inaugural speech was one of the most boring I've heard recently. He started out reading a list of distinguished guests that was so long
  that CNN International -- which I was watching in Brazil -- cut off its live broadcast amid the endless recitation. But I doubt Brazilian President Fernando
  Henrique Cardoso would have known in advance that he faced a soporific speech.


  The fact is that Brazil has always treated the war next door almost as if it didn't exist. The 38-year leftist insurgency in Colombia claims 3,500 lives a
  year, creates tens of thousands of refugees and increasingly spreads violence and drug trafficking to Brazil and other neighboring countries. Yet Brazil
  has limited its role to rhetorical statements of support for a peaceful solution, as if it were talking about some far-away conflict.


  None of the four leading Brazilian candidates for the Oct. 6 elections has mentioned Colombia among their foreign policy priorities. While Brazilian
  newspapers reported the bombings that killed 19 people during Uribe's inauguration, most carried wire agency reports. Not one major Brazilian
  newspaper or magazine has a full-time correspondent in Colombia.

  Intrigued, I called Brazil's foreign minister, Celso Lafer, and asked him why his country has not tried to create a Latin American regional group to try to
  mediate in the Colombian conflict -- like the Contadora group that helped solve Central America's wars in the '80s.


  The foreign minister said Brazil has made such offers to Colombia, but the Colombians never asked for help. ''We have been cautious not to be more
  active than the Colombian administration has wished us to be,'' Lafer said, referring to the government of former Colombian president Andrés Pastrana.

  Asked why Brazil didn't send a higher-level delegation to Uribe's inauguration, Lafer said that there was an election-related legal problem: The Brazilian
  president could not leave the country because his immediate substitutes -- the heads of the two chambers of Congress -- are running for office in the
  October elections, and could thus not take his place.


  Other sources say the reason this country is not more active on Colombia is that the Brazilian military is dead-set against it, for fears of getting drawn
  into a quagmire.

  The Brazilian military has two big concerns. One, that if Brazil backs Colombia's war against the rebels -- which, by the way, has the support of an
  overwhelming majority of Colombians -- the guerrillas would react with an escalation of political kidnappings, bank robberies and drug trafficking inside
  Brazilian territory.

  The second one is that, if Brazil becomes more active in diplomatic efforts to mediate in the Colombian war, it would have to publicly criticize the $2 billion
  U.S.-financed Plan Colombia to help fund Colombia's government forces, which would damage ties with the Washington. Either way, Brazilian
  policymakers see a greater involvement as a no-win situation for their country.

  But, with the ongoing escalation of the war, Brazil will not be able to continue sitting on the sidelines. It should at the very least lead a regional effort to
  create a Contadora-like mediation group.

  ''No matter how hard it tries, Brazil cannot continue avoiding taking a position on the Colombian conflict,'' says Bruce Bagley, a University of Miami expert
  on Colombia. ``If it remains silent and continues trying to keep a low profile, it will be inviting more illicit uses of its border territories by leftist guerrillas
  and drug traffickers.''

  I agree. Brazil can't have it both ways.

  It's nice to play Mahatma Gandhi, and to leave the United States to pay the economic and political price of helping Colombia fight its narco-guerrillas.

  But if Brazil really wants to be a regional leader, it will have to take on the responsibilities that come with the role.