Brazil Trembling — Chile on Guard

By Christian Scheinpflug

This post appeared elsewhere in a slightly different version on September 12, 2016.

So it finally happened. On August 31, the Brazilian Senate voted 61:20 to impeach Dilma Rousseff. The 61 senators’ guilty conscience, however, prevented them from completely banning her from ever running for public office again. So, in case Rousseff engaged in personal corruption, it played only a secondary role, if any. Indeed, most senators wanted her impeached to divert from their own corruption, and thus it’s not far-fetched to call the events a white coup in which organised crime took control of much of the Brazilian state.

The reaction of Mrs Rousseff’s ideological peers in the Chilean senate seemed quite impressive. Figures like Isabel Allende and Juan Pablo Letelier, amongst others, held up a poster wishing Mrs Rousseff “strength.” Yet more provocative the statement of the Socialist Youth which called the impeachment “lamentable, illegitimate and unjust,” and went as far as telling the naked truth by calling Brazilian Senators “conspirators and corrupt.”

The official press release from La Moneda, by contrast, struck a more diplomatic chord. The foreign affairs ministry “appreciates” Mrs Rousseff’s presidency and acknowledged the “productive” relationship her administration cultivated with Chile. Notably, the ministry extends a hand to Brazil’s new representatives (and old rulers). Chile hopes to “strengthen the bilateral relationship,” as the ministry commits to the “firm friendship between both countries.” La Moneda thus adopts a different approach than other left-wing governments that withdrew their ambassadors from Brazil to protest impeachment.

Chile’s reaction allows for two main interpretations: The foreign-policy establishment either recognises the importance of Brazil as ally, or liberal naïveté leads them to just make friends with everyone. Much of Chile’s international initiatives give credence to the latter, but the press release makes it more likely it’s the former. The piece explicitly acknowledges Mrs Rousseff’s service, but escapes into opaque concepts like ‘friendship’ when alluding to the new rulers in Brasília. Chile’s diplomats did a great job crafting the statement, as the alliance with Brazil offsets many shortcomings of Chile’s foreign policy.

Keeping the door open for the Temer administration is a strategic imperative. Sure, such ideological flexibility costs credibility domestically. But so be it. Everyone knows that Chile’s socialists aren’t really socialist anyway. The veritable fortune ex-President Ricardo Lagos (who’s campaigning to become presidential candidate a second time) collected from infrastructure privatisation serves as just one example. Ideological flexibility, however, enables Chile to better stay the course and maintain alliances. Ex-President Piñera’s praise for Hugo Chávez falls in that same category. For better or worse, Chile shies away from firm ideological commitments.

One reason for this is that Chile as a small country comes easier under territorial pressure than, say, Venezuela, which is militarily and economically weak, but territorially sizeable and diplomatically strong. Other small countries like Peru or Bolivia also managed to develop strategies and exploit Chilean errors. Thus they did and still can pressure their southern neighbour and impose heavy costs. Chile has yet to find an adequate response, and Brazil will have to be part of it.

As despicable as Mr Temer’s administration may be, it still could help to weaken serious diplomatic initiatives against Chile. Moreover, they also have some influence in Buenos Aires, which still pursues the claim on the Falklands which threatens Chilean sovereignty in the adjacent South Pacific.

A pragmatic foreign policy is bitter, especially for those who hold convictions dear. But then ideological winds may always change. And a deep politico-economic alliance may backfire when new leaders in one country perceive arrangements as unjust. Changing those will inevitably damage bilateral relations, as “friendship” affects all friends.

Furthermore, the Temer administration isn’t reliable. The Chilean upper-middle class may resent Mrs Rousseff and her predecessor Lula da Silva, but they stood staunchly on Chile’s side, even during the first presidency of Mr Piñera. Mr Temer’s administration, however, showed that they stand with partners as long as profits flow. Once things got complicated they pulled their knives and disposed of the elected, if unpopular, president because she was about to ask sacrifices from the ruling class to manage the economic crisis.

That’s why Chile should remain on guard. A realist, amoral foreign policy may get you far, but it doesn’t cancel the need for a Plan B. Chilean strategists will have to draw a fine line for whoever sits in La Moneda, as aside from Bolivia Brazil will constitute another veritable challenge. Overtly doubting Mr. Temer’s legitimacy, as the Socialist Party does, or loudly celebrating the coup, as the business class may find tempting, will certainly damage relations either now or later. Chile needs Brazil more than the other way round, so continuity, not the politics of the day should guide decision-making.

Christian is a columnist at Chile Today. He’s also director at the Chilean Association of International Specialists (ACHEI) and co-editor of E-IR’s book on International Relations Theory. Follow him on Twitter: @ChrScheinpflug

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