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U.S.-Brazil Summit: More Alliance Than Ethanol

Filed under: Latin America

This weekend, Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva will camp out with George Bush near Washington, at Camp David. It's the first time ever that a Brazilian leader has been accorded such important relations with the U.S., or merited the honor of an overnight stay at Camp David. It heralds the growing warm ties between the U.S. and Brazil's leaders.

The U.S. and Brazil have never been enemies - in fact, never had anything but minor disagreements, but on the other hand, we have never been close. But it's logical that we should be. We are the dominant powers on our respective continents we share one hemisphere with. We are multiracial nations that are proud of it, founded on the idea of freedom, not bloodlines. We are both democracies, we both fight the stain of slavery, yet we both have rich diverse cultures in the wake. We also have spectacular ecologies, each of our nations its own trip around the world within one border, so big they're impossible to see completely. Our nations are both known for their innovation, and each of our nations leads the world in certain kinds of technology - both love cars and airplanes - and both love the future. It's natural that we should be close allies and in the jet age, that our citizens visit each other's countries all the time. But we are not that close.

Economic inequality and the Cold War have something to do with that - Brazil has not been nearly as successful as its northern neighbor; in fact, it has many poor people. It also has a recent legacy of military despotism from the 1970s. Washington tolerated it, because Brazil was a counterbalance against the Soviet Union, but the longterm effect of this focus on a single issue has been to leave a lingering legacy of resentment, because living under a tyrant - who cleverly kept opposition from Washington off by not aligning with the Soviet Union - is still living under a tyrant. But we are hardly responsible at the root for that, and to be honest, much of the public resentment in Brazil on such grounds is just garden-variety jealousy. But as Brazil's economy grows - and Goldman Sachs did a recent study finding that Brazil's economy was way bigger than anyone realized - there is less resentment and insularity - and more interest in friendship with and working with the U.S., because increasingly, we have more and more in common - mutual admiration not the least of it.

In America, we need friends like Brazil.

So this is a sweet moment. Bush and Lula, two men from very different political parties - Bush flaming right and Lula flaming left - have paired up for the common good. Where the hell elsewhere do we see such amity in the world, such putting aside of political differences, all because both sides agree on the exact same goal of opportunity and prosperity for all people? Both men hate poverty and are willing to use the most modern tools and experiences of economics to get rid of it. It's a thing of beauty.

Our very natural commonality and our natural alliance is taking its first step in the great ethanol accord that Brazil and the U.S. are signing. We will cooperate with each other to create an ethanol market for the benefit of not only ourselves, but the battered little nations in Central America and the Caribbean which have no choice but to rely on Venezuela for oil.

Oh yes. That's a factor. Brazil and the U.S. see it happening and they don't like it. Hugo Chavez doesn't just hate us, he hates everyone who does the same things we all do to get prosperous. He's screamed at the U.S. publicly, but he's imposed his will on Brazil, stealing its gas wells in Bolivia, and forcing its state oil company, Petrobras, into new worker collectives with his own state oil company in violation of contracts. No one in Brazil likes this and they also don't like him walking into Brazil's big trade alliance, Mercosur, and trying to take over. Brazil has plenty of reasons to be wary of Chavez and to use its growing might to check his economic power. It's not their style to do it in open confrontation, but they will not let this pass.

So, together, Brazil and the U.S. will do a project together. We will use our already developed talents to help the Central Americans and Caribbeans develop their own sugar-cane and corn-producing capacity so that they too can be self-sufficient to some extent in energy and no longer will be bullied and kicked around by a Venezuelan caudillo who demands absolute fealty.

The implications of this will be amazing. Huge Brazil and huge America are united in a common purpose to halt the rising and arrogant power of Hugo Chavez, whose oil fueled earnings are being used to intimidate other nations. Now Hugo is encircled by two big clouds, Brazil to his south and the U.S. to his north, both of whom are determined to develop their ethanol industries to reduce Chavez's monopoly on energy. Ethanol is not a cure-all and won't replace oil as an energy source, but it will widen the pool of available energies, and that's important because right now, China's and India's rises have narrowed the margin of excess, making every drop that Chavez produces a critical one because there isn't any extra. Hence. Chavez's monopoly and power.

Already Hugo Chavez grasps the significance of this alliance. He's screaming about it. He's going off like a banshee and now Cuban dictator Fidel Castro has chimed in, denouncing the U.S. for growing corn-based ethanol because he claims it will create starvation. I suppose he should know - he's destroyed his own sugar industry and left Cubans hungry. But more signifiantly, he sees resources as finite and thinks feeding our cars with ethanol is no different from taking food out of poor people's mouths. He doesn't understand the economic concept of the expanding pie at all. But he does see the geopolitical picture and right now he knows that if the U.S. and Brazil can reduce dependence overall on oil consumption, it's very bad news for his boy-wonder and money patron, Hugo Chavez, whose spread of his own revolution is Castro's long-held dream.

It's amazing how this is working. It shows that Bush and Lula are far cleverer than Hugo Chavez who is no idiot on the wiliness front himself. Through ethanol and more importantly an alliance, Bush and Lula are reducing the significance of Hugo Chavez. They are making him smaller as they grow bigger through genuine economic production, not artificially high oil prices derived from shortages. This move has got to be one of the most brilliant of both men's careers. They are on the same page and together they are moving forward.

Leaving Chavez in the dust.

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When you hire a Truthteller...

Filed under: Latin America

...You shouldn't be surprised if he tells the truth.

Over in Colombia, that doesn't seem to be entirely clear to President Alvaro Uribe.

Now, as you know, I'm his biggest fan. But he did something today that struck me as incoherent. He chewed out his new foreign minister, Fernando Araujo, for telling the truth about Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. Not as in namecalling, like I might do. But as in a story about an experience in his life.

Do you know who Araujo is?

If you don't, let's just put it this way: while you and I were celebrating our Christmases three months ago, Araujo was tied up, stuck in a jungle cage, starved, deprived of human company (his captors definitely aren't human) and smothered in the dark - for his sixth straight year. He had been an economic development minister in Colombia back in 2000 and was jogging on the beach in Cartagena one day. Suddenly, hooded thugs with guns sprang out and kidnapped him taking him away to deep deep into their jungle hideout and away from civilization. His life was never going to be the same. For six long years, he was a prisoner of the FARC, the odious Marxist narcoterrorist guerrillas who have made Colombia a living hell since 1964.

While there, he focused on survival, focused on getting his kidnappers not to kill him. He wanted to live. He had no knowledge of 9/11, didn't know about the Iraq war, had no idea who the U.S. president was, never heard of iPods, and the last he heard of the U.S. was news about how Al Gore was disputing the 2000 U.S. election with George Bush. After that, his life was all about trying to stay alilve.

Some of it was tragic: his wife had left him for another man two years into his captivity, assuming he would never return - and many people he knew had died during his six long years in a FARC dungeon - he only got to learn who they were when he eventually escaped, later saying it was like all of the people he'd known dying in one day.

His escape was a breathtaking one. Alvaro Uribe had gotten intelligence on a FARC hideout deep in the jungle. He sent his helicopters in, shooting, and as the FARC narcoterrorists shot back, Araujo realized he had one flash moment in his six years captivity to escape. He took it ... running through a miles of minefields the guerrillas had encircled themselves with to protect their hideout. He ran though tall grass and machinegun fire. He dodged bullets. He made it to the forest and from there, walked around for five days, free at last, but marooned in the terrifying jungle full of savage wild animals and things with sharp teeth. Five days later, he spotted a villager outside the wilderness and ran into his arms and told him who he was. After that, he made it back civilization for the first time in six years, awed and full of wonder. Colombia celebrated his extraordinary escape with huge parades and rejoicing. Newspapers put it on the front page. A dead man had come back to life.

The story got even more dramatic in February. Not two months away from the clutches of the FARC, Uribe asked him if he would be his foreign minister. It was awfully soon, but Araujo's indomitable spirit of survival had impressed him. In fact, it impressed everyone. Putting his country about himself, Araujo said yes.

It was like Magic Realism.

Araujo was chosen because Uribe was having political troubles. The U.S. Democrats in Congress were threatening to cut off aid to Colombia and Colombia needed to win its war on terror. They didn't want to be left high and dry. The FARC remains a formidable enemy and flip flopping on war funding was only going to embolden them. But the Dems were obsessed with supposed human rights violations as if winning the war was not urgent. Uribe needed someone who could bring Colombia's true story of courage and suffering forward to the Americans. Who better than someone who suffered six years as a hostage of the FARC - even though it was only a few weeks ago. The aim was to get someone who could tell the truth compelling, and who wouldn't turn heads in Washington like a man who'd suffered from narcoterror as a hostage for six years up until just a few weeks ago? It was risky to pick him but it was also a brilliant idea. Colombia needed a truth teller to the world, to tell the truth about the FARC and its evil.

Araujo was in Washington this week and he did tell the truth, from the pit of his soul, from his own experience. He said what he say in the FARC camp - he said that the FARCsters were big worshippers of Hugo Chavez who was their hero. With his own hostage eyes, he watched as they mooned over the Venezuelan dictator's speeches, studied them in the camp, and gushed whenever he came on TV. Chavez really excited them. Araujo said that Chavez was their ideological leader. There was no question that they were crazy about Hugo Chavez. The FARC and Hugo were like lips and teeth.

Simple truth of course, something everyone expected.

But it wasn't so simple as that. Hugo Chavez screamed about the truth telling, saying Araujo had disrespected Venezuela in so doing. Chavez always like to silence the truth tellers. The FARC's drooling over him didn't bother him - Araujo's truthtelling did. See here

President Uribe scolded Araujo today, saying he needed to be more 'wise' in his choice of words around Chavez. Uribe is looking at the pragmatic picture - Hugo Chavez could badly damage the Colombian economy by threatening to shut the border. Chavez would do just that because being a dictator, he no longer has to answer to voters on the Venezuelan side or look out for their trade. But Uribe could face political consequences from voters if the border were to shut. That's why he acts with caution. He also needs the minimal support he can get from Venezuela in its war on narcoterror. I would call it less appeasement than pragmatism and usually it works pretty well.

But not this time. Araujo was hired to tell the truth about Colombia's plight to the world. He experienced it himself, with his own body, mind and soul, for six long years. Yes, he knew the truth about the FARC and its love of Chavez. He said it. It needs to be said as often as possible. An eyewitness is a powerful person to say it. So he did.

But now he's being accused on all sides of being undiplomatic.

I look in askance at Uribe's go-softly approach. Pragmatism can become appeasement pretty darn quickly if enough pragmatic moves are made. Now the word is out about what the Colombia government really thinks about Chavez. They're not alone. I've had lunch with Mexican cabinet officials in the past who've totally lashed out at Chavez in private. But no one wants to go on the record with the truth about the antidemocratic, criminal, gangsterly nature of chavismo. Everyone just wants to preserve the polite fictions, the most fictitious of these being the idea that Chavez was elected democratically. He wasn't.

Sooner or later, the truth will out. It already has come out with the ex-hostage Araujo. When will it come out for everyone else?

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The Middle East's new democratic model

Filed under: Africa ~ Middle East

Mauritania's military coup in 2005 yielded widespread international condemnation from all quarters of the globe. The United States, for example, unleashed a barrage on the junta by stating, "We oppose any attempts by rogue elements to change governments through extra-constitutional or violent means." Such statements were not only premature at best, but completely baseless and hypocritical at worse. The junta of colonels had just overthrown a tyrant that had himself curbed all constitutional laws, released hundreds of political prisoners ordered into jail by said tyrant, and promised a return to democracy under a more transparent constitutional system with a reinvigorated civil society. This was an opportunity, not a setback. And as the months pressed on, it became readily apparent that the promised reforms were underway with the inclusion of all segments of society.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, reforms have come to a halt in all but the most rapidly liberalizing countries. The hope brought by Iraqi elections has burned out for now, leaving the region's dictators legitimately ruling under the popular fear the democracy will breed civil war. Lebanon's Cedar Revolution is being crushed by the overbearing Syrian security state and Iran's imperialist ambitions. Egypt is cracking down hard on Islamic and secular activists alike. Algeria is effectively doing away with term limits for its very own strongman. The list goes on and on. Once sought after, the holy grail of a democratic and liberal Islamic world has disappeared out of reach.

Except for Mauritania. But you wouldn't know that because the media hasn't been reporting on its astounding moves toward democracy.

Mauritanian women stand in line to cast their ballots in Nouakchott, Mauritania, Sunday, March 11, 2007. Men in flowing white and ochre robes lined up under the light of the moon at voting booths Sunday with hopes that whoever wins Mauritania's first presidential election since a coup two years ago will not plunge the country back into totalitarian rule. Courtesy: Associated Press

A new constitution developed through the inclusion of all of society's major groups was widely approved. Just as we may be seeing some of today's leaders around 30 years from now, this new constitution guarantees that presidential terms will be limited to two five-year terms. They must also swear to Allah that they will not try to change this law. The legislative branch and judiciary have also been strengthened relative to the president -- good news for a loose opposition coalition that garnered 41 of 90 seats in parliament. The country is hosting an open presidential debate. Civil and political society have strengthened greatly without government interference. The rise of radical Islam is now on the decline.

This month's presidential election is the real test, though. Out of twenty candidates running, none had a majority in the first round, which means that a runoff will be held in just less than two weeks now.

For continuity and stability's sake, the military has favored Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdullahi even though his opponent, opposition candidate Ahmed Ould Daddah, is neck'n'neck with him. But what current government would not prefer that a certain candidate win? What matters is what they are doing about it, and up until now, the election process has been regarded as totally peaceful, transparent, and with every attempt to make it as fair as possible.

In fact, Reporters Without Borders, hardly an uncritical institution, had this to say about the first round of the presidential election: Presidential campaign being covered fairly by public media. Eghad! Is that milk that just flew out of my nose? And while RWB says that media coverage of the junta's favored candidate has been skewed, it admits that it is largely due to the amount of former candidates defecting to him which results in more media coverage. Aside from that, other imbalances have been corrected. Furthermore, there has been no intimidation of candidates or restrictions to their or their supporters' ability to speak and act freely.

How often does this happen in the Islamic world?

This isn't to say that Mauritania is a shining bright spot on the world. It's one of the only places in the world where slavery is still practiced to a large degree; racism has historically been extreme. Economic and cultural liberalization have been slow to take hold and in most cases outright suppressed since independence.

Yet politically, Mauritania is becoming generations ahead of its neighbors in the rest of Africa and the Middle East. The development of a more democratic system, complete with free elections and a newly found spirit of civil and political society, has clearly put the country on the path of liberalization. Its people will be able to drag themselves out of the same spiral of repression under backwater dictatorships that is only intensifying elsewhere.

While the media may not be paying attention to these historic developments, you can bet that regimes from Zimbabwe to Iran are paying attention. Mauritania's transition to democracy is predicated on a split by the country's own military with the government's corrupt officials, rather than an all out intervention from Western forces. They acted as a temporary stabilizing force rather than a new tyrant. The transition is therefore wholly its own rather than one overseen and partially illegitimized by a foreign power.

If successful, Mauritania's experiment will prove to be a landmark and precedent for other countries to follow. It shows one way that democracy can potentially be established while also stemming the rise of radical Islam. Most of all, it shows that democracy itself is not a dead idea and must be taken seriously by democrats and dictators alike. Iraq may have turned many off, but Mauritania's successes show that such reforms can work.

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