Brazil-US Accords: Back to the Backyard?

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“Today we inaugurate a new phase in bilateral relations concerning defense. With the two operative agreements, we lay out a positive agenda of advances in military and technological cooperation between the two countries,” Brazilian Defense Minister Jaques Wagner stated, after a meeting with US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter at the Pentagon on June 29th.[1] As we shall see, Wagner wasn’t exaggerating.


The next day, President Barack Obama didn’t hesitate in declaring his “absolute confidence” in Dilma Rousseff when the bilateral summit concluded in the White House. “She, who has always been very honest and frank with me, fulfilled what she had promised.”


According to Clarín correspondent Eleonora Gosman, Obama “was referring to two military agreements that the president [Rousseff] had gotten Congress to vote on shortly before traveling to Washington. They were agreements ordered by the head of the White House himself, for whom they were key themes of this bilateral summit.”[2] But Obama went further: “Brazil is an absolutely indispensable partner in facing global challenges…it’s not just a regional leader, it is a global leader.”[3]


Dilma agreed with Obama–to whom she referred as “dear president”–upon signaling that he “guaranteed” there would be no further spying. “I believe in the president,” Dilma said, and added that the summation of the accords with Brazil and the approach to Cuba mark a change in the entire region: “It is a turning point in the relationship with Latin America. It changes the level of relation with the entire region.”


In a New Yorker article, Nicholas Lemann noted, “It’s not likely that she has forgiven the United States, but she needs a lifeline, and there aren’t a lot of other options.”[4] According to the journalist, amidst the serious problems facing the Brazilian government, “this week [March 2015] she finally found a friend: Joe Biden. The Vice-President called her to suggest that she visit Washington, and she eagerly accepted, with the dates and exact details to be determined.”


Thus, Brazil and the United States reassembled relationships that had been damaged since October 2013, when Dilma suspended her trip to Washington in the face of revelations that the National Security Agency (NSA) was spying on the president. While it is clear that Dilma’s trip was motivated by the crisis facing her government, which has an approval rating of lower than 10 percent, the consequences boil down to a complete shift in its foreign policy.


Most analysts agree with the Clarín correspondent, in the sense that we are facing “a redesign in hemispheric relations (between North, South, and Central America), as seen in the Summit of the Americas in Panama and, especially in the renewal of diplomatic, commercial, and political ties between Washington and Havana.” [5]


The Washington Accords


The Planalto Palace’s official website disclosed the list of agreements Obama and Rousseff signed on June 30. It includes seven areas: foreign trade, environment and energy, social welfare, defense, agriculture, education and science, and technology. It stresses that the United States is Brazil’s second largest trading partner after China, and “biggest foreign investor in Brazil” with a stock of $116 billion.[6]


Dilma proposed to double foreign trade in the next decade. The Joint Declaration on Climate Change establishes the commitment of both countries to bring the share of renewable sources in the energy mix to 20 percent by 2030. Brazil has committed to reforesting 12 million hectares of jungle and reach “zero illegal deforestation” by 2030, while the United States is committed to reducing the emission of greenhouse gases from 26 to 28 percent by 2025.


The environmental accord was the one most widely broadcasted by governments. They also agreed on the free importation of Brazilian beef after 15 years of negotiations. Previously, only processed meat could be imported. According to Planalto, the measure favors 95 percent of Brazilian agribusiness exports. In the area of scientific and technological cooperation, the two governments signed seven agreements, ranging from natural disasters to clean energy.


In the aerospace area, they agreed on the participation of Brazilian researchers in NASA centers and in US-based studies on the sun and space climates. As for defense, the two countries “will develop a joint defense project, which should include technology agreements and partnerships between Brazilian and American companies in the area of defense, for, to name some examples, the purchase and sale of equipment and armaments.”[7]


The joint statement issued that same day mentioned various bilateral forums between the two countries, highlighting the Global Partnership Dialogue, the Economic and Financial Dialogue, the Strategic Energy Dialogue, and Defense Cooperation Dialogue, as well as sectorial forums like that of the Brazil-United States Senior Executives (which met in Brasilia on June 18-19), and various commercial commissions.


The statement stresses Dilma’s comment on the “launch of a new round of concessions for investments in the infrastructural sector in Brazil, which opens up $64 billion in opportunities for US companies over several years.” [8] It draws attention to the opening of a sector that until now was monopolized by Brazilian construction companies, today questioned by the corruption allegations in Petrobras.


Another important part of the statement refers to role of the OAS: “The presidents recognize the importance of the Organization of American States in the defense and promotion of democratic governance and human rights.” At the same time, they congratulate the new secretary general, Uruguayan Luis Almagro, former foreign minister of the José Mujica government, and pledge to “work with him to revitalize the Organization so as to effectively assist member states to face hemispheric challenges.”


In contrast to that important comment, it barely alludes to Unasur for its “promotion of political dialogue in Venezuela” and supervision of the parliamentary elections in December. It seems evident that Brazilian diplomacy has marked a turning point in beginning to favor the OAS over Unasur and Ceclac, [that latter of] which isn’t even named in the statement. In the coming months we will see if, indeed, Unasur is relegated to a consistent role in solving minor problems while the big issues are left to OAS.


The Enigma of Defense Agreements


Before traveling to meet with Obama, the Brazilian government insisted that parliament vote in two agreements that were signed in Washington on April 12, 2010. The fact that these agreements were pending parliamentary approval for five years is significant.


While the Agreement on the Protection of Military Information has clear specifications about the creation of a legal frame for secure information exchange, including the exchange of technologies, the bilateral agreement on Defense Cooperation sounds very general and not at all specific.


The official statement says the agreement “will allow the update of joint training, courses, and internships, and will facilitate trade negotiations for equipment and armaments.”[9] It also includes the meeting of defense institutions; students, instructors, and training personnel exchanges; ship visits; and the development and implementation of defense technology programs and projects.[10]


Minister Wagner, along with seventeen businessmen from the Brazilian Association of Defense and Security Industries, presented main defense programs to the US Chamber of Commerce and made clear the desire of his government to “expedite bilateral agreements that encourage greater strategic partnership.”


On this point, and in the absence of clarification from the two governments, a series of doubts and speculation arise. On the one hand, Brazil’s desire to sell more military equipment to the United States appears very clearly. Brazil’s imports from the United States total $42.4 billion, and its exports to the United States $31.4 billion. The Rousseff government wants to reduce its trade deficit with the United States.


But the agreement goes further, although we have not been informed what the “project in the area of defense” is that both countries will develop. Without official facts, there are only approximations, approximations that usually come from the specialized media where former military members and journalists affiliated with the military world work.


According to Defesanet, a leading military affairs analyst, “one of the basic premises of the United States, according to experts, is the separation of Russia from the Brazilian space program.”[11] The analysis states the United States does not want the Russians to participate in the production of satellite launch vehicles or transfer its ballistic missile technology to the Brazilian National Space Activities Program.


Before traveling to Washington, Minister Wagner spent a week visiting companies and institutes in São José dos Campos, Brazil’s military-industrial pole. In particular, he visited Mectron and Avibras companies to “identify possibilities and programs of interest to the United States.” [12] Both are strategic companies in the space area.


Mectron is integrated with Odebrecht Defense and Technology and manufactures smart weapons (such as high-precision missiles), radars, and communications systems. It is the only company in Latin America with capacity to manufacture anti-radiation missiles and one of three in the world with this technology.[13] The CEO of Odebrecht is currently imprisoned for charges relating to the the Petrobras corruption scandal, though he hasn’t yet been tried.


Avibras manufactures artillery and defense systems, rockets, and missiles. Its best-known product is Astros II, a system of multiple rocket launchers with a range of up to 300 kilometers, widely used by Iraq in the Gulf War and more recently by Saudi Arabia.[14] It worked in the construction of rockets at Alcântara Launch Center, the main Brazilian aerospace base.


The two companies work together in the design and manufacture of anti-ship missiles for the Brazilian Navy, that has as one of its objectives the defense of oil fields in the offshore platform, from which 800,000 barrels per day are extracted.


In these bilateral relations, there have been two critical areas in matters of defense: nuclear weapons and aerospace. The US blocked the development of nuclear technology, which Brazil was reaching toward thanks to a nuclear agreement (with technology transfer) with Germany in 1975.[15]


Under pressure from the US government, President Cardoso signed the 1997 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, that for 29 years was considered in the country to be “the legitimation of an international order based on the imbalance of rights and obligations of states,” as it enshrined privileges in the five members of the UN Security Council.[16]


Conflict in the aerospace area began in the same period. In both areas, the Pentagon seems to have drawn a red line. Moniz Bandeira asserts, “the US government continued blocking and preventing the acquisition of the necessary components for the continuity of nuclear, space and AMX aircraft [Italian-Brazilian fighter] programs.”[17]


In 1995 Brazil joined the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), created by Western countries in 1987 to prevent the proliferation of missile and space technology. And in 1992, Brazil removed the space program from the military sphere. [18] With these steps, it hoped to improve relations with the United States in a period characterized by the conservative offensive of the “Washington Consensus.”


The Alcântara Center


The Alcântara Launch Center in the state of Maranhão is the core of the Brazilian space program, which has had many problems and failures.


The note released by the Pentagon is as ambiguous as those broadcast by the Brazilian Defense Ministry. “Secretary Carter and Minister Wagner discussed the importance of deepening trade and defense technology cooperation noting opportunities for future co-development and co-production.”[19]


But there are several facts that suggest that, indeed, the projects belong to the area of aerospace, which puts the Alcântara base at the center of this story. The base was built in 1983 to replace Barrera del Infierno Launch Center, which struggled because of its proximity to population centers. Due to its proximity to Ecuador, Alcântara is considered one of the best-situated bases in the world for satellite launches.[20] Between 1990 and 2000, nearly 30 small and medium rockets with scientific objectives were launched.


In 2000, President Cardoso signed a Technological Safeguards Agreement with the United States, which foresaw the Pentagon assuming complete control of Alcântara. The agreement granted the United States extraterritorial status, by which the Brazilian state could not control the base nor the entry of equipment. It even prohibited resources for the lease of the base being used to develop the Brazilian space program.[21]


Moniz Bandeira, one of the most respected Brazilian foreign policy analysts, asserts that the transfer of the base to the United States provoked “enormous resistance within the armed forces, where a large part of the officers understood that it would close, to the east, the rim of the Brazilian Amazon, as it would be located strategically at the entrance of the main access road, east-west, giving the US ease in gathering logistical support in an eventual attempt to occupy the valley of the Amazon and Solimões rivers.”[22]


It must be said that the Brazilian armed forces consider the Amazon a critical space whose control should not be left to any foreign power. In parallel, the military has a longstanding distrust of the United States, intensified under the second presidency of Getúlio Vargas (1951-1954), which led President Ernesto Geisel to denounce, in 1977, the Military Assistance Agreement signed in 1952 on the grounds that it damaged the country’s interests.[23]


In 2001, the Foreign Relations Committee of the Chamber of Deputies decided not to approve the Technology Safeguards Agreement with the United States.[24] In 2003, upon the arrival of Lula to the presidency, the draft agreement was filed definitively and the new government decided on October 21, 2003, to sign a cooperation agreement with Ukraine to promote the aerospace industry with the creation of the company Alcântara Cyclone Space.


Just before, on August 22, 2003, an accident occurred in Alcântara when a rocket caught fire, killing 21 technicians and destroying the launch site. Some media claimed that it was American sabotage, but the air force investigation could not accurately establish the causes of the short circuit that caused the fire.[25]


In 2011 Wikileaks revealed State Department cables from 2009 to the embassy in Brasilia, where it is made clear that the State Department does not support Brazil’s space program, and was pressuring Ukraine not to transfer space technology to Brazil. The telegrams say the United States “does not support the native program of space launch vehicles in Brazil”; they add that they are not opposed to the existence of the Alcântara base, “as long as such activity is not the result of rocket of the transfer of rocket technology to Brazil.”[26]


On April 9, it came to light that the Brazilian government decided to cancel the agreement on space cooperation with Ukraine that had never really gotten off the ground.[27] Finally, on June 30, bilateral agreements between the United States and Brazil were realized. In recent years Russia was advancing defense agreements with Brazil. In 2008, Russia sold a batch of 12 MI-35 attack helicopters to Brazil, and almost closed a deal on the sale of Pantsir defense systems for Brazil’s 2016 Olympics. However, after three years of negotiations, the defense systems have still not arrived in Brazil.


In December 2014, Russian Vice Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, head of the aerospace and defense sector, visited Brazil. Embraer refused to receive him, because “the company fears the indisposition of the US,” which is its main market.[28] As such, Odebrecht opened the doors of Mectron, and the delegation also visited Avibras.


In the coming months, the facts will speak for themselves. One is military cooperation in aerospace with the United States. But the other, no less important, is whether Petrobras will continue to control the oil fields in the maritime platform, known as pre-salt. It is worth remembering that leading members of the opposition—which aims to overthrow Dilma—pledged to US companies to amend legislation so as to facilitate access to Brazilian oil, until now controlled by the state company.[29]


The return of the Cold War in international relations seems to translate into new alignments in Latin America. It’s largely the result of struggles between the great powers. At a time when Brazil is going through severe economic and political instability, the rapprochement of the United States could cut the wings of a region that had taken solid steps toward independence, and reaffirm its subordination as “America’s backyard.”


31 August 2015




- Raúl Zibechi is an international analyst for Brecha of Montevideo, Uruguay, lecturer and researcher on social movements at the Multiversidad Franciscana de América Latina, and adviser to several social groups. He focuses on the South America region and issues of autonomy and grassroots movements. He writes the monthly “Zibechi Report” for the Americas Program.


Translation by Paige Patchin




[1] “Brasil e Estados Unidos vão desenvolver projeto na área de defesa“, Ministerio da Defesa, 29 julio de 2015, en


[2] “EE.UU. señala a Brasil como su principal socio en Sudamérica”, Clarin, 1de julio de 2015, en


[3] “Consideramos o Brasil uma potência global, afirma Obama em encontro com Dilma”, Presidencia da Republica, 30 de junio de 2015, en


[4] “The problem with Dilma Rousseff, The New Yorker, 27 de junio de 2015, en


[5] “EE.UU. señala a Brasil como su principal socio en Sudamérica”, Clarin, 1de julio de 2015.


[6] “Conheça os acordos firmados por Dilma e Obama nos Estados Unidos”, Portal Planalto, 30 de junio de 2015 en


[7] “Conheça os acordos firmados por Dilma e Obama nos Estados Unidos”, Portal Planalto, 30 de junio de 2015.


[8] “Comunicado Conjunto da Presidente Dilma Rousseff e do Presidente Barack Obama, Washington, 30 de junho de 2015”, en—Comunicado-Conjunto—30-Junho-2015/


[9] “Brasil e Estados Unidos vão desenvolver projeto na área de defesa”, Ministerio da Defesa, 29 julio de 2015.


[10] “Condicionantes para a ajuda ao Brasil”, Defesanet, 9 de julio de 2015.


[11] “Condicionantes para a ajuda ao Brasil”, Defesanet, 9 de julio de 2015 en—Condicionantes-para-a-ajuda-ao-Brasil/


[12] “Industrias de defesa de Sao José ficam entusiasmadas com acordos com os EUA”, Defesaner, 30 de junio de 2015 en






[15] Aunque Estados Unidos impulsó el golpe de Estado de 1964, hubo fuertes choques de intereses geopolíticos entre Brasilia y Washington que se intensificaron en la década de 1970. Luiz Alberto Moniz Bandeira, As Relações Perigosas: Brasil-Estados Unidos (De Collor a Lula, 1990-2000), Editora Civilização Brasileira, Rio de Janeiro 2010, p. 39-40 y 54.


[16] Idem p. 143.


[17] Idem p. 146.


[18] Idem p. 146. Para MCTR véase


[19] U. S. Deparment of Defense, Release No: NR-257-15, 29 de junio de 2015 en




[21] Un detallado análisis del acuerdo en Luiz Alberto Moniz Bandeira, ob. cit. pp. 193-203.


[22] Idem pp. 193-194.


[23] Idem p. 204.


[24] Idem p. 293 y




[26] “EUA tentaram impedir programa brasileiro de foguetes, revela WikiLeaks”, O Globo, 25 de enero de 2011 en


[27] “Brasil vai cancelar acordo com Ucrânia para lançar foguetes”, Folha de Sao Paulo, 9 de abril de 2015.


[28] “ Embraer rejeita visita de vice-premiê e gera mal-estar entre Rússia e Brasil”, Valor, 17 de diciembre de 2014, en






Source: Americas Program
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