Celso Amorim: Brasil’s madness as a method of destruction

By Joaquim Palhares and Mariana Serafini.

Tolstoy opens his classic Anna Karenina with the famous phrase “all happy families look alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, “and our way is more cruel,” adds former Foreign Minister Celso Amorim, explaining the challenges that Brazil must face in order to return to its position in the world as a sovereign country.

In conversation with Carta Maior, the former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of Defense during the Lula and Dilma governments analyzed the Brazilian political scene, the changes in the geopolitical framework and the impact of Operation Lava Jato on national sovereignty. For the diplomat, who in 2009 was considered the best foreign minister in the world, Brazil and the Brazilian people are victims of an accelerated dismantling project and it will require the work of generations to reverse the damage. “[What is happening] is a very horrible thing, it is madness, it is the installation of madness as a method. A method of destruction.”.

Amorim looks upon the policies of the Bolsonaro government with great concern and does not hesitate to affirm that “they are shooting on target: they have destroyed Unasur.” It is a project of the great powers to weaken Latin America and regain control of this territory, while guaranteeing Brazilian subservience as a “strategic backyard.”

Since the election of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela in 1998, Latin America has made strides towards integration and sovereignty. It consolidated important international mechanisms and managed to position itself in the world as a territory with an active voice in negotiations of global relevance. Brazil was the protagonist of this process, not only by the territorial extension and economic weight, but by the political will not to strengthen itself on the global chessboard.

The change that this progressive wave in Latin America caused in the world bothered the great powers, especially the United States which, as Amorim explains, “had its plate full” with the wars in the Middle East at the beginning of this century. But now it has returned – holding all the chips – to recover lost territory in the global south.

The weight on the scale was so much that we had the right to dream, for a little while, of the inverted map by Torres Garcia coming true. Former Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa even proposed the “Song For All” by Mercedes Sosa as a Unasur hymn: “Sing with me, sing / American brother / free your hope / with a yell.” .

However, with one coup after another and a false legal operation in Brazil, the project of Nuestra América envisaged by José Martí has been ​​sunk in only a few months, and reversing this situation is the challenge of the next generations, says the former minister.

The interview is part of the Carta Maior series about the impact of the five years of Operation Lava Jato in Brazil.

Main excerpts of interview with Celso Amorim:

Impact of Lava Jato on national sovereignty 

Unasur, for example, was already deactivated under the Temer government. The legal decision to leave was from the Bolsonaro government, but it was already happening before. At the time of Brexit, still during the Temer government, Brazil began to comply, had no initiative. I think now it will get worse. These things come together and it’s not just Petrobras, our engineering companies as well. Odebrecht, for example, was a powerhouse!  It had to corrected, not liquidated. Have you ever imagined Germany liquidating Volkswagen because they had software which fooled environmental standards? No, they dismissed the person in charge.

The external issue in Brazil was due to the presence of large national companies; BNDES, for loans in the ​​construction sector and the acquisition of other things; and to put an end to our diplomatic actions. These things are being demolished in a systematic way. Lava-Jato wanted to reach the core of our sovereignty.

The liberation of Lula obviously has to do with his innocence, his rights as a citizen and a human being, of course, but it has to do with the symbol of Brazilian sovereignty. In Brazil and Latin America, when you have the struggle for sovereignty and equality combined, a coup happens.

[At this point] it is important that the left and the progressive forces are attentive, observant, because there is a lot going on. We need to ask ourselves: where is the factory floor, the one that was previously mobilized by Lula in the big strikes? How to mobilize these people is a challenge. How do you organize the masses who benefited from President Lula, largely deprived people, who are not part of any movement? In times of great unemployment – as it is now – union militancy capacity is diminishing. You have to reorganize to mobilize the workers.

Lula has a great capacity to understand reality and to stand before it. I do not see any other leader in Brazil with this ability, regardless of the intellectual capacity that each one has. You can intellectually understand a problem, now who is able to talk to the people, this is Lula.

The unions are still important, we had this general strike that was successful, but it is a broader and more complex thing. Re-conquering the middle class is very important because it oscillates. Many people who thought Lula was good, then thought he was bad because they believed in all the fables of corruption, right now they must be scandalized by [Sergio] Moro.

There is the famous Tolstoy phrase that Anna Karenina opened: ‘all happy families look alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’. Our way is more cruel. The organization today has several levels. You have to keep working for the long-term, of course, without forgetting [John Maynard] Keynes’s phrase that “in the long run we are all dead.”

But we are not yet discussing a program of government. Of course you have to start discussing why you have to offer an alternative horizon. It is not enough to say that what is there is bad, you have to say how it will be good. But it has to be very clear that we are living such a dramatic situation in Brazil, of demonizing culture … If there is one thing that characterizes the current administration is the attack on reason.

Everything that is rational is being attacked.

US interest in Brazil 

Obviously [the United States’ nagging motive in regard to national sovereignty] was Brazil’s decision to take over the pré-sal (offshore, subsalt Oil fields) – because it’s not just to say ‘ah the American companies’ it stands to reason that US companies have an interest – But it’s much more complex than that. Who is investing in the pré-sal? You have a Chinese company, you have a Norwegian company, you have everything. Of course there are the interests of the American companies, but more than that, it is the strategic interest of the USA.

This has always been seen as a US backyard. ‘Backyard’ looks like an expression we invented here, with the Vira-Lata (Stray dog) complex, but it is not. Latin America is treated in North American academic books as a ‘back area’, that is, their strategic backyard. So this we cannot change here. [The US believes that] others can even exploit our oil, but it has to be part of their strategic reserve in a case of conflict.


If you have a foreign policy – not just Brazilian – you start to have practical consequences like the BRICS … The BRICS may have been the most important point because it implies a possible deeper association with China and Russia. The IBAS [India-Brazil-South Africa Dialogue Forum] did not bother them, but the BRICS is a possible change in global geopolitics.

I was invited to attend a European strategy meeting to talk about BRICS and one of the questions they asked me was: “But is the BRICS bank to replace the World Bank?” Then there was a perception, that was perhaps exaggerated with respect to reality, but which was that it was changing the strategic organization of the world. You have the oil here, there are the BRICS, you have a perception that consolidates in 2009, 2010, with all the initiatives that Brazil had taken, and other South American countries had also taken to participate, UNASUR and CELAC. This is concrete, not just words to the wind. Our trade with South America increased enormously, and their trade with us.

This combination of factors made the famous American deep state awaken to the geopolitical problem that the external agency of Brazil signified. Brazil is one of the largest countries, along with the United States, and has projection in Africa, the Arab countries, India, etc … and Latin America is no longer seen as a backyard.

The result of all this was to awaken the viewpoint that ‘we have to take action’. That’s where things began.

Changes in the geopolitical framework during the last decade 

A very important [new] fact is the resurgence of this populist nationalism in Europe, which is a right-wing nationalism, unlike in developing countries. This is also true in the United States. It’s curious because it’s very new. I mean, for the first time, I would say, since World War II [Donald] Trump represents a defense – of course the United States has always championed their interests in the first place, but they sought to define their interest in terms of a world order. Of course there was a lot of hypocrisy in that, but also looking for some sort of order. Not now, now it is this: ‘Intellectual property is our interest, let’s bludgeon whoever doesn’t respect that in the face, understand?’. Simply put, that’s it. The United States – in the case of the first Gulf War, at least, which is an armed action against Iraq –  said ‘let’s try to get UN approval’, and it did. Not now, now it’s ‘let’s go and do whatever we want’. No one asks. The United States, for the first time since World War II, is defending its interest in a totally crude and direct way.

Nowadays there are three very large power poles: the United States, China and Russia. With the possible association that is increasingly seen between Russia and China, it will be two poles again. It will no longer be the East-West ideological pole of the past, which was capitalism versus communism. Now it’s a much more complicated thing. But it may be the United States on one side, and Eurasia on the other, with the European Union in the middle not knowing which side to take. Ideologically more on the capitalist side, but with their interests as well …

How should Latin America and Brazil behave in this regard? They should simply exploit these differences to their advantage. Because it’s not just about the United States, China is a brave negotiator! So you have to have that agency, and Brazil has a leadership role in the developing world …

From the haughty and active foreign policy to the dismantling of Itaramaty 

I’m not talking about an abstract thing. I saw in the negotiations of the World Trade Organization! I saw African delegates saying: ‘Vote like Brazil’. Because they knew they could not carry it. India was like this: ‘We will go with you, but you go ahead.’ In the time of President Lula it was like that. It was happening already a little before, I must say, because Brazil has weight.

When I see what is happening today in foreign policy … it is a dramatic thing. It’s not just against Lula. It is not the return to the policy of Fernando Henrique Cardoso – which I would already regret in many respects – is an unspeakable setback.

[In the face of this scenario] the challenge is to defend sovereignty at the international level, with this redefined framework, this demands things that, I say, in the short term I do not see how. But it needs to re-establish integration. Because Brazil alone, although great, it also does not carry this weight all. It does not have the weight of China, the United States. However, Latin America may have. South America may have.

Is it possible to continue the progressive cycle? 

That election in Argentina with Alberto Fernandez, who knows?! With Kirchner coming back … Our president is rude and all that they say, but he has intuition. Why does he say, ‘I’m not so worried about Venezuela, now I’m worried about Argentina’?

But I see that there is a determination to prevent Latin America from getting back on its feet. It is scandalous that there has not been a reaction in Latin America regarding the US threat to increase Mexico’s tariffs, or the proposed construction of a wall. Now, see that they are shooting on target: they destroyed Unasur. It began during the Temer government and the Bolsonaro consolidated it.

What happens in Argentina, for good or bad, has an impact in Brazil. They ended the dictatorship there, in a few months it ended here; there is a financial crisis there, soon there is a crisis here. In the same way that democratization has accelerated redemocratization here, if you have progressive governments in Argentina, Mexico, Bolivia, in Venezuela, that is managing to hold on … it is important, this is why Bolsonaro is so interested.

Now, of course, Brazil has a big weight: all the other countries in the world have commercial and economic interests here. It is no wonder that when speaking of the countries that support the American line in relation to Venezuela, they soon speak of Brazil.

Resumption of development and sovereignty 

[To resume national development] is a great challenge. It is necessary that many people understand that the discourse of sovereignty is coupled with the discourse of democracy, there is no democracy without sovereignty.

We have to broaden the front for sovereignty with people who, say, are more defeated in democracy, not so much thinking about sovereignty, but thinking about democracy. And it is indispensable that there be a renegotiation, but who we can include in this renegotiation for me is not clear. For example, I have little confidence in a large sector of Brazilian industry.

In the past we imagined the national bourgeoisie [as an important group for development]. I do not see it anymore. The true national bourgeoisie today – I will say something shocking – the true national bourgeoisie today is agribusiness.

[The resignation of Joaquim Levy] brings back up the idea that we are living a profoundly unsustainable abnormality. The government will have to make an adjustment to survive. When Bolsonaro comments that he will arm the population to avoid a coup … what does he mean by that? If Lula is eventually released and the army does not decide to act, then does the population act? What is the coup? An eventual attempt at impeachment? I do not think it’s the time, but it’s going to disturb somebody … What amazes me is that this statement was made at a military ceremony. It’s like saying that you do not trust the Army, but “in my people.” This is amazing and will require a reorganization.

You see, I do not like this article of the Constitution the way it is, it ends up serving to give a power of will; but in the current constitution it is the military’s mission: ‘1. The defense of the homeland; 2. The guarantee of the constituted powers and at their request the law and the order. Who would have to avoid the coup, in theory, are the military! If you pass this obligation on to the population, what is the role of the armed forces? You mess with one of the pillars of the current government, the military, which must be shaken by all these changes.

Another pillar of government is financial capital, and they do not want only representatives, they want order, predictability, when the guy is dismissed from BNDES for allegedly having employed someone from the PT, this generates instability. I think they are two different things: one is the structural problem in Brazil, that is, the domain of financial capital, international capitalism, neoliberalism, things that were already a mark of the Temer government; then there is a core of irrationality that is typical of today’s government. What we can discuss is whether this core of irrationality can be shaken, modified. The antechamber for a progressive project, in my opinion, is a little further.

We have to accept that in this broader plane we have other allies also, although we may diverge along the way. Our development strategy must have the fundamental economic side that Professor Bresser-Pereira always emphasizes, which is part of our Brazil Nation Project. But it must also have a side of social, racial equality.

Brazil is not a country that has a nation to defend, it is a country that still needs to build a nation. With so many people excluded, and the class question still unresolved … it is difficult to make a project.

And then back to the starting point, how can you have a discussion of national sovereignty if you did not build the nation from popular sovereignty? The concept of sovereignty arises with the formation of the national states of Europe, it was something to defend from outside. Here comes Jean-Jacques Rousseau and creates the concept of popular sovereignty, that is, sovereignty within.

In this way, there is sovereignty only when it is the people who exercise power. It is in our ancient Constitutions that “all power emanates from the people.” Anyway, it’s these two scopes, and when you say that power emanates from the people, it’s from the people themselves, it’s not from the elite, it’s from the poor, black people, from the Northeast, from women, from LGBTs, from Indians. You have to rebuild this while preparing to face external pressures, it’s not an easy task, it’s a gigantic task. And it will not be a task for a generation.

With all the criticism I make of Fernando Henrique, it was a government of tolerance, a democratic government, no arrests, no rectors committing suicide by persecution. You can not disregard this either, do you? I remember 1964, [we were] speaking of bourgeois democracy. Then came the military coup and we were dying of longing for bourgeois democracy. We can not be satisfied with it, but we can not despise it either. That’s why we have to fight, I do not want to see deputies committing suicide, I do not want to see women and blacks being beaten, I do not want to see money missing for universities, and at the same time I want to see Brazil capable of defending international interest.

What happens is the following, at the time of the dictatorship I was ashamed of Brazil, but I did not get ashamed of Brazilian diplomacy. You take a Foreign Minister like Gibson Barboza [Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Medici government between 1969 and 1974]. He did not go around defending the torture. He avoided the subject, looked for other agendas.

Not today, it is a very horrible thing, it is madness, it is the installation of madness as a method. A method of destruction.


This article originally appeared in Carta Maior and was translated by Brasil Wire.