By Ben Tavener, Senior Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The U.S. Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, has visited Brazil as part of a wider Latin American tour which also takes in Colombia and Chile. The visit, his first both to Brazil and Latin America in the role, was touted as an attempt to fight crime in Central America and to forge deeper military ties with the region, but Mr. Panetta has also pressed for the U.S. and Brazil to sign off on two stalled defense contracts.
He expressed his admiration for Brazil, describing it as “a very important force for stability in the region” and “an important partner.” The comments follow the signing by both U.S. and Brazilian president of the so-called joint Dialog on Defense Cooperation.
After meeting with Brazil’s Defense Minister Celso Amorim in Brasília on Tuesday, the Brazilian side made it clear that they expect the U.S. to be more forthcoming and remove barriers to cooperation:
“If the United States is interested in deepening relations with Brazil, it’s important not only in terms of trade, but also the ability to develop partnerships,” said Amorim.
This week’s visit is the latest in a string of recent high-level diplomatic exchanges: President Rousseff visited the United States earlier this month, and the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came to Brazil on an official trip last week.
This time, the Pentagon’s “to do” list holds a remarkable number of topics: from cooperation on military and security issues, and Brazil’s increased presence on the world political and economic stage, to offers of U.S. its help for Brazil’s World Cup and Olympic preparations.
“This is a way of making contact and dealing with the region at a time when there’s growing concern over the ability of many countries to handle the threat posed by transnational crime and, specifically, drug trafficking organizations,” Steve Johnson, a former Pentagon official specializing in Latin America, told broadcaster Voice of America.
However, others believe it is likely that the two-day is a more low-key, scouting trip to get to know the key military players in South America. Peter Hakim, president emeritus of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington D.C., says such a wide range of issues points to a trip with little focus to it, and has more to do with mutual lobbying for defense contracts.
“The U.S. continues to hope and lobby for a Brazil decision to buy [US$5 billion worth of F/A-18] Boeing fighter jets – rather than Swedish or French models, and Brazil is still eager to sell the Embraer [Super Tucano military aircraft] to the U.S. for use in Afghanistan,” he told The Rio Times.
The United States had announced it was going ahead with the Embraer deal, totaling US$380 million, but this has since been put on ice following complaints by American rival Hawker.
Brazilian commentators seem hopeful the deal could finally go through, but not until 2014. Last month, U.S. General and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey held talks with his Brazilian counterparts about strengthening military ties between the two countries, described by Dempsey as “equals.”
At the time, General Dempsey said he hoped to “expand military-to-military relations with [Brazil].”
However, policy expert Peter Hakim says that, militarily, Latin America simply does not carry the importance to the U.S. that has been alluded to. Moreover, making a point of mentioning assistance over major sporting events – not something of great important to the U.S. Department of Defense – goes only to press this further.
Despite warm words over cooperation in Haiti in the wake of the devastating earthquake in 2010, all the time Brazil pursues active relations with countries such as Iran (Brazil is a key negotiator over the Islamic nation’s nuclear program), a major rapprochement from the U.S. is unlikely.