The past few administrations have focused their foreign policy on consolidating Brazil’s influence in the international community. Given changes to the Itamaraty [Brazil’s foreign ministry], such as the addition of foreign ministers, do you think the intensity of Brazilian diplomacy has changed significantly in recent years? If there have been changes, why do you think these efforts have evolved, and what do you see as areas for improvement?

Despite the obvious importance of foreign relations to our country, we have seen Brazilian diplomacy lose its luster over the course of the last few years, becoming inexplicably relegated to a secondary position both in the domestic public debate and on the international stage.

I see some segments of the Brazilian government still stuck to anachronistic ideological platforms, a situation which has occasionally forced our diplomacy to not only ignore our real national interests, but also adopt ineffective and contradictory foreign policy choices, strategies, and priorities. If we are to recover the role of a protagonist in international affairs, we must necessarily engage in a deep reflection on the nature of the international system and the challenges we will face ahead. We must not only understand what is our place in the world, but also what kind of world we could help to build and what kind of contribution we can provide. We need to be able to formulate a coherent new grand strategy in accordance with Brazil’s real geostrategic dimensions, which will provide greater conceptual clarity to our international objectives and will be the basis for a much needed strategic reorientation of the main axes of our foreign policy. And certainly, this grand strategy has to be consistent with our economic capabilities and our country’s democratic values, peaceful traditions, and respect for international law and human rights.

We also cannot expect Brazil’s foreign policy to continue to pursue a “South-South” strategy in Latin America or in any other region based exclusively on ideological orientation and alignments, rather than on democratic values and the free market. Supporting an authoritarian regime like Nicolás Maduro’s in Venezuela or avoiding condemning the atrocities of Islamic State militants, for instance, undermine Brazil’s capacity to be a real leader regionally and globally.

Some analysts have previously expressed concerns about a conflict between Brazil’s regional interests in organizations like Mercosur [a regional trade bloc consisting of Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, Venezuela, Uruguay, and Argentina] versus its influence in the larger international community or with trading partners like the United States and Europe. The reasoning is essentially that pursuing regional power instead of international power is not as economically beneficial to the country. Do you think these concerns are still credible, and do you think Brazil will ever reach a point where it will be forced to prioritize one over the other?

These concerns still prevail because South American economies did not develop as they could in the last decades and years due to wrong choices in economic policies, when protectionism played a major role. Mercosur should be one large market, one sound economy to facilitate economic integration with major areas. However, regional crises, protectionist rules, and lack of a productive complementary policy prevented such development. There is no contradiction in pursuing regional integration and more influence in the larger international community. Ultimately, one process may influence the other positively. Nevertheless, Brazil has to change its actual regional process of integration based on “leftist solidarity” and move towards one based on an open partnership with other world dynamic regions by developing policies that lead to a real integration with global value chains.

It is time to change the Mercosur rules to allow Brazil, as well as any other Mercosur members, to implement bilateral trade negotiations under agreed-upon rules. Bilateral trade negotiations should be implemented along with coordination to establish a regional value chain, in the way it has been done in Asia. This approach would enhance the economic prospects of the regional economy and Mercosur could become a commercial boost instead of a political hurdle, provided that democratic regimes prevail in all member countries.

I believe that there is no contradiction in pursuing regional integration while seeking to achieve more influence in global affairs simultaneously. One process influences the other in a positive way. And Brazil has all the resources and capabilities to be the driving force behind regional integration in South America. However, our current foreign policy not only exhibits a regrettable unwillingness to pursue a more assertive role in regional issues, but also seeks to implement an integration process based on an ideological leftist solidarity that has brought no major economic benefits to the countries in the region.

South American countries are looking for alternatives to boost their economies and international trade. Colombia, Peru, Chile, and Mexico, for example, have created the Pacific Alliance, a dynamic free-trade area. In this context, Mercosur needs to become a more flexible organization. Its rules need to be altered in order to allow Brazil, as well as other member countries, to individually pursue trade negotiations with other regions and countries. Regional integration is not a process without costs. Without leadership, political will, pragmatism, and the allocation of resources needed to pursue this ambitious project, any integration process in South America is doomed to failure.

At the same time, Brazil cannot limit its options to South America or even Latin America. Our foreign policy is inexplicably neglecting major changes in the international trade governance system. Consequently, we are missing several opportunities. We are not taking part in the negotiations for the creation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). We are not taking part in the negotiations regarding the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) either. We cannot stay out of those negotiations and run the risk of being increasingly isolated in economic and trade issues.

The theme of the recent Summit of the Americas was “Prosperity with Equity: The Challenge of Cooperation in the Americas.” At the same time, there have often been strained relations between the United States and Brazil, as well as between the United States and Latin America as a whole. What do you see as the future of cooperation in the Americas? What steps do you deem necessary to further fortify relations in the hemisphere and achieve the goals set out by leaders during the summit, particularly in the areas of human rights and the maintenance of democratic values?

Economic and social differences among American countries are considerable. The terms of cooperation should take these two points into account in order to establish a more balanced process of integration. Actually, as a first step it should start with developed countries transferring more technology and resources for supporting education and health programs in less developed countries. Those countries receiving resources should be committed to democratic principles, human rights, citizen participation, and positive health and education results. No successful integration process can take place if the economic and social asymmetries among countries are not taken into account from the beginning. The United States and Brazil should lead this process in coordination aiming to achieve significant results for the hemisphere’s economic and social development.

Brazil and the United States can do much together politically and economically in the hemispheric context. From a pragmatic point of view, we can say that this historic relationship is not based on senseless cooperation or the subordination of national interests on either side, but rather mutual respect and understanding. As the two largest economic and political powers in the Americas, Brazil and the United States should seek to establish a standard equilibrium in their bilateral relationship, which would unearth opportunities, eliminate distrust, and reduce disparities.

Furthermore, establishing and developing a real strategic partnership between Brazil and the United States, which goes beyond diplomatic rhetoric, would bring political, economic, and social benefits to the whole region.

Shifting the focus to more internal issues, Brazil has seen a significant reduction in income inequality and poverty, much of which has been attributed to the success of programs like Bolsa Família [a social program of conditional cash transfers to families if their children are get vaccinated and attend school]. Recently, however, these reductions appear to be slowing. What steps can be taken to continue the momentum of poverty reduction and further promote social development?

It is important to consider that the social safety net represents an efficient distributive policy when the poverty level and the income concentration are high. Since the inauguration of Real Plan [a financial program designed to control inflation by introducing the current currecny, the real] in 1994, the income distribution has progressed due to the new scenario including the end of inflation, economic stability, and increased job opportunities. The fast and significant decrease in inflation lead by the Real Plan had an extraordinarily positive impact on poverty reduction in Brazil.

The “Bolsa Família” program is an amplification of several conditional transfer programs initiated during President Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s mandates that obtained excellent results up to 2010, while economic stability prevailed. Since 2011, a whole set of wrong economic policies is leading Brazil to slow growth and a decreasing employment rate, nullifying the benefits of the income transfer programs.

Therefore, as the poverty level diminished since 1995 and as the incumbent government adopted wrong economic policies, social programs became less effective in reducing poverty. It is necessary to restore economic stability and political credibility in order to recover the government’s capacity to implement the right policies that promote economic growth, development, and social justice. Furthermore, the government must dedicate increasing resources to education, which is the key element for long-run social development, along with complementary investments in areas with strong positive externalities such as infrastructure, security, and public health. At the same time, responsible fiscal and monetary policies have to be pursued in order to achieve a sustainable economic growth and social development.

Many analyses of Brazil’s economic prospects are quite grim. What do you see as the key to improving this situation, especially given the concerns about the impact of the upcoming Olympic Games?

As mentioned previously, it is necessary that economic stability be restored in order to recover the government’s credibility. From that point on, the public sector must dedicate increasing resources to areas with strong economic and social externalities, especially to education.

When it comes to the Olympic Games there is not much to be done, since the time span is short (some nine months). But, in any case, I understand that all major concerns have been covered and we are going to have a satisfactory result, with no problems related to the economic scenario. On the contrary, the Olympic Games will attract more tourists to Brazil and thus help to increase the economic activity in retail and service segments that today are suffering with the economic recession caused by the wrong policies implemented during the recent years.

Brazil is currently facing several pressing social issues: violence, education, and public health, among other challenges. While it is of course impossible to choose only one issue to deal with, in terms of passing legislation, which do you think is the most likely to be addressed in the current congress and why?

The congressional agenda is focused on three main fields this year: the macroeconomic program, political reform, and violence. The fiscal measures have all been negotiated with the president’s economic team and have been voted upon. The Congress proposed a fiscal smoothing, imposing some minor changes to the original program.

The political reforms have been voted on in the House of Representatives, but is expected to face some problems in the Senate. The current scenario exhibits remarkable uncertainty. The House of Representatives has approved the first of two rounds of the constitutional amendment that reduces the age for criminal responsibility from eighteen to sixteen years old in some cases. This is not an easy subject, even though more than eighty percent of the Brazilian population supports this initiative. Other than that, the Congress is experiencing some serious strain associated with the unfortunate political crisis involving President Dilma Rousseff, which has impaired the regular functioning of the Congress.

In conclusion, what are your thoughts on the quality of Brazilian politics today, and what challenges do you anticipate in the future?

Brazilian democracy is characterized by a strong presidential command, and since the end of the military regime in 1985, the political situation has experienced three major crises. The first, in 1989, was hyperinflation, when the president lost his credibility. The second took place in 1992, when after only two years of election the president was impeached. The third hardship has been experienced this year. Nine months after President Rousseff’s re-election, her approval rating is below ten percent. The fact that Brazil has overcome the recent political crisis in a democratic way shows how solid our political institutions are. Brazil has a momentary political problem caused by the dismantling provoked by the Workers’ Party (PT) due to corruption and irresponsible economic and political choices. In this sense, one could argue that Brazil is facing the worst political moment, and disappointment is all over the country. The economic and political situation today is very difficult, but I am confident that we will overcome it and, as it happened before, I am sure that the final result will be an even stronger democracy for Brazil.