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Posts tagged ‘Dilma Rousseff’

Why Does Brazil Want a Nuclear-Powered Attack Submarine?

By Taylor Marvin

Dilma Rousseff speaking in 2014. Agência Brasil photo by Tânia Rêgo.

Dilma Rousseff speaking in 2014. Agência Brasil photo by Tânia Rêgo.

In August, the Brazilian site DefesaNet reported that despite recent budget cuts developing a nuclear-powered attack submarine remains a priority for Brazil’s navy. Amid a stumbling economy the Brazilian Navy’s budget was reduced from R$ 5.2 to R$3.9 billion, or roughly $1.3 and $1 billion in US dollars. “The first step is establishing clear priorities, which are the nuclear and submarine construction program, besides maintaining our operational squadron,” Navy commander Admiral* Eduardo Bacellar said during a senate commission event. “For the Navy commander, any threat to Brazilian sovereignty would necessarily come from the sea,” DefesaNet’s report continues, and the Navy’s stated goal of “keeping the South Atlantic free of conflicts” includes defending Brazil’s offshore petroleum resources. [My translation.]

Under current plans Brazil will build four diesel-electric attack submarines and a single much larger nuclear-powered submarine (Submarino com Propulsão Nuclear, or SN-BR); the first conventionally-powered submarine is expected to be completed in 2017. (It is important to distinguish between nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed submarines, the latter of which are often powered by nuclear reactors. Brazil does not possess nuclear weapons.) These submarines are being developed with French assistance and are based on the French Scorpène class, though France is not sharing nuclear technology (see a comparison of the conventional and nuclear-powered submarines at Think Defense). As Defense Industry Daily reports, French technical cooperation will allow Brazilian firms to grow their own advanced manufacturing capabilities. This industrial development is a key goal of the program, as is job creation. While Brazil could have easily purchased the conventional submarines from established suppliers abroad, building the submarines in Brazil is an important aim of the project. The nuclear submarine is slated to begin construction in 2016 and to enter operational service 2025. (This date is now unlikely; see update below.)Though details are uncertain, later on Brazil hopes to build additional nuclear-powered subs.

By far the most complex aspect of the submarine project – which abbreviated as PROSUB – is Brazil’s effort to develop submarine nuclear propulsion. Many navies operate conventional attack submarines, and while building these boats is difficult enough developing the compact nuclear reactor required to power a nuclear submarine is a formidable undertaking. Brazil has operated a civil nuclear power station since the 1980s and covertly pursued nuclear weapons in the 1970s and 1980s, but the country is not a leading expert in the nuclear power sector. Combined with a relative paucity of funding, this technical inexperience has contributed to the nuclear propulsion effort’s long history: in tandem with its stumbling efforts to develop nuclear weapons Brazil first embarked on the development of a maritime nuclear reactor in 1979, while funding the nuclear submarine’s construction was first announced by President Luíz Inácio da Silva in 2007.

Developing a nuclear-powered submarine is an enormously difficult and uncertain enterprise with no assurances of success: only China, France, India, Russia, the UK, and US have done so. Given these barriers, why is the Brazilian Navy so focused on building one? As a 2009 Proceedings article by Paul D. Taylor explains (via Defense Industry Daily) “the answer is apparently more related to political and economic factors associated with grand strategy than to requirements of naval strategy.” Brazil is developing a nuclear submarine because it aspires to join – and importantly be recognized among – the ranks of the global leaders that can field a particularly formidable, expensive, and prestigious class of military technology.

Brazil aspires to be a world power, an aspiration justified in Brazilian eyes by the country’s large population, continental size, maturing democracy, cultural soft power, and regional leadership. Naval power, specifically extending Brazilian influence across the South Atlantic, is a key path towards realizing Brazil’s global aspirations. As Nathan Thompson and Robert Muggah recently wrote in Foreign Affairs, “Brazil has coupled soft-power initiatives with a dramatic boost in military cooperation with Africa, conducting joint naval exercises, providing military training and arms transfers, and establishing outposts in ports across the continent’s western coast.” Oliver Stuenkel also notes the importance of the South Atlantic in Brazilian strategic thought, which is expressed in the phrase Amazônia Azul or “Blue Amazon.” “Analogous to Brazil’s growing role on the [African] continent,” Stuenkel wrote in 2013, Brazil “is bound to play a larger role in the South Atlantic … and it has resisted attempts made by Europe and the United States … to create one single Atlantic Space.”

The Brazilian Navy sees the SN-BR as a vital component of the country’s overall maritime strategy. An attack submarine’s core mission is destroying enemy warships and shipping and hunting other submarines (and, to a lesser extent, launching land attack cruise missiles). While the advent of advanced air-independent propulsion schemes have eroded nuclear-powered submarines’ advantages over their conventional peers, nuclear-powered attack submarines are able sustain much higher speeds when submerged and patrol longer distances, a key advantage given Brazil’s 7,000 kilometers of coastline.

But as Taylor notes, none of the then-stated strategic rationales for a Brazilian nuclear submarine – protecting offshore oil platforms and patrolling Brazil’s Exclusive Economic Zone – seem justifiable: the SN-BR’s costs make little sense given that Brazil has no external enemies. Clearly, other aims are at work.

Brazilian officials justify PROSUB by citing the need to deter potential aggressors and protect Brazil’s offshore resources. This maritime patrimony or “Blue Amazon” is even referenced in the name of the government-owned consortium responsible for the nuclear sub project, Amazul. As Taylor notes, the “Blue Amazon” metaphor is a deliberate public relations strategy. Throughout their history Brazilians have often described the vast Amazon as the resource that makes their country exceptional, but also one that is threatened by outside forces. “The Brazilian elite, especially the military, had long worried that their country might lose the Amazon valley for want of settling it,” Thomas E. Skidmore writes in The Politics of Military Rule in Brazil, 1964-85, discussing the military dictatorship’s ill-advised attempt to open the Amazon basin to agriculture. “Generations of Brazilian army cadets had been taught the Amazon’s geopolitical significance; now as officers they feared possible Peruvian or Venezuelan incursions into Brazil’s vasty but thinly held territory upriver. This worry deepened as the Amazon’s extraordinary mineral wealth – especially iron ore – became known.” Importantly, exactly who threatens the Amazon is unimportant: earlier generations feared America’s tentacles reaching south into the Amazon, rumors that improbably persist into the 21st century. By invoking these fears the Brazilian Navy’s use of the phrase Amazônia Azul suggests – and, importantly, advocates – both the importance of Brazil’s maritime resources and their vulnerability. While it is difficult to say who threatens Brazil’s offshore resources, the Amazônia Azul metaphor creates a narrative where someone does.

In this narrative submarines are required to defend Brazil’s maritime patrimony, and the immediate impracticality of a modern submarine force is irrelevant. As Stuenkel dryly notes “specialists are unsure how nuclear submarines are useful” in the context of defending offshore resources, but despite the rhetoric that justifies their development are in service of a larger goal. “Rather, the development of nuclear submarines can be seen as a long-term project to eventually gain the capacity to control the South Atlantic strategically.” Extended across the Atlantic, Amazônia Azul’s defensive rhetoric becomes, implicitly, an offensive sea denial strategy, at least in theory.

Beyond their role in war and deterrence value, the existence – or more importantly, development – of submarines plays a pivotal role in Brazil’s ambitions. Advanced submarines, and particularly nuclear-powered submarines, are an important source of national prestige. Brazil’s aspirations to global influence and long-standing desire for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council make it keenly aware how possessing prestige symbols can further these goals. Nuclear submarines are restricted to a select club which includes the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, a fact President Rousseff explicitly referenced in her December 2014 inauguration of the facility where the submarine’s reactor will be installed. (Rousseff skirted around India’s ongoing development of a nuclear submarine, which is both convenient – India also seeks a permanent UNSC seat – and inconvenient for this narrative.) Additionally, and again as Taylor writes, fielding a nuclear submarine “would add an argument to the case that [Brazil] so far exceeds the strength of its regional neighbors that it is a natural choice” for an expanded Security Council, though as Stuenkel notes “Brazil has rarely used its dominant role in South America as the basis for its claim to global leadership.” Even so, this dynamic is not that different from aircraft carriers – and today Brazil is the only Latin American country to operate (in theory, given its uncertain reliability) an aircraft carrier of its own, though Brazil’s naval fighter aircraft are ancient.

A Scorpène-class submarine. Photo by Wikimedia user Outisnn.

A Scorpène-class submarine. Photo by Wikimedia user Outisnn.

Brazil has also pursued nuclear technology for decades, demonstrating a deep desire to be seen belonging to the elite club of states proficient in nuclear energy. Brazil sought to develop nuclear weapons before voluntarily giving up its nuclear ambitions through a series of diplomatic accords. The country generates a small portion of its electricity from nuclear power, though not without setbacks; the country’s unreliable civil nuclear power plant was nicknamed the “firefly” in the 1980s for its flickering output. With developing nuclear weapons now both undesirable and politically unavailable, in national prestige terms militarized nuclear energy – maritime reactors – is the next best thing. “The domination of nuclear technology is seen as a national symbol of pride and proof that Brazil is no longer a developing country,” Stuenkel writes of a nuclear submarine. While a nuclear reactor could power a future aircraft carrier or amphibious assault ship (or any other large surface ship, if cost-effectiveness isn’t considered) in modern US service only submarines and supercarriers steam under nuclear power. (Brazil’s São Paulo carrier, formerly the French Foch, is conventionally powered.) If Brazil prizes nuclear status and an attack submarine is the most plausible rational for achieving this distinction then the SN-BR program is the justification for developing and fielding militarized nuclear energy, not the other way around.

Beyond its immediate military justifications and wider role as a status symbol, questions about the SN-BR’s value remain. Every real spent on the nuclear submarine is funding that cannot be spent elsewhere. Is the expensive effort to develop the SN-BR the best means of expanding Brazil power across the South Atlantic?

After Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and war in Ukraine prompted France to cancel the planned sale of two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships to Russia, Robert Farley speculated that these ships – which are capable of launching dozens of helicopters and landing marines onshore – could be purchased by Brazil to supplement the country’s aging aircraft carrier. While this sale was never likely and the Mistrals were recently bought by a Gulf-backed Egypt, the Mistrals arguably fit far better into Brazil’s South Atlantic-spanning strategy aspirations than an expensive homegrown nuclear-powered submarine.

While Brazil’s global aspirations have stalled under the inward-facing and distracted Rousseff administration, the South Atlantic and Africa is likely to remain an important focus of Brazil’s long-term strategic vision. Amphibious assault ships are relevant to this vision – which, importantly, given Brazil’s lack of peer rivals is more a peaceful one of security assistance rather than outright sea denial – in a way submarines are not. Versatile flattops can project airpower, contribute to disaster relief and amphibious operations, and provide a highly visible symbol of Brazilian power. While not directly referencing Brazil’s South Atlantic priorities, Farley emphasizes this point: unlike the aging São Paulo carrier, amphibious assault ships “can increase Brazil’s regional influence not merely by existing, but also by doing things on a daily basis.” They have the same advantage over submarines.

In some ways the submarine project, and especially Brazil’s efforts to develop nuclear propulsion, is a holdover from a more hopeful era: it is difficult to imagine the beleaguered Rousseff administration embarking the program today. Similarly, the decision to tie Brazil’s prestige and global ambitions to advanced submarines rather acquiring amphibious assault ships or other markers of national power rests on decisions taken decades ago, when the Brazil first embarked on its nuclear weapons and energy programs. And of course, the chance to purchase the Mistrals was an unpredictable one-off opportunity that would have been difficult to manage even if Brazil was interested.

Actually building the nuclear-powered submarine will be difficult and is likely to face technical problems and funding shortages, particularly given Brazil’s current economic slump. But despite these strategic questions and practical challenges Brazil has committed itself to realizing PROSUB’s ambitions. Whether the program will bring Brazil the influence and prestige it seeks remains to be seen.

*Naval ranks translated into US equivalents with the help of Wikipedia.

Update (11/30/2015): As O Globo reported on November 11th (via Poder Naval), budget cuts have now delayed the expected nuclear submarine schedule by three to four years. I have not updated the 2025 service entry date included in the original text, both as a reference and since in Brazil’s economic climate this new target remains uncertain.

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Cuba and the Price of Principled Stands

By Taylor Marvin

President Obama speaking with freed Cuban prisoner Alan Gross. Official White House photo by Pete Souza

President Obama speaking with freed Cuban prisoner Alan Gross. Official White House photo by Pete Souza.

One of the most enduring realities of US-Latin American relations appears set to finally end. On Wednesday, President Obama made the surprise announcement that the United States and Cuba had negotiated the reestablishment of their diplomatic relationship, following mutual prisoner releases. While many questions remain — notably whether a Republican-controlled Congress is prepared to end the American embargo on the island or would instead block the appointment of an ambassador to Havana — Cuba’s extreme isolation from the United States is drawing to a close.

Many conservative commentators have, unsurprisingly, questioned this policy change. While Tom Nichols writes that there is a conservative case for accepting normalized relations with Havana, the National Review Online’s Daniel Foster isn’t convinced (via Joshua Foust). Citing pieces by political scientist Dan Drezner and Charles Lane, Foster worries that normalizing American relations with Cuba will strengthen, not weaken, the Castro regime. If an eventual ending of the embargo is unlikely to hasten the regime’s demise, Foster asks, why should the US abandon “a half-century-old, principled stand, and reward human-rights-abusing evildoers, for that little upside?” Foster concludes that America’s dealings with other human rights violators — notably Saudi Arabia — strengthens the argument for preserving the Cuban embargo:

“You strike an alliance with a Saudi regime with a less-than-stellar human rights record because it’s surrounded by strategic threats in a region vital to U.S. interests. Cuba, by contrast, is parked in the middle of an American lake. We’ve had the run of the hemisphere for 120 years. If ever there’s a place where realist considerations leave room for taking a stand for liberty — even a largely symbolic one — it’s there.”

While remittance-spurred economic growth directly affects the lives of over 11 million Cubans and Obama’s move roused the passions of many Cuban-Americans who are either for or against the prospect of normalized relations, as Drezner notes ultimately the chances that increased ties will spur liberalization in Cuba are slim.

But it is wrong to suggest that the consequences of isolating Cuba can be neatly cordoned off from the rest of American foreign policy simply because Latin America is a stable region. First, as Drezner and others again note, isolating Cuba is an overwhelmingly unpopular policy among other states. Not only does normalizing relations with Cuba demonstrate to other American adversaries like Iran that US negotiating carrots are real, but maintaining the embargo furthers the general perception of the United States’ arrogance and that it does not respect the wishes of the international community.

Secondly, and more practically, Foster is wrong to dismiss a principled stand on Cuba — continuing the embargo — as costless. The Caribbean may remain “an American lake,” but Washington’s influence in Latin America today is likely the most modest it has been in a century, President Obama’s “moment of renewed leadership in the Americas” comment aside. China’s economic role in the region is growing, and while the ultimate influence of the BRICS emerging markets bloc — Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa — remains uncertain, large Latin American countries increasingly envision a future where economic growth and a multipolar will allow them to assert their interests outside of the United States’ hemispheric shadow. In particular, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and her ruling Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party) have repeatedly sought to demonstrate Brazil’s displeasure with US global leadership; Rousseff won reelection in October after narrowly defeating an opposition candidate who favored closer ties with the United States.

The United States’ Cuba policy is closely linked to its other relationships in Latin America. Despite its abuses the Castro regime is popular among many of the region’s heads of state, and this popularity cannot simply be hand-waved away. It isn’t only the more famously left-wing governments of chavista Venezuela and Evo Morales’ Bolivia that support the Castros. In Argentina, the leftist government of Cristina Kirchner — friendly with Cuba — was recently embarrassed by the revelation that the murderous right-wing Argentine military junta cooperated with communist Cuba; “for a dictator there’s nothing better than another dictator,” in El País’ translated words. And Brazil, which has famously — and controversiallyimported Cuban doctors, saw the prospect of normalizing US relations with Cuba as ending a Cold War anachronism, an impression echoed by Chilean Foreign Minister Heraldo Muñoz. Brazil also called for the prompt lifting of the embargo on Cuba.

Of course, America’s standing in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela will not improve much even if the embargo ends tomorrow. And “vulture funds” and Kirchner’s posturing over the Falklands Islands are far greater barriers to a solid US-Argentina relationship than Cuba policy. Similarly, America’s relations with Brazil were strained even before the revelations that the NSA had spied on President Rousseff’s personal communications.

But ties between the Washington and Brasília are an important, and neglected, relationship. Brazil is a country of two hundred million people, is already a major global market, and despite recent setbacks will likely be more economically and diplomatically consequential in the future than it is today. Even if the benefits of normalizing relations with Cuba are low, the half-century isolation of the island has done real damage to the US’ image in an important region. Simply dismissing Cuba — and Washington’s broader relationship with Latin America — as “symbolic” questions weakens the United States influence and furthers its reputation for arrogance, for little gain.

Update: The Christian Science Monitor has a report examining how relations with Latin America contributed to Obama’s policy shift.

Chávez and Regional Leadership

By Taylor Marvin

Photo by Agência Brasil.

Photo by Agência Brasil.

While 2014 may be Latin America’s “year of elections” — with El Salvador, Costa Rica, Colombia, Brazil, Uruguay, and others all going to the presidential polls — 2013 was also a momentous year, marked by the death of Hugo Chávez. Venezuela’s president for over a decade, Chávez mobilized support from among the historically disenfranchised and defined himself as an opponent of both the United States and Venezuela’s traditional elites. Designating himself as the region’s voice of opposition to US “imperialism”, Chávez positioned himself as the vanguard of the wave of left-leaning governments elected across Latin America in the last decade, co-opting the wider turn towards the left as an extension of his own socialist “Bolivarian Revolution”. Combined with Venezuela’s oil wealth — and oil-funded international largesse — this ideological positioning allowed Chávez to claim a personal position as a leader of the Latin American left, a claim buttressed by his close personal relationship with the previous generation’s leading regional ideologue, Fidel Castro.

In an end of the year reflection the Christian Science Monitor writes that after his March 5th death “the region’s leftist movement lost its ideological and economic center of gravity” and asks which leader will replace Chávez as a Latin American figurehead:

“Who could fill Chávez’s shoes as a regional leader? Some point to Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff as the person to watch. This year Ms. Rousseff showed she wasn’t afraid to stand up to the US over allegations of National Security Agency spying, and she speaks to diverse leaders across the region. Thus far, however, she hasn’t shown an interest in taking on the role.”

But it isn’t clear if the “regional leader” of Latin America is a role that necessarily exists at all. In Latin America Brazil hosts the largest economy and is the only country with a reasonable hope of taking a leadership role in the global system or ever securing a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, but is divided by language from the rest of Latin America. Mexico, the region’s next largest economy, is beset by domestic criminal violence. Pundits talk of Germany’s Angela Merkel, and to a lesser extent France’s François Hollande, as the leaders of Europe, but only because this designation conflates Europe the region with the European Union, where Germany enjoys an institutional policy-setting role. In the absence of an interstate union like the EU, the entire notion of a “regional leader” makes less sense — no one speaks of a Middle Eastern or African regional political leader because of these region’s vast size, disparate societies, and fractious members. While Latin America is more culturally and politically homogenous than other global regions, with its population of over half a billion people and two major languages elevating one of Latin America’s national leaders to a leadership role across the entire region stems more from the desire for neat regional hierarchy than any real need for the role to exist.

Hugo Chávez’s self-appointed distinction as a regional leader drew from his own desire to take, or more accurately create, the role. As I wrote in March, Chávez’s leadership position in Latin American politics “was forged by Chávez’s narcissism, and there’s no reason for it to necessarily exist now that he is gone.” With Chávez absence, there is no requirement that another head of state will seek to take this regional leadership mantle in the same way that he attempted, regardless of whether they have the charisma, ideology, and political and economic capital to back it up.

Chávez and Leadership of the South American Left

By Taylor Marvin

Agencia Brasil image by Ricardo Stuckert, via Wikimedia

Agencia Brasil image by Ricardo Stuckert, via Wikimedia

Does Hugo Chávez’s death herald the end of Latin America’s resurgent left? Recently Alvaro Vargas Llosa argued in Foreign Policy that Chávez’s passing indeed did — in his de facto leadership role as the dominant personality among South America’s leftist national leaders Chávez was irreplaceable. In Vargas’ telling Chávez’s unique personal charisma and access to Venezuela’s vast oil wealth allowed him to assume this leadership position, leaving “a power vacuum that will be difficult for Chávez’s political heirs across the hemisphere to fill.”

But claims that Chávez’s death represents a major blow to left-leaning politics through the continent both overestimate Chávez’s personal influence and the unity of these leftist governments. It is certainly true that Hugo Chávez was the public face of Latin America’s modern leftist governments, much more than Chávez’s longtime partner Fidel Castro. Castro was the venerable elder, politely respected, but largely irrelevant; Chávez the ambitiously energetic younger with the deep pockets to grease the patronage channels Castro could not. But it’s a mistake to understand Chávez’s leadership position as a practical one, rather than the symbolic role it actually was. As Colin M. Snider recently noted, Latin America’s left-leaning leaders are a disparate group that share between them as many distinctions as similarities, and certainly aren’t a unified bloc existentially dependent on Chávez’s continued leadership. Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff leads a government perceived as significantly more technocratic than Chávez’s populist regime, and enjoys growing international clout largely unavailable to Venezuela. Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa are populists and were strong Chávez allies, but it’s difficult to argue that either’s domestic appeal will be somehow less politically viable now that Chávez is gone.

But despite Chávez’s undeniable regional influence, there’s no reason to think that his absence leaves an unsustainable vacuum. This symbolic leadership position was forged by Chávez’s narcissism, and there’s no reason for it to necessarily exist now that he is gone. Hugo Chávez aspired to a position of international leadership, and when one wasn’t available  he rhetorically co-opted otherwise disparate left-leaning Latin American governments into a nominal “movement”. Certainly various leaders, Morales and Correa especially, both supported and politically gained from this co-option, their electoral successes weren’t dependent on it, primarily because the narrative of South America’s leftist resurgence has always been stronger than it’s actual significance. This perception gap is driven by politics — both supporters and detractors of this so-called resugence have an incentive to rhetorically paint it as either more revolutionary or more threatening than it actually is. South American politics are becoming more open and competitive, and the United States’ influence over the region is certainly diminishing. But contrary to the claims of leftists and their opponents, the successes of left-leaning leaders in Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina is more likely a cyclical trend than a long-term revolution. Chávez may have taken advantage of this swing, but despite his self-congratulating rhetoric he did not create or sustain it.

But while South America’s recent leftist electoral successes doesn’t comprise any unified movement that will suffer terribly at Chávez’s absence, it’s also unlikely that his outsized figurehead position will be filled anytime soon. Chávez wasn’t able to position himself as one of the most influential leaders in Latin America simply because of Venezuela’s oil wealth. While the largess oil revenue made possibile certainly bolstered his influence, Chávez became the symbolic figure that he was because he wanted it, and had the personal charisma and combative style to back up this ambition. Even among successful populist politicians Chávez’s ability to draw — and polarize — international attention is rare. The global importance of Venezuela’s oil certainly gave Chávez a platform, and he would not have been as internationally visible if he was the leader of another country. But there is no reason to think that another left-leaning Latin American leader will soon have the capability or ambition to replicate the Chávez brand.