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Brazil and 'Latin America' in Historical Perspective

Leslie Bethell, Senior Scholar, Brazil Institute; Eric Hershberg, Director of Latin American Studies, American University; Julia Sweig, Director for Latin American Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

Date & Time

Mar. 2, 2010
8:30am – 10:30am

Brazil and 'Latin America' in Historical Perspective

Historian Leslie Bethell provided a historical account of Brazil's ambivalence vis-à-vis "Latin America" at a Brazil Institute seminar on March 2, joined by Eric Hershberg, director of Latin America Studies at American University, and Julia Sweig, director for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Bethell argued that, historically, the idea of Brazil as part of Latin America was never fully embraced either by Spanish Americans or Brazilians. And with Brazil's emergence as regional leader in South America since the end of the Cold War the very notion of "Latin America" is being challenged.

Bethell traced back the first time the term "America Latina" was used to the middle of the 19th century. The concept referred to Spanish America alone; it was not meant to include Brazil. Moreover, Brazil was isolated from its Latin American neighbors by geography, history, political structures, racial composition, culture and, above all, language.

With its long Atlantic coastal line, Brazil was part of the Atlantic world and its interests were tied to Europe, especially Great Britain. During the first half of the 20th century, the United States replaced Britain as the "central pillar of Brazil's foreign policy," Bethell noted. Meanwhile, Spanish-speaking countries had little interest in Brazil and grew suspicious of U.S. imperialism, especially after the Spanish-American War.

"From my reading of the intellectual history of this period, surprisingly few Spanish-American intellectuals who thought about América Latina thought that it had anything to do with Brazil," Bethell said. "The great majority continued to exclude Brazil from what they thought of as Nuestra América and América Latina." And Brazilians regarded Spanish America as the ‘other' America. Many felt closer affinities with the United States than with Spanish America.

Brazil as part of Latin America

In 1930s, during and immediately after the Second World War, and during the Cold War the United States began to regard all the countries south of the Rio Grande as forming a single region called Latin America. This official U.S. view influenced governments, multilateral institutions and even academic studies. "Latin American studies took off in a big way in U.S. universities and universities in Europe and elsewhere, accelerating even more after the Cuban Revolution… [but] it was overwhelmingly the study of Spanish America," Bethell stressed. Brazil was relatively neglected.

Except on the Left – and this was an important exception - few Brazilian intellectuals thought about Latin America and, when they did, they still did not think Brazil was part of it. And for the most part, Bethell said, Brazilian governments were not much interested in Latin America - and vice-versa. At the same time, Brazil's relations with the United States became more problematic.

In the past 20 years since the end of the Cold War, there have been two major developments in Brazil's relationship with the region, Bethell stated: "While maintaining its position in the OAS [Organization of American States] and attending all the summits of the Americas, Brazil resisted the U.S. agenda for integration of the Americas… while for the first time in its history Brazil actively pursued a policy of engagement with all its immediate neighbors and began to see itself as a regional leader." However, the region was now South America, more than Latin America, Bethell underlined.

Nevertheless, in Hershberg's view, Brazil and Latin America share similar recent histories and challenges. "When I think about Brazil in a Latin American context, as a political scientist, I look at the period from just before the Second World War to the present and see recurrent themes that are at the forefront of debates in Brazil and practices in Brazil that are quintessentially Latin American," Hershberg said, referring, for example, to populism, military rule, democratization, and neoliberalism.

For Sweig, Bethell's presentation was reassuring because his historical review confirmed her own upbringing as a creature of area studies, without a solid grounding in Brazil. Sweig noted that "Brazil's current foreign policy vision seems to be based on the notion of Brazil as the power of South America, anchored in the Americas, as a necessity for becoming a global power."

The text article Leslie Bethell's presented at the seminar was published in Portuguese in Revista de Estudos Históricos (CPDOC, Fundação Getúlio Vargas) and is available at: . The original version, in English, will appear in the Journal of Latin American Studies.

By Renata Johnson
Paulo Sotero, Brazil Institute


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