BRASILIA — With a booming economy, considerable mineral wealth and enhanced international prestige, Brazil has in recent years filled the power vacuum left by the United States in Latin America, experts say.
The presidents of the two dominant powers in the Western Hemisphere will meet next week, first in Washington and later in the Colombian city of Cartagena for the summit of the Americas.
When US President Barack Obama welcomes his Brazilian counterpart Dilma Rousseff at the White House next Monday, he will no doubt take the full measure of Brazil's increased clout in a region that Washington used to view as its own "backyard."
Now the world's sixth largest economy and a key member of the BRICS bloc of emerging powers (Brazil, China, India, Russia and South Africa), Brazil is pursuing a more pragmatic and less ideological agenda in the region, according to analysts.
Since former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso convened the first South American summit in 2000, this country, which makes up half of South America in terms of GDP and population, has been financing major infrastructure projects such as the highway linking Brazil's Atlantic coast to Peru's Pacific ports.
"The interconnection of South American countries, the integration of trade, investment and infrastructure are priorities on Brazil's regional agenda," said former Brazilian foreign minister Luiz Felipe Lampreia.
In less than 10 years, Brazil's National Development Bank (BNDES) has increased sevenfold its regional loans for infrastructure projects.
The continent's physical integration will also be high on the agenda of the April 14-15 regional summit in Cartagena.
Like the Brazilians, the Chinese have also taken advantage of US neglect of the region to finance oil drilling and mining projects in Brazil, Colombia and Peru, as well as a railway in Colombia to link the Caribbean with the Pacific.
For most Latin American countries, the top trading partner today is not the United States but rather Brazil or China.
In 2009, China dislodged the United States as Brazil's biggest partner with bilateral trade reaching $77 billion last year, and Brazil enjoying a trade surplus of some $11.5 billion.
"There is a rivalry between Brazil and the United States for regional leadership. Rather than leadership, China is meanwhile seeking influence in the region through trade, exports and funding of infrastructure work," professor David Fleischer, of Brasilia University, told AFP.
Washington is also facing a greater degree of autonomy by the region, as evidenced by the creation of regional bodies such as the Union of South American Nations and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, which group Latin American and Caribbean countries and leave out the United States.
"The weight of the United States in the region has considerably diminished. There is some bewilderment in the United States about a more assertive, more autonomous Latin America, which shows greater self-confidence and has more partners such as China," said Mauricio Santoro, an international relations expert at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a prestigious think tank.
"Brazil has filled this vacuum, particularly in South America," he added.
Next Monday, Rousseff will return the visit Obama made to Brazil in March 2011.
The two countries are sticking to the cordial but a little distant relationship pursued under president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (2003-2010), although his successor, Rousseff, "is less ideological, more pragmatic," Rubens Barbosa, a former Brazilian ambassador to the United States, told AFP.
Barbosa said Washington, under Obama, is giving Brazil greater recognition.
"They listen more to Brazil, which could become a major oil supplier for the United States," he noted.
Another item on the agenda of Rousseff's White House talks will be the decision by the Pentagon in February to cancel a $355 million contract with US firm Sierra Nevada Corp. and Brazil's Embraer for 20 Embraer AT-29 Super Tucano aircraft.
The cancelation irritates the Brazilians and it could affect their decision on who should supply them with 36 multi-role combat aircraft, a contract valued at between $4 billion and $7 billion.
US aviation giant Boeing's F/A-18 Super Hornet is competing with the Rafale fighter, made by French firm Dassault Aviation, and Swedish manufacturer Saab's Gripen jet for the contract.
Rousseff is also keen to open the doors of the best US universities to more Brazilian students.
Next Tuesday, she will travel to Harvard University and the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology to discuss her "science without borders" program.
Under the scheme, Brazilians will be granted 100,000 scholarships to study in the best universities in the United States, Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and South Korea.
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