Page last updated at 13:28 GMT, Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Brazil upbeat on dealings with US

By Gary Duffy
BBC News, Brazil

Celso Amorim (file image)
Celso Amorim wants the US to lift the trade embargo on Cuba

This is a busy time for Brazil's Foreign Minister, Celso Amorim.

There is an official welcome for Prince Charles who is here this week, while President Lula meets President Obama in Washington on Saturday, the first leader from Latin America to do so since the new US leader took up office.

Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is expected in Brazil at the end of the month, according to local reports, and the crucial G-20 summit is approaching in early April.

It seems fair to say that Washington's policy in Latin America has not won it many friends in recent years, and that many in the region are looking to President Obama for a breath of fresh air.

One Washington-based policy group has concluded that US-Latin American relations are at their lowest point "since the end of the Cold War".

So there is much for Celso Amorim to reflect on, as he sits in his vast office in the Itamaraty Palace, home to the Brazilian ministry of foreign affairs, and certainly one of the most striking Oscar Niemeyer designed buildings in the capital Brasilia.

Obama 'new era'

While Brazil had cordial relations with President Bush, Mr Amorim certainly believes the new US leader will bring a new level of sophistication to policy in the region and beyond.

"I think the Obama administration - at least this is our hope - it's a new time for the world," he tells the BBC News website.

"I mean it is not an insignificant factor that someone with his background gets elected, in the same way it was not an insignificant factor that someone with Lula's background got elected in Brazil.

I think the best thing would be to raise the trade embargo (on Cuba) immediately
Celso Amorim

"So I think he is prepared to have a better understanding of the needs of the region, of the kind of dialogue that you have to have with people that don't think necessarily the same things as you think, but still want to come to an agreement.

"I think Lula and Obama will have a lot in common in that respect."

A lot of attention in Latin America will focus on whether President Obama will soften US policy towards Cuba, an attitude Brazil is keen to encourage.

The US Congress has just voted to ease some trade and travel restrictions, but Celso Amorim would like to see Washington go further

"I think the best thing would be to raise the trade embargo immediately," he says.

"That would certainly benefit the Cubans, it would even benefit US business, and it would be coherent with the policy of openness and dialogue which is being conducted by the United States in relation to other places."

Brazil as go-between?

He seems genuinely baffled by the failure of American administrations to see the point.

"I can tell you something from the last administration," he says. "I mentioned once to Condi Rice - and I can tell you now that she is no longer there: 'you have an excellent relationship with Vietnam'. (I had just come from Vietnam.)

"She said 'yes, we have very good relations. I said 'why not with Cuba? 'What is the difference'?"

Brazil's ability to have warm relationships, all at the same time, with Washington, Cuba and Venezuela has, it seems, raised some interesting possibilities.

Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez is reported to have authorised President Lula to discuss his fraught relationship with the US when the Brazilian leader is in Washington this weekend.

But Celso Amorim visibly winces when it is suggested that Brazil might act as a go-between over sensitive topics such as Cuba or President Chavez.

We are friends with the United States, we are friends with Venezuela, and we are friends with Cuba. If we can help - fine
Celso Amorim

"I don't like the word intermediary, because these are adult countries and they can have dialogue with each other without any need for an intermediary," he says.

"I think now it is really a question of putting aside the misunderstandings of the past, that were to some extent quite personal, and look forward.

"We are friends with the United States, we are friends with Venezuela, and we are friends with Cuba. If we can help - fine," he adds, giving the impression of a slightly frustrated family elder, who wishes his siblings would only see sense, and stop squabbling.

Brazil's leader will have other pressing issues to discuss in Washington.

President Lula argues that an economic crisis that began in rich countries is causing enormous damage to poorer nations and that the wealthier countries have a special responsibility to get their economic act together.

Biofuels link

Brazil and the US have a shared interest in biofuels - the two countries together produce 75% of the world's ethanol.

President Obama proposed during his campaign "an energy partnership of the Americas".

There is also the sensitive issue of the Doha round of world trade talks, which Brazil sees as vital to establishing a level playing field for developing and poorer nations, but which have repeatedly failed to reach agreement.

"I think Doha, it is very simple in a way what we have to do. To pick up what we have and close it," says Celso Amorim.

"If you want to complicate it - we can. But then it will take two, three, four years and I don't know if the world economy can afford that."

While predicting a "medium" chance of success in reviving the talks, he says it is part of the profession of a foreign minister to be optimistic and realistic.

As countries around the world, including Brazil, are buffeted by the economic crisis, he may find that optimism sorely tested.

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