An article in the Economist, for example, recently stated that “most of the region has been uncritical of Mr Maduro since the protests began in early February; Brazil, the regional heavyweight, has been characteristically mute.” The Wall Street Journal, in an article entitled “Venezuela Crackdown Meets Silence in Latin America,” reported that “Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff has stayed on the sidelines.” A New York Times article reported that Dilma Rousseff “has not commented on the crisis in Venezuela” and that “Brazil’s foreign minister, Luiz Alberto Figueiredo, has also sidestepped any Maduro critique.” The Times quoted Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, saying that “now it’s, ‘We’re focused on democracy in our own country, but if something happens with a neighbor we are not going to say anything.’”

Criticism has come not just from sources outside Brazil but from within Brazil as well. Former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso wrote in early March that Brazil’s current government was acting with “incredible timidity” in the face of human rights abuses in Venezuela.

Brazil has so far taken a noticeably soft, even passive line toward the current crisis. Rather than at least issuing statements pointing out that both the Venezuelan government and opposition share some of the blame, Brazil has co-issued three rather bland communiqués through the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), and Mercosur. The latter statement was particularly controversial among those hoping to see Brazil productively engaged, as it was generally interpreted as being soft on the Maduro government, characterizing protesters as antidemocratic forces.

In response, Brazil’s Foreign Minister Luiz Alberto Figueiredo defended his country’s strategy, arguing in an interview with Folha de São Paulo that the Mercosur statement had been “misunderstood.” Yet when the reporter asked whether Mercosur leaders had tried to send a message to President Maduro, the foreign minister replied that “Maduro did not need a message”—hardly a sign that Brazil was eager to try to exert some positive influence on the Venezuelan government.

It would be wrong, however, to argue that Brazil’s passive rhetoric so far vis-à-vis the Venezuelan crisis is proof that it does not care about defending democracy in the region. Quite the contrary: over the past decade, helping consolidate democracy in the region has become one of Brazil’s principal foreign policy goals. Starting during Cardoso’s presidency (1995–2002), Brazil has often assertively engaged in political events in the region, diplomatically intervening when political crises have threatened democracy. Partly to strengthen regional institutions and partly out of fear of being seen as a bully, Brazil usually acts through Mercosur and UNASUR—a strategy that, while correct in principle, at times leads to less agile actions than acting bilaterally might. In addition, Brazil has been more concerned about constitutional crises and the possibility of an undemocratic removal of any presidents in the region than about what some Brazilian officials consider to be “procedural aspects” of democracy, such as free speech.

An important test of regional leadership is whether Brazil can help bring the government and the opposition in Venezuela to the table to overcome the current standoff. A negotiated settlement must oblige the government to disband the armed militia groups, release all those imprisoned for peacefully taking part in street protests, end restrictions on both the printed media and social media, and allow greater space for political activity generally. In return, the opposition must give up any aspirations of ousting President Maduro outside the normal electoral channels, and commit to curbing violence in protests.

In April 2002, President Cardoso was active in behind-the-scenes negotiations to return the then Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez, to power in the forty-eight hours after he was deposed by a coup d’état. The incoming government led by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva kept working with all sides to assure continued political stability. While today’s crisis in Venezuela is different, Brazil will yet again have to engage and assume regional leadership, whether through UNASUR and Mercosur, or bilaterally. With trust largely eroded between the government and the opposition, it seems increasingly unlikely that Venezuela can solve the crisis on its own. A credible outside arbiter is needed.

WHY BRAZIL HOLDS BACK

In contrast to the Venezuelan crisis of 2002 and 2003, when Brazilian Presidents Cardoso and Lula were able to positively influence the internal dynamics in Venezuela, Brazil today is a far less credible mediator than it was a decade ago.

Back in 2003, Lula insisted on including the United States and Spain in the group “Friends of Venezuela,” which helped bri

ng the government and the opposition together. Lula’s move proved crucial as it convinced the opposition to seriously engage in the debates. Lula may have been a left-wing president, but he was still seen as a legitimate and relatively impartial mediator. Both he and Brazil have since then lost this status, principally in the eyes of the Venezuelan opposition. After Chavez’s death, Lula—still one of the most powerful political actors in Brazil and highly influential with the current administration—actively supported Nicolás Maduro’s campaign, a move that firmly placed Brazil in the chavista camp.

While one should be careful not to exaggerate the importance of ideology when explaining Brazilian foreign policy, it is certainly true that the strong affinity withchavismo of leading Brazilian foreign policy makers, such as presidential adviser Marco Aurélio Garcia, has played an important role.

Yet economic interests are likely even more important in shaping Brazil’s thinking and action. Large Brazilian construction firms have projects in many parts of Caracas. While many other foreign firms have been expropriated or castigated by the Venezuelan government, Brazilian investors have received preferential treatment—though now an increasing number of payments are being severely delayed to Brazilian investors as well. According to Valor Economico, a Brazilian business daily, Venezuelan public sector companies now owe Brazilian companies $2.5 billion. If political tension and conflict increases still further in Venezuela, Brazilian business interests would be increasingly in danger from the spillover economic problems. Accordingly, a growing number of private sector representatives have attempted to put pressure on Dilma Rousseff to take a clearer stand.

Yet the Brazilian president’s centralizing leadership style and limited interest in foreign policy—especially as she is preparing for the upcoming presidential election—have turned Brazil into a far more hesitant and less visible international actor than was the case under Cardoso or Lula. A growing number of critics point out that in addition to failing to develop Brazil’s regional vision further, Rousseff’s foreign policy is characterized by a lack of participation and overall diplomatic retreat, in sharp contrast to Lula’s highly active, albeit sometimes controversial, foreign policy. While Presidents Cardoso and Lula provided their foreign ministers with ample room for maneuver (a writer in Foreign Policy once wondered whether Celso Amorim, Lula’s foreign minister, was “the world’s best”), both foreign ministers under Rousseff have faced strong internal restraints.

Read more at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace