On the eve of this week's gathering of world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Brazil has thrust itself into the middle of Latin America's most delicate and volatile political crisis.
By allowing ousted Honduran leader Manuel Zelaya to hole up in Brazil's embassy in Honduras on Monday, just hours after he sneaked back into the country from three months in exile, Brazil has seized a chance to consolidate its position as Latin America's undisputed leader.
"If Brasilia can somehow find the key to peaceful, prompt resolution, they will win major plaudits, and many will begin to see Brazil as the new arbiter of hemispheric issues," says Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas, a consultancy based in New York.
Brazil, along with the rest of the region and the world, has not backed down from slamming the interim government of Roberto Micheletti, who took over the presidency after Mr. Zelaya was arrested and flown out of the country on June 28 over a constitutional conflict. No government has recognized the Micheletti administration, and countries have withdrawn aid to break Micheletti's resolve. But Micheletti has remained defiant.
When a Zelaya colleague phoned the Brazilian mission less than two hours before Zelaya walked through its doors – essentially putting himself under house arrest since he has been threatened with arrest should he set foot on Honduran territory – Brazilian officials apparently did not hesitate.
"I reiterated that Brazil would not just support him, but we would also house him under the circumstances and do whatever was necessary to help him in the dialogue," Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim told reporters in New York. Mr. Amorim said that Brazil did not help Zelaya sneak into Honduras.
Spotlight on the embassy
The decision to house Zelaya has put the Brazilian embassy at the center of the Honduran political crisis. Hundreds of Honduran troops descended on the area early Tuesday morning, violently dispersing the 4,000 or so Zelaya supporters who had gathered outside. Police fired tear gas and charged with batons. They then placed speakers in front of the embassy and played the Honduran national anthem.
"The soldiers played loud noises to try and make those inside the embassy go crazy," Zelaya said. Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, in New York for the UN gathering, said that he asked Zelaya to not give the Honduran military any pretext to resort to violence, according to the Associated Press. "We can't accept that for political differences people think they have the right to depose a democratically-elected president," he said.
Micheletti urges Brazil to turn Zelaya in
Micheletti urged Brazilian officials over the radio to turn Zelaya in – a call that is unlikely to be heeded. The country's acting foreign relations officials said Brazil is violating international law by "allowing Zelaya, a fugitive of Honduran justice, to make public calls to insurrection and political mobilization from its headquarters."
Zelaya heaped praise on Brazil yesterday. "Thanks to Brazil's President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva and its Foreign Minister Celso Amorim, we have protection and a home in the Brazilian embassy ... that is where we are going to be for the moment," Zelaya was quoted as saying on CNN.
Brazil's road to leadership
The incident hands Brazil a fresh opportunity to assert its role in the region, something the continent's largest country has been eager to do. It has worked assiduously to increase its role in world affairs in recent years, using everything from its well-respected diplomatic corps to its soccer players to establish itself as a credible and attractive leader.
Brazil's soldiers lead the United Nations mission in Haiti and its soccer players went there on a hugely popular peace mission. Brazilian soccer teams hope to play a similar match in the Middle East later this year.
More substantially, Brazil mediated a 1998 border dispute between Peru and Ecuador and Lula has astutely remained friends with the warring leaders of neighbors Colombia and Venezuela. The popular president – Obama recently called him "the man" – has led developing nations in international trade talks and been relentless in decrying the efforts of the G-7 nations to deal with the global recession. Brazil has long coveted a seat on the UN Security Council and believes that as the ninth-largest economy in the world, it is due more of a say in world affairs.
Helping forge a peaceful resolution in divided Honduras would go a long way to proving Brazil worthy of such a role. "Our position will continue to be that President Zelaya has to be returned to office and we are confident that the fact that he is now in Honduras will help this," said Mr. Amorim.
Although the move appears to give Brazilian diplomacy a boost, it doesn't mean that national public opinion will follow. And if violence ensues at the point of conflict in Honduras – outside the Brazilian embassy – there could be a backlash, both at home and abroad.