Jul 27, 2017 | 09:00 GMT

7 mins read

Brazil and Africa Bridge the South Atlantic

 Brazil has been cultivating strong ties with several African countries for decades, aided by cultural similarities and mutually beneficial interests.
(MATTHEW STOCKMAN/Getty Images, 2630ben/iStock)

The relationship between Africa and Brazil is rarely spared a second glance. When African countries are examined in relation to the wider world, people often focus on the continent's significant economic, historical and security links with nations such as China, France, the United Kingdom and the United States. But aided by cultural similarities and mutual interests, Brazil has in fact been forging strong ties with African countries for decades. 

Brazil was colonized by Portugal, as were several African states, and their common Lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) identity has helped to bind the South American nation with Angola, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau, Cape Verde and Sao Tome and Principe. Shared socio-cultural characteristics, in turn, have served as a foundation for good relations between Brazil and these African nations in other areas. Brazilian businesses and their Lusophone African counterparts have easy access to and reference points for one another, and Brazilians benefit from visa-free travel to Lusophone African countries.

If Lusophone Africa is the starting point for Brazil's strategy on the continent, the large southern African nation of Angola is its epicenter.

If Lusophone Africa is the starting point for Brazil's strategy on the continent, the large southern African nation of Angola is its epicenter. In 1975, Brazil surprised many political leaders by becoming the first country in the world to recognize Angola's independence. At the time, Brazil was ruled by a right-wing military dictatorship, and the Marxist People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola was not an obvious candidate for Brasilia's support. However, Brazil's strategic interest in the South Atlantic — the geographic portion of the Atlantic Ocean south of the equator — compelled Brazilian diplomats to accept realpolitik and embrace a pragmatic relationship with Angola that continues to this day. In 2015, Brazil signed investment agreements with Angola and Mozambique that allowed Brazilian companies to open offices there. These companies then used the nations as hubs, taking advantage of the reduced tariff rates that come with their memberships in the Southern African Development Community.

The South Atlantic Strategy

Brazil has also made use of Lusophone Africa in its broader African strategy, particularly when it comes to the South Atlantic, where a wealth of oil and other valuable minerals have long captured the country's attention. Around 70 percent of Brazil's oil exploration takes place in the South Atlantic, and the country estimates that the pre-salt oil reserves located along Brazil's offshore coast alone hold over 1.6 trillion cubic meters of natural gas and oil. The South Atlantic space is also rich in coal and other raw materials whose value is set to increase in the decades ahead, offering endless revenue opportunities for Brazil.

After the fall of its pro-nuclear military dictatorship in 1985, Brazil saw a chance to fuse its anti-nuclear policies and its larger economic interests in the South Atlantic, spearheading the 1986 creation of the South Atlantic Peace and Cooperation Zone (better known by its Spanish acronym, ZOPACAS). ZOPACAS, which saw a boost in 1989 after apartheid-era South Africa dismantled its nuclear weapons program, boasts the goal of denuclearizing the South Atlantic. For Brazil, it offered an opportunity to expand the country's maritime territory in the South Atlantic by coordinating with other non-nuclear powers — a particularly convenient opportunity since many of the nuclear powers whose presence in the South Atlantic is limited by ZOPACAS, such as the United States and several European countries, have opposed Brazil's economic ambitions in the area.

Since 1970, the Brazilian government has issued decrees that extend its maritime exclusive economic zone in the South Atlantic, with the initial intention of stretching the zone from 12 miles to 120. But after discovering a wealth of oil reserves outside the 120-mile radius, the Brazilian government issued a unilateral decree extending its reach to 200 miles. The move drew heavy criticism from the United States and Europe, and the creation of ZOPACAS has served as an ideal way to establish Brazil's maritime legitimacy through coordination with not just the South American countries in the area, but also West African states. Brazil is now awaiting a ruling from the United Nations about whether it can extend its maritime exclusive economic zone to 350 miles, and the support of other ZOPACAS nations has been useful throughout the 13-year case.

Ever Stronger Ties

For years, Brazilian policymakers have understood the strategic value of the countries along the Western-facing African coast, and they have recently begun ramping up a diplomatic charm offensive designed to push Brazil's relations with Africa beyond cultural ties and southern solidarity. Brasilia has made a clear choice to increase its political presence on the African continent, with the number of Brazilian embassies in Africa rising from 18 to 39 between 2003 and 2013. Brazil is now the country with the fifth-largest diplomatic presence in Africa. And this move, like many others, was driven by multiple goals.

Greater representation on the African continent signals that Brazil is interested in a serious long-term commitment there, which has allowed Brazilian businesses to thrive. From 2000 to 2013, trade between Brazil and Africa went from $4.2 billion to $28.4 billion; African countries primarily provided oil to Brazil, while Brazil provided infrastructure development, agricultural products and defense equipment and training in return. Unfortunately for both parties, this trade has slowed since 2013 because of a decline in commodity prices and Brazil's economic recession; by 2016, it had dropped by $12.4 billion. But as the Brazilian economy starts to show signs of recovery, trade is set to climb once again. Trade data for the first half of 2017 already shows a 16 percent increase compared with the same period in 2016. Brazil's food exports to Africa, in particular, grew by a whopping 57 percent and represent over 50 percent of the trade between Brazil and Africa this year so far.

Greater representation on the African continent signals that Brazil is interested in a serious long-term commitment there, which has allowed Brazilian businesses to thrive.

Political ambitions have spurred the embassy boom even further. In the early 2000s, Brazil was intent on reforming the U.N. Security Council and becoming a permanent member. To that end, it sought support from African countries, which together represent 28 percent of the United Nations' membership. Brazilian embassies began popping up in unexpected places like Sierra Leone and Burkina Faso. Brazil's U.N. Security Council initiative ultimately failed in the face of a lack of support from major global powers, and combined with the country's larger financial concerns, that failure has given rise to proposals to close some embassies in Africa. But such shutdowns, which are far from certain, are unlikely to affect Brazil's presence in major African economies.

What Africa Gains

Of course, the relationship between Brazil and the African continent is not a one-way street. Economically, countries like Angola have benefited from their relationships with Brazil. After all, Brazilian multinational companies have created thousands of jobs in local markets. In 2017, the Brazilian business conglomerate Odebrecht provided 13,000 jobs in Angola, and at its height it provided over 17,000 jobs. The company also helped furnish multibillion-dollar loans and embarked on several infrastructure projects in the country. In Mozambique, Brazil's investment topped $9.5 billion in 2015, driven mainly by the mining company Vale. Moreover, for Lusophone Africa's elite, Brazil offers the added boon of being an ideal location in which to invest and park assets.

African countries have also stood to gain from several defense cooperation agreements with Brazil. These involve, among other things, the development of the joint A-Darter missile program with South Africa, which concluded last year, and sales of Brazilian Embraer-made Super Tucano jets and patrol boats. Nigeria is in the process of acquiring 12 Super Tucanos, while Angola has purchased eight Brazilian patrol boats and six Super Tucanos in the last four years as part of a 2013 military modernization agreement with Brazil. The Brazilian military has also extended its training to African countries, as evidenced by a 2012 agreement allowing for Angolan military personnel to train in Brazil. These trainings bolster the military strength of African countries and reap financial rewards for Brazil, all while building bilateral ties and cooperation.

Though these relationships aren't given the global attention that, say, China's African overtures are, Brazil has maintained strong and productive ties with African states for decades in hopes of tapping into the many benefits such connections can provide. From growing business and bridging socio-cultural ties to currying diplomatic favors in pursuit of geopolitical interests, Brazil and Africa have found that they exist in several intersecting and mutually beneficial spheres. And considering the commitments Brazil has made in Africa in recent years, there is little to suggest that the cultivation of this relationship will slow in the years ahead.

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